Roadside Eats, an excerpt..

Photograph from John T. Jones

by D.G. Martin

Just where did I learn that local restaurants are where you find real friends and lifelong memories?

Maybe it was my North Mecklenburg High School football teammate Tommy Oehler who got me started when he introduced me to his dad, J. W., and the wonders of the annual Mallard Creek Church barbecue, which the Oehler family still manages every October north of Charlotte. There is no better example of how good barbecue and a host of friendly people make a meal into something memorable.

My whole life, to this day, I’m still on the lookout for places where I can find the Mallard Creek feeling. The places I’ve found that live up to Mallard Creek, at least in my mind — the restaurants that are about food, friends, and more — are the places you’ll find in this book. So when I ask just where did I learn that local restaurants are where you find real friends and lifelong memories, I suppose my answer would be North Carolina is where. I have a lifetime’s worth of memories about the food and friendship in this state, and they led me to write this book.

I’ll tell you how Charlotte’s Open Kitchen gave my Davidson College basketball teammates refuge and fellowship after a disappointing loss on New Year’s Eve. Those memories of their robust red sauce and pasta, classic pizzas, and that open doorway to the bustling kitchen have always make me want to find similar eateries in other parts of our state.

When Lefty Driesell became our coach, he usually took the team out for supper after the games. We had simple meals at the kinds of local eateries I came to love, like the ones in this book. But after we began my senior season with six straight losses, out of desperation he promised to give us a steak dinner after every game we won. Right then, we started winning and, more importantly, enjoying the steaks. But after our twelfth straight win, Lefty confessed that he had spent the whole of his travel budget on our steak dinners. The steaks would have to stop. Immediately, we lost our next game to underdog VMI, with me taking and missing a last shot that would have tied the game. No steak, no streak.

courtesy DG Martin

When I was in the army, stationed at Fort Bragg, the Haymont Grill in Fayetteville became a second home. Great juicy fried chicken, meat loaf with two vegetables, rolls, and tea filled me up for under a dollar. Owner Pete Skenteris befriended me and helped me fit in with the locals. He still does, but he now charges more than a dollar for the meat-and-two-vegetables plate. It’s still delicious and always fresh.

In Charlotte practicing law, my friends and I shunned the fancy places. We favored a modest diner on South Tryon called Jake’s.

Jake’s is long gone, but my former law partners still remember the “Number 5 hamburger plate” and the over-the-top “One on a Plate,” which was a slice of just-made apple pie and a scoop of ice cream. The owner took care of us like important people even though we were not. But when I ran for Congress in 1984 and he saw one of our TV ads, he stopped me on the street to say, “Great ad, D. G. You look a lot better on TV than you do in person.”

Law practice put me on the road regularly, and I found restaurant after restaurant that served homey, delicious food. Once, on the way from Charlotte to Greensboro, a client made me stop at his favorite barbecue place, Lexington #1. Wayne Monk and his friendly crew instantly made me feel at home. And the chopped plate with slaw and baked beans, plus the hot, crisp hushpuppies, suited me better than anything I had ever eaten. Thank goodness it is still there.

That same client told me about the delicious slaw at R. O.’s Bar-B-Cue in Gastonia. So good, he said, that he was going to open a restaurant that sold slaw burgers made with R. O.’s slaw and a simple bun. Later, I found that R. O.’s was already selling a slaw burger. It is very good, I found, but the slaw is even better with barbecue!

In those days, before interstates connected Charlotte and Raleigh, Highway 64 was the usual route between the two cities. There you would find the Blue Mist, the must-stop barbecue restaurant outside Asheboro. The barbecue sandwiches were always good, and I always ran into friends traveling the same roads. With its closure a few years ago, travelers lost an icon.

In my three political campaigns, I was more successful at finding great gathering places for breakfast and lunch with supporters than I was at winning elections. At eateries such as Troutman’s in Concord and Hursey’s in Burlington, the reminders of visits by famous politicians make them mini-museums as well as good places to eat with the locals.

