In Loving Memory of Ellen Davis, McNinch House Restaurant

Loss hits hard. I sat in my office dumbfounded, staring at my computer screen, after getting the message over the weekend that McNinch House owner and my friend Ellen Davis had passed away.

Ellen Davis, owner of the McNinch House in Charlotte NC with food and travel writer Heidi Billotto, February 2020

Anthony “Wes” Wesley, long time sommelier at the McNinch House told me Ellen had naturally been down and saddened at the unexpected death of her daughter, Beth, in late November of 2022.

But recently, Wes said, she had been “In high spirits” laughing and joking with the staff and vendors making deliveries. She was feeling great.

But life, and death happens. Any loss of a longtime friend is hard. But this isn’t just a personal loss for me; this is a loss for Charlotte’s culinary community as well.

Ellen was a front runner. She was determined, had a dream and was a rock star, way ahead of her time. As Chuck Richards, the long-time former owner of Reid’s Fine Foods, told me, “Ellen Davis broke a lot of glass ceilings and lived her life with her boots on and her guns blazing.”

The inspiration of Ellen Davis

Indeed. Ellen loved life and worked hard to make the McNinch House all it was, and all it is.

For as many times as I’ve written about special occasion dinners at the McNinch House, I have as many funny Ellen Davis stories to share. I can’t say we were close friends – we might have seen each other once a year.

But, our work brought us together as food and drink brings like-minded friends to the table. Her entrepreneurial spirit and her self-motivated attitude was always infectious and inspiring.

We actually met in the mid 1980s when I owned a kitchen shop called “The Charlotte Russe” and Ellen was a customer, buying tiny aspic cutters and all sorts of cool kitchen gadgets of which we both shared a love.

Just prior, she had purchased the historic McNinch House in 1978, and was restoring it while she lived upstairs; and went about the business of making her dreams come true.

Staying true to the history of the home, Ellen kept everything original. To this day, the stunning hand-crafted wooden pocket doors, detailed wooden trim and the library’s original coffered ceiling remain. From the glass in the windows to the the structure of the many fireplaces, she kept it all; bringing it back to life for all of us to enjoy.

Charlotte’s First Pop Up

Much of the home was originally crafted by the same craftsmen and woodworkers who build the Biltmore House in Asheville NC.

Amazingly, she funded her restoration and start up efforts with the help of a few small bank loans and by running a hotdog and lemonade stand on the street in Uptown Charlotte.

She also sold her signature chicken salad and ready made chicken salad sandwiches to local shops and markets in town until the McNinch House was ready to open.

When you think about it in today’s terms, it was actually the city’s first pop-up, at a time before pop-ups were even a thing. She was ahead of her time.

The McNinch House Restaurant in Charlotte NC

By the early 1990s I was becoming a self-motivated food & restaurant writer. Ellen, a self-motivated chef, had opened the McNinch House Restaurant for business.

She was a self-taught ,home-cook and through sheer determination and a driving spirit became the owner and first chef of the coolest dining concept in town. Throughout the years, a dinner at The McNinch House has remained a one-of-a-kind dining experience.

Ellen Davis and i always had a mutual friendship and support for each other. We helped each other grow into our respective fields. Like many who have written much on a varitety of social media feeds since her death, I will miss her.

If These Walls Could Talk

The best way to keep the spirit of the people we have lost alive, is to share fun and loving memories.

Here are just a few of mine.

The first time I ever went inside the McNinch House was for a walk around wine tasting and Springtime Soiree. I was taken aback by the china and crystal and beautiful linens on each table and I remember the most divine strawberries with long elegant stems.

It was simply how Ellen entertained. I loved every little touch, from the lace doilies under the fine crystal stemware to the elegant china, silver and linen – a different pattern used to dress each of the tables

These gorgeous forks were always a topic of fun conversation between Ellen and I.

I was there for dinner the first night she used them and I fell in love. She always told me if one was ever missing, she was coming to my house. Years later, when cell phones at dinner were deemed ok; I decided it best to simply take a photo – rather than a fork.

I think she would find it amusing that I actually have (and was able to locate) this photo of the forks, ever in question.

My First McNinch House Dinner, But Not My Last

The first time I went to The McNinch House for dinner, it was to write a review for a local print publication. That was back in the day when I was one of three restuarant/food writers in Charlotte and I was still trying to sneak into places un-noticed as a reviewer. A tough call at a business with a mission to create incredible personalized dining experience for each guest. It was her business to know who I was, so she was one step ahead of me. But, I didn’t know that. It was the last time I ever used a false name to make a reservation.

