These are the dishes – past and present – that have allowed us to retain the title of ‘America’s foodiest small town.’ Just ask these locals:
[Above] Shrimp and grits tell the story of Crook’s Corner in one generous deep-dish plate. Legendary founding chef Bill Neal put his glorious version of the low country classic on Crook’s menu back in the 1980s, and this beautiful, hearty and satisfying plate of plump, pink bacon-studded shrimp on a creamy cheese-kissed pillow of stone-ground grits flies out of the kitchen year after year. My husband always orders shrimp and grits while I choose from among chef Bill Smith’s signature creations – cold fried chicken with deviled eggs and watermelon, green Tabasco chicken, cheese pork, corned ham or the latest creation from Crook’s 21st-century kitchen. We always share our orders, so I get the best of everything. Shrimp and grits is the Old Well, timeless tasty comfort food. The rest of the menu changes with seasons and years, like the fabulous monthly art on the wall, reminding us that Crook’s and Chapel Hill are still cooking, still stirring things up, still moving forward. – Nancie McDermott
Biscuits at Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen – this to me is Chapel Hill. It was the first thing I ate – in the cab of my U-Haul, even – when I moved to town 14 years ago. I love a fried chicken biscuit, but, if I’m feeling virtuous, I “just” get a sausage biscuit. Imagine thinking of a gigantic sausage biscuit as the lower-calorie option. Those big ol’ soft and buttery cathead biscuits speak to my soul, I don’t know how else to describe what happens when I eat them and the level of contented happiness I’m able to reach. When my first son was 2 years old and I was pregnant with my second one, I drove by Sunrise to drop him off at preschool every day. I craved Sunrise throughout that pregnancy something awful. It was so intense that I had to put myself on a “Sunrise” diet – my doctor agreed that I could have a biscuit from Sunrise once a week. Oh, the planning! I had to decide which day, whether I wanted it for breakfast or lunch, and, most importantly, what kind I was going to order. These were very, very tough decisions. Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen is Chapel Hill to me. – Kelly Alexander
Mariakakis Restaurant, originally known as Kwik-ee Take Out Food, opened in Eastgate Shopping Center in 1963 when Eastgate was in the middle of nowhere. Tommy Mariakakis specialized in big chewy New York-style pizzas you could take out or eat in. I preferred to dine in. My three kids could stuff themselves with their favorite pizza while I leisurely enjoyed the succulent roasted lamb shank. Tommy slow-cooked the shanks overnight in the cooling pizza ovens, then added a sauce made with tomatoes, oregano, cumin, garlic and red wine. This earthy Greek dish was my introduction to Greek cooking, and I never ordered anything else there. When Tommy’s son, Johnny, closed the restaurant in 1997 to open a bakery/deli, I had my last bite of the iconic lamb shank. I miss it to this day. – Moreton Neal
The cornerstone dish is revealed in the name on the door: Pizzeria Mercato. Come for the pizza, but be sure to eat your way through a menu that manifests the heart and soul of both authentic Italian and Southern cuisine, regions that are fiercely loyal to local renditions of impeccable ingredients. When it comes to pizza, Gabe Barker relies on the best groceries he can find – from produce sold across the street at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market (which inspired the name ‘mercato’) to Prosciutto di San Daniele imported from Italy – and then lets the ingredients have their say. Certain dishes will always be on the Mercato menu, but they vary from season to season (if not week to week) because they take advantage of the day’s shopping and the chef’s notions. Consider the pizza toppings. There will always be classics such as cheese (in the form of formaggi misti) and sausage (with house-made finocchio), but there will be one or two pizzas-of-the-moment, such as summer’s sweet corn or winter’s robust leafy greens. Some of the most compelling pizzas come drizzled with ribbons of rich panna cream – a revelation. Given their caliber and cleverness, it would be easy for the pizza toppings to get all the glory, but they sit on a proper crust. Thanks to a brick-lined inferno of a pizza oven, Gabe’s crust is perfectly bubbled and blistered. It’s thin, yet bready because of the pleasant chewiness, with flavor and personality from Italian Caputo 00 flour and his mother’s masterful sourdough starter. No pizza (or perhaps menu) in town does a better job of delivering local flavors that feel both comfortingly familiar and brand new. It’s a new way to visit our hometown. – Sheri Castle
It is almost 2 p.m. in a former service station and convenience store on South Columbia Street, now known as Merritt’s Grill. There is still a cheerful crowd gathering in three separate lines to order, then to pay and then to pick up what they came for. What they order is usually, well almost always, the classic Merritt’s BLT. The staff and some longtime customers call it the “love sandwich,” the name Robin Britt, the late beloved owner gave it when she first made the sandwich for her husband.