When I moved to Chapel Hill to work for University of North Carolina system president Dick Spangler, he introduced me to Breadmen’s, where the great and bountiful servings of solid food and the ever-presence of policemen and community leaders made it my second home until my wife joined me in Chapel Hill. Now, she and I take our grandchildren there and spoil them with pancakes and French fries while we still split the giant vegetable plate, almost always choosing their tasty banana pudding, which Breadmen’s includes as one of the veggie options, even though everybody knows it’s not a vegetable. But I wanted to know about other country cooking places. Jack Hunt, a powerful legislator from Cleveland County, was married to a cousin of President Spangler, who told me I could go to Jack if I ever needed help in my work with the legislature. So one day I did ask him for help: “Where is the best place to get country cooking around here?”

He paused, squinted, smiled a little bit, and finally said, “Well, the truth is there is nothing better, I think, than Ruby’s cooking.” His wife, Spangler’s cousin, is the Ruby in question. Jack and Ruby regularly invited their government friends for informal suppers of country ham, baked chicken, cornbread, biscuits with sourwood honey and molasses, and vegetables from her garden, including corn frozen minutes after it was picked the previous summer. There were always desserts of homemade cakes and pies. Of course, there was also the opportunity to make friends with governors, Supreme Court justices, and legislative leaders.

Once, when President Spangler and Governor Jim Hunt were at loggerheads about the governor’s budget proposals for the university, they could hardly speak to each other until Jack invited them to breakfast with Ruby. Neither the governor nor the university president could say no to Ruby. It only was after they sat down to Ruby’s cooking and warm spirit that they worked out a compromise.

courtesy DG Martin

Some of the other lobbyists had resources to entertain legislators at fancy and expensive restaurants. I had no expense account. But I found that I could always get wonderful and inexpensive country cooking and run into important legislators at places such as Big Ed’s and Finch’s, where the food was great, the servers were friendly, and the atmosphere was warm and inclusive enough to be conducive to building trust.

On one occasion, university vice president Bill McCoy and I left from Chapel Hill about noon driving to Cullowhee for a meeting at Western Carolina University. By the time we were approaching Winston-Salem on I-40, McCoy said he was getting hungry for a barbecue sandwich. I quickly agreed but admitted that I did not know where there was a good place to stop. We called the law offices of the late Ham Horton, then serving in the legislature and a well-known food fan. Horton was unavailable, his receptionist told us, because he was in an important real estate closing.

“Tell him we only need him for a minute because we need a place to eat,” we pled. Thankfully, Horton came to the phone and quickly gave us a recommendation and directions.

At that moment I knew that interstate travelers needed some sort of guidebook to the barbecue joints and country cooking places where the locals eat. I began to write about my favorite country cooking places in my weekly newspaper column. My readers like those columns better than my usual ones about politics and books. When I invited them to write about their favorite places, I got enough material for more columns and for a series of magazine articles that featured some of my favorites.

I left the university in the fall of 1997 to run for the U.S. Senate. After I was soundly defeated in the primary by John Edwards, Chancellor Joseph Oxendine at UNC-Pembroke asked me to work for him for six months. While I was there, he introduced me to Lumbee Indian culture and two of his favorite restaurants: Linda’s, where the lunchtime crowd of locals politely welcomed the “university crowd” to join them for lunch, and Shef’s, where the seafood suppers drew people from all over Lumbee Land.

A few months after that assignment ended, North Carolina Central University chancellor Julius Chambers asked me to work for him for a few months. I enjoyed eating with my staff at the faculty cafeteria; it was not a regular restaurant, of course, but the country food was delicious. One day the special plate was pigs’ feet. I remember how everybody looked over to see how I was going to deal with that dish. I pretended that I did not notice their looks and cleaned my plate and ate all the meat and tasty fat from every toe.

Folks at Central introduced me to Dillard’s, where people from all over Durham gathered to enjoy barbecue with a mustard-based sauce more like they serve in South Carolina. Sadly, Dillard’s closed a few years ago. While in Durham, I met some of my Central staff at Bullock’s in Durham as described later in this book.

