text and photographs by Dean McCord
I sometimes forget how vast Eastern North Carolina is. Flat sandy farmlands extend for mile after mile, with an occasional small town breaking up the tobacco and soybean fields. I forget how southern the region is, too, how immune it is to the influx of transplants from across the country.
But one thing I never forget is how friendly and gracious the people are, and how much they love to have visitors come by and spend some time with them.
The restaurants in the eastern part of the state are no different, and as you pack up and head to the beach this summer, I have a handful of dining suggestions that are well worth a stop. These places have generally not been written up in The New York Times. Some of them are owned and operated by septuagenarians who have no succession plans once they retire. Others are institutions well known in their communities, but not as much to the rest of us. Married couples run a number of these restaurants; fathers and sons operate others. You’ll find fine dining spots and counters to grab some barbecue on the fly.
These are places that may require a bit of a detour on your way to Carolina Beach, or Nags Head, or Wrightsville, and some are right off the main drag. But they’re all favorites of mine, and I believe well worth the extra few minutes to get there.
To Nags Head via U.S. 64
Hunter Hill Café
50 minutes from downtown Raleigh; six-minute detour
501 Old Mill Rd., Rocky Mount
Weekdays: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; 5 to 8 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The owner of Rocky Mount’s Hunter Hill Café, David Eilers, obviously loves yellow. His cinder-block building is painted bright yellow, as is a semi trailer parked in a grassy field, emblazoned with “HUNTERHILL CAFE” in a blatant effort to circumvent local sign ordinances. The yellow continues inside, with a most quirky decor. Quirky? How many cafeterias feature an “educational aquarium” named after legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith? How many cafeterias have a catering truck sporting yellow flames on both sides?
But don’t let the quirkiness fool you. Hunter Hill is just a great place for Southern food, cooked like your grandmother used to make it. On the day I visited recently, they offered 11 meats and 12 vegetables (and yes, mac n’ cheese is a vegetable). Two meats and two sides will cost you about nine bucks. The fish is crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside – that is, perfect. And the barbecue chicken is a combination of sweet, smoky and slightly piquant.
Hunter Hill Cafe is responsible for bringing pit-cooked barbecue back to Rocky Mount, but interestingly, patrons seem to get more excited over Hunter Hill’s smoked beef ribs and brisket than they do the pork. I respect those opinions, but I also view this North Carolinian sacrilege as the first sign of an impending apocalypse.
On The Square
65 minutes from downtown Raleigh; six-minute detour
115 E. St. James St., Tarboro
Lunch, weekdays: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner, Thursday-Saturday: 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Tarboro’s On The Square is not a secret to beach-goers.
This former breakfast and lunch joint was taken over 10 years ago by native Inez Ribustello and her New Yorker husband Stephen Ribustello. Over the years, it has had an exceptionally strong local following and some attraction for out-of-towners. Now serving a casual lunch and a more formal dinner, On The Square is the type of restaurant I wish I had in my own Raleigh neighborhood, where you always feel like you’re at home, but with food better than your mother could cook.
Even on my first visit, I felt like a regular. The staff acts like a big, happy family, and the customers are treated like long-lost cousins. And Tarboro loves this family. When I recently posted a picture of the Ribustellos on my Facebook page, it garnered more than 200 “likes,” easily my most beloved photograph. All but a small handful of those likes came from Tarboro residents.
Lunch is casual, with orders taken at the counter by Frances Liverman, the former owner who now acts as the manager and occasional pastry chef (her coconut cake is splendid).
The service is quick, and the food is excellent. My favorite is a pork tenderloin sandwich with just the right amount of heat. Dinner is a more formal affair, with Stephen incorporating a Southern farm-to-fork ethic, but it’s still plenty casual for folks on their way to the beach. And grab a bottle or six of wine, personally selected by Inez, to complete your en route dining and shopping. You can’t go wrong.
To Little Washington, Pamlico River and Sound via U.S. 264
SoCo Farm and Food
One hour from downtown Raleigh, one-minute detour
6538 Slabtown Rd., Wilson
Wednesday-Thursday: 6 to 9:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 6 to 10 p.m.
No credit cards
If you are in a rush to get to the beach, SoCo Farm and Food might not be for you. SoCo is the kind of place where you begin the “slow down” process that won’t be complete until you reach the coast. But if you and a loved one are planning some time at the beach this summer and can take your time getting there, consider stopping at this place (which may define “the middle of nowhere”), have an amazing dinner, and then spend the night at their B&B. You’ll be well fed, well rested, and well on your way to having the right frame of mind for your beach excursion.
SoCo is on a farm. They do things the old-fashioned way, growing their own vegetables, making their own breads. They truly take care of you, but you have to let go and believe in the place, because SoCo is not about choice. It’s about trusting chef Jeremy Law and his limited menu, featuring at most two options in each of the four courses on the fixed-price menu (at $50, it’s a bargain). It’s about putting yourself in the hands of Jeremy’s wife, Kimberly Kulers, to choose wines for you. It’s about letting go, allowing yourself to be pampered and doted upon. The only thing you do have to remember is cash or a checkbook, because SoCo does not take credit cards.