No one at my table could remember my fake name and so when Ellen or her GM at the time, Greg, came around, my friends kept calling me a slew of different names. I was Louise, Helen, Ellen, and probably several more all at once. The masquerade only served to confuse everyone, even Ellen, who of course, unbeknownst to me, had done some investigating and knew who I was from the start. We have never stopped laughing about it.

Here is the beauty and best part of that evening (apart from the lamb chops, which, by the way, have never come off the menu.)

At the same time I was reviewing the McNinch House, I was also working on a story about the AAA Four and Five Diamond Awards. After our marvelous dinner, I sent along a copy of my published review and turned the AAA management and, as a result the inspectors, on to what Ellen was doing in Charlotte. The fine food, ambiance and decor scored Davis her first AAA Carolinas Four Diamond Award in 1997 and the McNinch House has been awarded this prestigious national award every year since!

The Ambiance of it All

In the years after that I would return many times, both to eat and to do TV or photo shoot work.

While I’ve written about The McNinch House for many publications over the years; and for several years, I was also a featured guest on a local TV production for a holiday dining segment, detailing restaurants around the Queen City. The host of the show, which aired on cable was Charlotte’s own, Jim Beatty.

Yes, the same Jim Beatty who will soon celebrate the 61st anniversary of his world running record for being the first man to break 4 minutes for the Mile indoors (3:58.9 on February 10, 1962.) Jim and I would get all dressed up in black tie and gown and sit in big overstuffed chairs in front of the enormous, beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the McNinch House’s front parlor. We chatted on air, for over an hour about all the places to dine in Charlotte from one end of the city to another.

It’s another great McNinch House memory for me and a wonderful precursor to all I do now. I remember that Ellen could tell you and did tell us about every single ornament on that tree; and I thank Jim for the opportunity and Ellen for giving us such a lovely backdrop year after year.

Since that time, my husband Tom and I have enjoyed many dinners at the McNinch House – and the lamb chops are still my favorite!

Honors and Accolades

The lamb chop recipe was all Ellen who handled the kitchen and the menu by herself for the first several years the restaurant was in business. In later years, Chef Chris Coleman, and then even later, Chef Matthew Shepard, and others had stints calling the tiny McNinch House kitchen their home.

In addition to my work, Ellen and the McNinch House have been written up in publications across the state and the region; and the home has been on the Fourth Ward Christmas Tour. With the wine list developed by sommelier, Anthony Wesley, the restaurant has also been the recipient of many annual awards from the The Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. All well-deserved accolades.

Fun Memories

Before writing this, I spoke with Ellen’s nephew, Mitch Clark, and shared another story, one he had never heard. One that made us both laugh between the tears.

I remember once, early on, Ellen bought a stretch limo. Even she wasn’t really sure why, but, I feel sure it seemed like a good idea to her at the time. Problem was that is was so big, it wouldn’t fit in her back parking lot and she was afraid people in the neighborhood, would think she was parking a hearse outside in front of the restaurant. So she let it go.

But not before she and her sister (Mitch’s mom) took it for a spin around town and landed at Green’s to buy hotdogs for lunch. The two sisters ate not just one, but several dogs, sitting in the Green’s parking lot, limo doors wide open. How, I wish there were photos.

A Taste of History at Charlotte’s McNinch House

In February of 2020, I had the good fortune to put together this little video with Ellen. At that time the home was 100+ years old. Ellen had owned and lived in the historic house for 40 some years; and she and the McNinch House staff were celebrating 31 years in business. To commemorate the occasion (and for the fun of it) they were offering a series of Saturday Afternoon High Teas.

As you watch, the following video, please note that the High Tea events mentioned in the video have already come and gone back in 2020.

We met to talk about the tea; but the conversation moved from one topic to another. I am glad for having captured the moment. One of many Ellen Davis always brought to the table.

Cheers and “Tea Toasts” to you always, Ellen. You will be missed.

A Conversation Over Tea with Ellen Davis – circa 2020

If you don’t see a video below – you can watch it via this link. Enjoy!

The McNinch House will remain open.

As of this writing, family and restaurant staff are taking Tuesday, Jan 17 and Wednesday, Jan 18, 2023 to continue to adjust to this sudden and unexpected loss.

The restaurant will be open for business again for regular hours ( Tues – Sat, 5:30-10pm) starting Thursday Jan 18, 2023.

Please call 704-332-6159 for reservations.

In the meantime, family and friends are working on putting together some sort of memorial event in the weeks ahead. I will continue to share further details as they become available.


  1. A very nice tribute to a fabulous Charlotte gem. I too enjoyed many a wonderful meal at The McNinch House. She will be missed.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.