Meanwhile, another interim job with the Trust for Public Land took me back to Charlotte for more than a year. I introduced my staff to Open Kitchen, which was the same as it was so many years earlier. They introduced me to Lupe’s, where we gathered for simple but tasty fare and the chance to meet people from all over town. Both these great places are described in this book. But, unfortunately, another of my Charlotte favorites, Anderson’s, home of The World’s Best Pecan Pie and where I spent many happy mornings at business, political, church, and social gatherings, closed a few years ago.

But that is the challenge of writing about restaurants: even if we wish they would, they don’t last forever. They go out of business, trade hands and change, or keep chugging until they run their natural course. But part of the joy in all these jobs I’ve had over the years and all the traveling I’ve done is finding new and welcoming places to pull up, get a sweet tea, and meet good folks while eating wonderful North Carolina home cooking.

I’ve written for years about these places, published books and countless columns about them and the people in them: from little diners with hushpuppies you never forget to watching people settle political differences over a slice of lemon pie, I’ve seen and tasted nearly everything. I love this state and love traveling its roads, finding what I find, and reporting back to you. I hope you enjoy what’s ahead in this book and that it inspires you to go a little out of your way to find something special, where the folks will likely greet you like an old friend, even if it’s your first visit.

Pam’s Farmhouse Restaurant

5111 Western Boulevard, Raleigh, NC 27606   |   (919) 859-9990  

Monday–Friday 6:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; Saturday 6:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m.


Nancy Olson, the world-famous former owner and bookseller at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, told me about Pam’s. “It’s one of the best country cooking places, ever,” she said. “It’s got the best red-eye gravy, and there are always interesting people there.” When we finally met there for lunch one day, I found out what she was talking about. The southern-style vegetables (collards, okra, and corn) that were offered with my fried chicken were perfectly cooked. I loved the banana pudding and wished that I had had a little more room.

“Pam Medlin has been in the business since she started busing tables at a restaurant that our family owned in Henderson,” says Pam’s mother, Peggy Robinson. That family tradition continues at Pam’s. Her brother, Clay Wade, is a cook and her sister, Tammy Edgerton, is a waitress. Some of the regular customers, who eat breakfast and lunch there every day, are like family, too.

From I-40

If headed East: Take Exit 289 (Wade Ave.). Follow Wade Ave. for 3 miles. Turn right onto I-440/US 1 South. Go 3 miles and take Exit 2B. See below for directions from Exit 2B.

If headed West: Take Exit 293 onto I-440/US 1 North. Go 2 miles and take Exit 2B. See below for directions from Exit 2B.

From Exit 2B of I-440: At the end of the ramp, turn left on Western Blvd. Go 0.5 mile. Pam’s will be on the left, but the divide prevents a left turn. Go 0.2 mile farther, make a U-turn at the traffic light at Heather Dr. to reverse course, and come back to Pam’s.

After Eating

Have you ever wanted a sari or wanted to get one for a favorite person? A few doors down at 5107 Western Blvd. is Roopkala Sari Palace, which sells and displays this beautiful clothing.

From NORTH CAROLINA’S ROADSIDE EATERIES: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners, and Barbecue Joints. Copyright © 2016 by D. G. Martin. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.

State Farmers Market Restaurant

1240 Farmers Market Drive, Raleigh, NC 27603    |    (919) 755-1550

Monday–Saturday 6:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.; Sunday 8:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.

Although Gypsy Gilliam and her son, Tony, have added some modern dishes to the menu, the State Farmers Market Restaurant is still known for the incredible fresh vegetables, courtesy the state Farmers Market, the go-to spot for the region’s best produce. But there’s more to it. These folks also know how to cook it right: squash, greens, collards, beans, corn. And don’t forget the biscuits or cornbread, iced tea, and friendly service.