Jack Cobb & Son Barbecue Place
One hour from downtown Raleigh, eight-minute detour
3883 South Main St., Farmville
Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Traditional, whole-hog barbecue pits are a dying breed, with fewer and fewer folks willing to put in the labor (and expense) required to cook whole pigs over wood. When the current generation of owners and pit masters retires, then we will have even fewer great barbecue restaurants. That’s why it’s important to get to places like Farmville’s Jack Cobb & Son Barbecue Place while you can. Rudy Cobb is that son and has been working in the pits for nearly 60 years. He looks much younger than his 72 years. Cobb took over for his daddy, who originally sold barbecue out of his car, but he doesn’t think there will be anyone to take over from him. “I have two sons, and although they have both helped me in the pits, they don’t want to work that hard.”
The menu is simple, featuring the rock-solid barbecue, slow cooked over hardwood by Rudy Cobb himself. They also feature smoky barbecue chicken. The hushpuppies are made according to a recipe from Cobb’s mother, Lillian.
Jack Cobb & Son is not the place to stop, sit down and grab a bite. It’s counter service only, so if you are looking to grab a few pounds of ’cue on the way to the beach (or some places on the Pamlico Sound), give Jack Cobb & Son a try. It has a bit of an odd schedule, being open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, because that’s how Rudy Cobb’s daddy did it. Now if Rudy can just convince one of those sons to keep doing it.
90 minutes from downtown Raleigh; twenty-minute detour to either the Sound or Beaufort
566 3rd St., Ayden
Monday, Wednesday-Friday: 4:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Saturday: 4:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
No credit cards
Legend has it that the town of Ayden got its name because it was a place for outlaws, or “a den” of thieves. But there’s nothing criminal about the food coming from Bum’s. Let me be clear: Latham “Bum” Dennis is no bum, and neither is his son, Larry Dennis.
Bum is a charming man, with an amazing mustache that predates any hipster by at least 40 years. But this is another place with an uncertain future, as Bum, 76, is already mostly retired, and 50-year-old Larry says he has no family members to take over when he hangs up his apron. And although the barbecue at Bum’s is excellent, it’s the side dishes that bring me back. Lots of vegetables. Sweet potatoes. Rutabagas. And collards, lots and lots of collards.
The town of Ayden is known as the Collard Capital of the World, and Bum’s serves cabbage collards grown by Bum himself. Cabbage collards are a little lighter flavored than traditional collards, but there’s plenty of flavor for me, making a perfect accompaniment to the barbecue, cooked in a pit that was built in 1941.
Bum’s doesn’t get as many tourists as its more famous (and more aggressively marketed) neighbor, The Skylight Inn. No, Bum’s is a local place, with more than 90 percent of its customers from the area. It takes care of these folks, opening at 4:30 in the morning, six days a week. The Dennises want to make sure the folks are fed, even early in the morning.
To Wrightsville Beach via I-40
25 minutes from downtown Raleigh, seven-minute detour
11964 NC 50 Highway North, Willow Spring
Open every day: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
I don’t know which barbecue restaurant comes closest to I-40 on the way to Wrightsville Beach, but if you swing by Stephenson’s Bar-B-Q in Willow Spring, you’ll only add seven minutes to your trip. And it’s certainly worth it to get a taste of this great barbecue.
Started by Paul Stephenson Jr., a farmer who raised hogs, Stephenson’s is now run by his son, Andy.
They’re not a whole-hog place, like many in Eastern North Carolina, and they use charcoal rather than split hardwood, but they take extra care to permeate the smoke through the meat. Stephenson’s has a full menu that includes fried and barbecue chicken, Brunswick stew, an assortment of vegetables, and the sweetest sweet tea around. So even if you’re in a hurry to get to the beach, you’ll have plenty of time to visit Stephenson’s.
35 minutes from Raleigh, four-minute detour
7400 NC Highway 50 South, Benson
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Thursday-Saturday: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Benson’s Meadow Village has been around for quite some time, and it’s never going to change its name, but if I had my druthers, I’d just call this buffet-style restaurant “House O’ Cake.” I recently filled a plate with seven different types of homemade cake, and I missed at least three or four when going through the line. Pies (don’t miss their special chocolate pie), pudding, and lots of scoop-yourself ice cream are also available, so you’ll have no problem satisfying your sweet tooth.
And as much as I’d make the trip to Benson just to eat the desserts, Meadow Village’s savory offerings are also delicious. There’s a definite old-school Southern influence here, with vegetables often “thoroughly” cooked and well-seasoned (i.e., salt shakers won’t be needed), but it’s all tasty. They do a particularly good job with their fryers, turning over fish, chicken and even oysters quickly. Meadow Village is just a short diversion from I-95, but if you hit the Sunday lunch crowd, be prepared to wait a bit.
