On October 12, 1973, Zdenko Peros walked away from the only life he knew. The 17 year-old Croatian was working on a cruise ship when it docked in New York. The crew was given a six day visa that allowed them to leave the ship and explore the city. With only the clothes he wore, a six day visa, his passport and $40 in his pocket, Zdenko made the decision to start a new life in America.
“There was no future for me in Croatia,” he recently said from a table in his restaurant in Roaring Gap. “Croatia was still part of communist Yugoslavia, and when I returned I was facing mandatory military enlistment. I couldn’t bring myself to serve the communist government.”
Zdenko’s family has lived in the coastal village of Zaton in eastern Croatia along the Adriatic Sea for 500 years. His great-grandfather was governor in the 1930s and was a large landowner. After World War II, the communists took control of the region and much of his family’s property was seized then converted to state use. This history instilled a deep distrust of communism and led to Zdenko’s decision to walk away from that ship.
Given our current state of security and policies on immigration, Zdenko’s next days are difficult to imagine.
“The next day after leaving the ship, I went to an office where a nice lady asked how she could help me. I told her I needed papers to work. She said, ‘You’ll need a social security card’ and issued me one. Then I went to a restaurant and told them I needed a job. They put me to work washing dishes.”
Washing dishes led to his promotion to salad man which led to him becoming a line cook. The chef took an interest in Zdenko and helped develop his culinary skills. Along this time, Zdenko and Doreen were married. While they were away on their honeymoon, he received a call from the restaurant telling him that his mentor, the lead chef, had died unexpectedly. They asked if Zdenko and Doreen could cut their honeymoon short and return to the restaurant. At 21, the newly married Zdenko became the head chef of a New Jersey restaurant. He laughs as he thinks of those days. “I had to grow up very fast.”
In 1980, after working in restaurants in New York and New Jersey with noted Italian and French chefs, Zdenko and Doreen moved south to Morehead City. They renovated an old house and opened an Italian restaurant. They named it Nikola’s after Zdenko’s grandfather and their oldest son. They built up and managed the restaurant for 23 years until they grew weary of hurricanes and the always present humidity. Doreen found a vacant restaurant for sale in Alleghany County and they drove up to take a look at the building and area.
Zdenko’s father was a game warden back in Croatia. Zdenko grew up going out on patrol with his father. His father instilled a deep love of the outdoors, and specifically for hunting and fishing. As they drove through Alleghany County on that first trip, they saw deer and turkeys to hunt, and streams to fish. Zdenko told Doreen, “This is the place.”
They bought the restaurant and inn at High Meadows. Both required much work to get the facilities ready to meet their high standards. In 2014, to help with the hotel, the Travel Channel’s makeover show, Hotel Impossible came in to film a segment.
Woven throughout a conversation with Zdenko and Doreen is the topic of family. They began their family when they were young and their sons grew up in the restaurant business. Oldest son, Nikola, is a teacher in Iceland, and owns a restaurant and bed and breakfast. Sons Tony and Petar are both chefs at Roaring Gap Country Club. They all set aside Sundays and holidays to gather at the restaurant for a private family meal. And for two months each year, Zdenko and Doreen return to Croatia where they reconnect with their extended family.
The importance of family carries over to their approach to business. “We want to have a family atmosphere to our restaurant,” explain Doreen. “We have nice table clothes and cloth napkins because we want our ‘family’ to feel respected and appreciated. That can give our place a formal feel, but we welcome families with children and there is no dress code.” She goes on to describe how regular customers sometimes go missing from their tables and are found in the kitchen with the gregarious Zdenko who is entertaining them with hunting and fishing tales, or with stories of Croatia. She adds, “We invite everyone in our community to come have a meal and get to know us.”
When Zdenko recalls the story of him “jumping ship” in 1973, he points out that it was Columbus Day. We celebrate that day as one of exploration and discovery. For Zdenko Peros, that path of discovery lead from Croatia to New York City; to family and business owner; to citizenship in 1986; and ultimately to Alleghany County. Zdenko describes settling here as finding, “a little piece of Heaven on earth.”
More information about the High Meadows Inn and Nikola’s can be found here or by calling 336-363-2221 (Inn) or 336-363-6060 (Restaurant).
Their menu can be found on line here.
They can also be found on Facebook at High Meadows Inn and Nikolas Restaurant.