The restaurant also has a museum-quality collection of old-time farm equipment. Civil War memorabilia and North Carolina historical objects line its walls. So even if the food were not so good, this place would be worth a stop. Everybody comes here to eat and meet—businesspeople doing deals, farmers taking a break from selling their crops at the market, working people, and lots of family groups having mini-reunion meals.

If I had one place in the state to take visitors from another country, just to show them what North Carolina was all about, I would bring them right here for the food, of course, but more than that, for the rich diversity and goodness of the North Carolina people who show up to eat here.

From I-40

Take Exit 297 (Lake Wheeler Rd./Dorothea Dix/Farmers Market exit). Head north for 0.25 mile, following the signs to the Farmers Market. The restaurant is the building with the big dome.

After Eating

Take a few minutes to walk around the market area. Even if you can resist the extra-fresh vegetables and other crops, you will enjoy the displays and shops. It is a mini–state fair. And if you miss the 3:00 p.m. closing time for the State Farmers Market Restaurant, try the Market Grill or the North Carolina Seafood Restaurant and Market just a few steps away for a late lunch or supper.

From NORTH CAROLINA’S ROADSIDE EATERIES: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners, and Barbecue Joints. Copyright © 2016 by D. G. Martin. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.

Toot-n-Tell Restaurant

903 W. Garner Road, Garner, NC 27529    |    (919) 772-2616

Monday–Saturday 5:30 a.m.–8:00 p.m.; Sunday 7:00 a.m.–3:30 p.m. (note “.co” rather than “.com”)

If you’re anything like me, your first question when you hear the Toot-n-Tell’s name is “Where did that crazy name come from?” That question opens the door to more than 60 years of the restaurant’s history. Started as a drive-in by Brookie Pool in 1946, Toot-n-Tell served hot dogs, hamburgers, and milkshakes. Customers would toot their horns and tell the carhop what they wanted. After Pool’s death, his stepson, Bill Sparkman, and Bill’s wife, Maryann, bought the restaurant in 1968. Their daughter, Donna Sparkman Wooten, and Maryann operate the Toot-n-Tell today. Donna has worked at the restaurant for more than 40 years, since she was 13.

Donna, who does not have children, says that she goes to her house to sleep but the restaurant is her home, and the customers and employees are her family. That home is a gift to her visitors, who can find a solid and reasonably priced meal and companionship at any time of the day.

Regular customer Dot DuPree has been eating at Toot-n-Tell “all my life.” Her favorite waitress is Lib Mojeske, who is “friendly and smart” and also serves as cashier. Chad Richardson, who works in the area, says the food is like “grandma’s cooking, in the day, like the country-style steak and cabbage.” He added, “This is the only place I’ve found that knows how to cook cabbage right.” My wife, Harriet, enjoyed the cabbage and turnip greens to go with a fish special. Each weekday has a different special with a meat entrée and two vegetables from a long list. Think baked chicken, country-style steak, pork chops, calves liver, and so on. Those who are hungrier or just in a hurry can get a salad bar and a full buffet for less than $8.

Too good to be true. Well, it is not forever. Donna is the end of the family line. But she promises us that she will be there for a long time to come.

From I-40

Take Exit 299 for Hammond Rd. and go south on Hammond Rd. for 1 mile to East Tryon Rd. Turn left. Go 0.7 mile and turn right onto Garner Rd. Go 1.7 miles. Toot-n-Tell will be on the right.

After Eating

Take a walk in the abandoned graveyard next to the restaurant. The broken gravestones surrounded by weeds and wildflowers can be a reminder of how fragile our monuments can be. Then take a look at the railroad at the top of an embankment right behind the restaurant. The town of Garner grew up around a station of the North Carolina Railroad built in the 1850s between Goldsboro and Charlotte. Garner is said to have experienced actual combat in the closing days of the Civil War when Sherman’s troops were moving along this railroad line toward Raleigh after the Battle of Bentonville.

From NORTH CAROLINA’S ROADSIDE EATERIES: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners, and Barbecue Joints. Copyright © 2016 by D. G. Martin. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.