To Atlantic Beach or Emerald Isle via U.S. 70
One hour from downtown Raleigh, seven-minute detour
128 S. Center St., Goldsboro
Monday, Wednesday-Friday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday: Noon to 9 p.m.
Of all the places I visited in researching this story, none pleased me more than Thai Garden, a tiny mom-and-pop place in downtown Goldsboro.
The “mom and pop” are Peter and Janet Punparpituckul, two of the most delightful individuals you’ll ever meet. I heard good things about the place from SoCo’s Jeremy Law, and his recommendation was perfect. Who knew that great Thai food could be found in Wayne County? I knew that I could get barbecue at Wilber’s, but mu tod, a marinated fried pork? The pad Thai was fresh, with prominent tastes of tamarind. And the massaman curry was the best I’ve ever had (curry pastes are made in house).
But what makes this restaurant so special are the owners, with their self-chosen English names, who hang a Barry Manilow mirror in the men’s room, who hire an African-American chef, Robert Griffin, to turn out their family’s Thai specialties.
If you go on a summer’s day, Janet will pick herbs out of her garden for you to sample. Peter will visit your table, making sure in his less-than-pristine English how much he wants your meal to be perfect. And you’ll leave wondering how this place can make such delicious food. It’s definitely worth a road trip from Raleigh just to eat here, but it’s a no-brainer to stop if you’re passing by Goldsboro on the way to Atlantic Beach or Emerald Isle.
One hour from downtown Raleigh, 15-minute detour
3096 Arrington Bridge Rd., Dudley
Wednesday-Friday: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Grady’s Barbecue might not be the most convenient restaurant to dine in on your way to the beach. It might even require the longest detour. But Grady’s might also be one of the most worthwhile excursions you’ll ever take.
Stephen and Gerri Grady (rhymes with caddy) opened their barbecue restaurant in the small town of Dudley 28 years ago, and there’s not another barbecue joint I’d rather visit in the state.
I met the Gradys two summers ago, when they were serving their barbecue for an event for the Southern Foodways Alliance, and I was immediately charmed. Yes, their food was incredibly delicious, but it was their stories that captivated me. They know that when they retire, the restaurant will close. They know that each day is precious, so they make the most of it. They make everything from scratch – even the tea is brewed on the stovetop. And be sure to get a slice of Stephen’s sweet potato pie.
Stephen Grady turned 79 in March, so do yourself a favor before he decides to retire (which will be well-deserved) and head down to Dudley, stop at the whitewashed cinder-block building and introduce yourself to him and Gerry. And enjoy the best barbecue and fried chicken around. Then take a couple of pounds to the beach.
Boiler Room oyster bar
85 minutes from downtown Raleigh; five-minute detour
120 W. Gordon St., Kinston
Monday-Wednesday: 4:30 to 10 p.m.
Thursday-Friday: 4:30 p.m. to midnight
Saturday: Noon to midnight
Sunday: Noon to 8 p.m.
If there is a poster child for “On-The-Way-To-The-Beach Fine Dining,” it would be Kinston’s Chef & the Farmer. The husband-wife team of chef Vivian Howard and general manager Ben Knight is well known to many through PBS’s award winning show, A Chef’s Life. For several years, the restaurant survived primarily because Triangle residents stopped by on their way to or from the coast. The restaurant now thrives, enough so to allow Howard and Knight to pair up with a friend, Mother Earth Brewing’s co-founder, Stephen Hill, to open a new place, the Boiler Room Oyster Bar.
The Boiler Room features oysters in several iterations: on the half-shell, fried (full size or in popcorn-style nuggets), steamed, baked, with hot sauce and jalapeños (the “Rooster”) or even in a pie. They also serve a great burgers and fries. A pimento cheese and sausage dip is great way to start a meal.
The Boiler Room is casual. It’s quick. And if you’re not looking for the fine dining experience of Chef & the Farmer, follow the neon sign across the street to the Boiler Room.
It’s the perfect alternative.
Boiler Room’s Pimento Cheese Sausage Dip
The Boiler Room’s take on pimento cheese is not what you may be used to eating in the South. That’s because it’s served as a bubbling hot dip with lots of sausage added. They make this in 28-pound batches (enough for 75 separate portions), but we’ve reduced the recipe to serve a reasonably sized party crowd. Served at the restaurant with homemade crackers, this would also be good on toasted baguette slices, crackers, tortilla chips or any other dip-worthy item.
8 ounces sharp yellow cheddar cheese
7 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese
1 1/2 tablespoons Duke’s Mayonnaise
1/3 cup Rotel diced tomatoes and green chilies (drained)
1 tablespoon sour cream
¼ cup roasted red peppers, diced
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 ounces crumbled, cooked pork sausage
Shred cheeses. Combine with all other ingredients (except sausage) and beat with a mixer until fairly smooth and spreadable. Put in an oven-proof dish, top with sausage, and bake in a 400-degree oven until bubbly and creamy, about 12 to 15 minutes.