What is the secret? Why do so many people drive so far just for the combination of bacon, lettuce, tomato, seasoning, toasted bread and secret mayonnaise? Manager Claudia Palacios would not tell me, except to say, “It is the bacon, the very best North Carolina bacon we can buy.”
One taste persuaded me. Their bacon tastes more like high-end, delicious pork belly.
Her assistant, Carrboro High graduate and UNC senior Jonah Mendys, chimed in, “There is more. It’s also about the construction of the sandwich. The double layers of lettuce, tomato and bacon have got to lay just right on the bread for it to work, for it to be a Merritt’s BLT.”
Of course, it is best to get your BLT at Merritt’s, but the sandwich is available at concession stands at the major Carolina athletic contests and this fall will expand into the campus dining area in Lenoir Hall. – D. G. Martin
I am pretty sure I haven’t eaten in the main dining room at Andrea Reusing’s Lantern in a decade. I much prefer sitting at the dimly lit bar as it reminds me of some of my fave city haunts, along with being a “bar diner” in general. Besides the compelling atmosphere and the convivial hosts and bartenders, there are a few mainstays on the menu that bring me back (and often means, to my chagrin, I will skip a daily offering). Chief among these is the salt and pepper shrimp. I will never tire of hearing the waitstaff check to make sure I have eaten these before, an indication that this experience will be the same “shell and all” shrimp experience I am hoping for! Fried crispy coriander and jalapeño peppers add a nice spice to the salt and pepper crunch that give this dish its name. – Scott Conary
When I moved to Chapel Hill from Jackson, Mississippi, nearly 20 years ago, I left behind regular Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ table. The fried chicken plate at Mama Dip’s was my solace. Its thin crust, heavy of black pepper, is perfectly homestyle. With a side of turnip greens and cornbread, it came closer than anything to curing my homesickness. Over the years, I have been inspired not only by Mildred Council’s food, but also by her success as an entrepreneur. I can’t imagine Chapel Hill without her contributions. – April McGreger
At 3 a.m. in the morning or so, Keith Allen lights a fire under a stack of hickory wood, puts some pork shoulders in his two barbecue pits and begins to shovel coals from the fire under the meat. He does this every half-hour for about nine hours at Allen & Son Barbecue. Then, he chops the meat by hand, splashing it with a vinegar and red pepper sauce, before he goes out to split wood, with a maul and a steel wedge, for the next day. The chopped pork, on an ordinary white hamburger bun with a dollop of coleslaw, makes what Southern Living has called “the best barbecue sandwich, ever.” This is old-school North Carolina barbecue, not a gas-fired, set-it-and-forget-it operation. Mr. Allen learned his craft from his father in the 1950s and has been practicing it for almost 50 years at his restaurant north of Chapel Hill on N.C. 86. In 2007, he received the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Tabasco Guardian of the Tradition award. “I keep cooking with wood,” he says, “because I’m chasing that flavor.” – John Shelton Reed
For its patrons, foodies and members of the Chapel Hill community, The Flying Burrito was where you went for affordable, tasty and homemade food. I waited tables there for five years with community icons: author Sarah Dessen, restaurateur Virginia Callaghan, artist Jamie McPhail, UNC professor Leslie Frost, town council member Karen Stegman, Squirrel Nut Zippers lead singer Katherine Whalen and many others.
The Flying Burrito food was delicious, and the Raging Bull and the Ultimate Raging Bull were dishes that pushed your taste buds to the limit. Through chili peppers, owner Phil Campbell shared his adventurous spirit for all things spicy. The former was definitely spicy hot, filled with a jalapeño sauce both inside and out. But the latter – dripping with both the jalapeño and habanero sauces – was not for the faint of heart (and I loved serving to braggadocious Duke students who thought they could handle it).
Everything served was homemade and fresh. Members of the Facebook community still discuss and want recipes for various dishes – employees and customers alike. I’m still a devotee of the jalapeño-honey mustard sauce and treasure that recipe like my own family’s spicy pepper relish.
Phil Campbell died last year. He was an original in the Chapel Hill restaurant community, a maverick even. He knew what tasted right, knew the pulse of his patrons and was always welcoming. My father died last month, and while I was going through his T-shirts, I found an original Flying Burrito’s ‘Beer is Not Just for Breakfast’ in the collection. The sight of it made me so happy. My birth father saved the T-shirt from my restaurant father and as I wear it writing this piece, I am grateful for my inheritance from both. – Samantha Swan