• Laurel Contributor

Where Dining is Divine

by Luke Osteen

When I was six years old, I was lucky enough to tumble into the world of my Uncle Buzz.

His real name was Arthur, but everyone called him Buzz. Since my Dad, a career soldier, had been shipped off to the Republic of Korea, my Mom took us kids back to her hometown, and Buzz made it his mission to keep an eye on us and help make the world a little more comprehensible.

He allowed me to sit on his lap and pilot his enormous Hoopty car through the fallow Iowa cornfields with abandon, inculcating all sorts of terrible driving habits that I’m still doing battle with, all these decades later.

And with solemn assurance, he delivered a kernel of advice that carried me through childhood with barely a whiff of serious consequences, “Obey your parents whenever you’re around them.” A kid can light up the world with that sort of forbidden wisdom.

But there’s one tale I absorbed all those years ago that immediately popped up from my frontal cortex like a jack-in-the-box upon my entry to Tug’s Proper, the new Highlands restaurant on Main Street.

Uncle Buzz, in one of his lessons about thinking for myself and relying upon my own imagination rather than soaking up the phosphor dots on our old Muntz TV set, explained that, if I was able to turn my head fast enough, at unexpected times, I could see inside my ears and catch a glimpse of my dreams.

I’m looking at you right now, shaking your head with a mixture of bewilderment and pity.

Of course it’s a ludicrous idea, but to a child it effervesces like a Fizzies tablet when dropped into the ocean of kid logic.

So I spent the final days of summer vacation and the first three weeks of second grade risking a chronic case of cervical torsion, trying to glimpse the inner workings of my mind.

Finally, my teacher, dismayed at the unpredictable displays of what Springsteen would later describe as a “spastic’s reeling perfection,” sent me to the school nurse, who called my Mom, who disabused me of buying into the crazier stuff Uncle Buzz was selling.

But still, here I was, crossing the threshold into Tug’s Proper and the old impulse returned. I couldn’t resist swiveling my head around, just like that boy in the second grade, trying to take in everything.

The place is gorgeous, and I swear, it’s been lifted from my dreams.

My first writerly instinct is to declare Tug’s Proper as “well-appointed.” But that doesn’t do it justice. (Besides, Uncle Buzz, who became a novelist later in life, told me when I was a young man hungry to become a writer that I should, “avoid cliches like the plague.”)

So, to honor my uncle, let me throw out a few more choice words. Let’s see what sticks – “Lush,” “Sybaritic,” “Sumptuous,” “Opulent,” “Ritzy (a word that somehow lost its glamour in the late 1930s),” “Plush,” and “Splendid.”

Yeah, those could work.

It’s a rare blending of color, and fabric and soft lighting. The effect is a comfortable opulence that’s nigh-on irresistible. You want to sink into your chair and take it all in.

That’s not quite accurate – at mid-meal, practically mid-conversation, I just had to get out of my seat and leave the Dining Room for the Bar Area and its adjoining conversation/sipping/appetizering alcove. I just had to explore.

And the art, adorning the walls and popping up in unexpected places, conveys a richness, and an elegance, and an undeniable playfulness.

Tug’s Proper, by its very nature, invites lively conversation. This really isn’t the place for whispered exchanges.

Well, I suppose in the alcove adjoining the bar, you could lean in close and talk about anything you desire. And the fruits of that bar could certainly encourage that sort of conversation.

But clearly none of this would matter if the kitchen was unable to match the promise of the decor. It turns out the kitchen was up for the challenge.

My table shared the delights of Fried Dill Pickles (complemented by a startling Tabasco Ranch Dipping Sauce), Seared Ahi Tuna (served with pickled ginger and wasabi), and Fried Babybel Cheese with smoked paprika and truffle aioli – the latter was lazy-susanned around the table until the plate looked like it had been licked clean.

For entrees, we had the Tile Fish, a Salmon BLT Sandwich and Duck Confit. These were all excellent. I won’t go into too much detail because Tug’s Proper’s menu is still evolving, and I’ve learned that restaurateurs get really hacked off (and complain to the publishers), when I wax enthusiastic about something that’s vanished from the lineup.

And I won’t even mention the desserts, because I understand that they change daily. I will say that though each of us were well and truly sated, we each worked up the willpower to order something sweet. It was a decision we had to live with, and there were no regrets.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out our server, Karly. She was patient when our table was distracted, free with her advice, and relentlessly cheerful. Not wanting to dehumanize this wonderful young woman, but she felt at one with the place.

And it turns out my Uncle Buzz wasn’t lying – if you turn your head with determination and clarity of vision, you really can see wonderful things.

Tug’s Proper is located at 310 Main Street in Highlands and serves lunch and dinners. Dinner reservations are a good idea – (828) 526-3555.

The Laurel Magazine

Laurel Magazine is a monthly magazine guiding you where to shop, play, dine, and stay in Highlands NC and Cashiers NC.

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