You’re right to assume that I had selfish intentions when I assigned myself a food- and drink-themed road trip across North Carolina. If barbecue speaks to you like it does to me, then the state’s hallowed, well-documented and contested trail is reason enough to go on a pilgrimage.
But having lived almost all my life throughout North Carolina, I know that even if pulled pork is a tie that binds, it’s only the beginning in terms of what the state—especially less urban areas—has to offer.
In fact, one of the goals of this recent trip was to avoid those mostly urban spots like Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh (aka the Triangle) and Asheville since they rightfully get much of the food media attention they deserve. Most folks (myself included) who let Eater heatmaps, the Times’ “36 Hours” column and the James Beard Awards guide their travel, or maybe at least have family who have retired there, know that the culinary talent in these areas is on par with larger cities nationwide. In the best sense, these cities now do craft cocktail bars, wood-fired specialty pizzas and international fusion like New York does barbecue and fried chicken. The trends are there in other words, and the state does them well.
With these well-publicized areas (including Kinston’s Chef & the Farmer of PBS Series fame) mostly off my list, the goal of my trip was to chart a delicious and travel-worthy road map from the coast to the mountains. I thought this would be easy enough, but as soon as I posted my mission to social media for recommendations, it was abundantly clear that I would need at least a month on the road and only pants with elastic waistbands if I wanted to try every suggestion. Soliciting family, friends and local media left me with an embarrassment of choices, so with the help of Bit & Grain, a North Carolina–focused online publication, I whittled it down to a week’s worth of excellent eating and drinking.
There are many, many versions of this drive, which you can do as single stops, day-trips or in one fell swoop. My final itinerary is a mix of institutions that I grew up with as well as new destinations that are reimagining local flavors. You can expect old-school stomping grounds, like a beachfront doughnut shop and a drive-thru biscuit kitchen, alongside emerging small-town butchers and new breweries that forage ingredients to make Appalachian-inspired beer. Each is a worthy North Carolina food emblem in its own way, and if you’re seeking a deeper, more complex and ultimately more modern understanding of the state, here’s where I suggest you start:
6623 Market St., Wilmington
Catch is one of those exceptional restaurants tucked inside in a nondescript strip mall. In a large space away from the coastal city’s bustling downtown, chef and owner Keith Rhodes—a 2011 James Beard nominee for Best Chef Southeast and a Season 9 Top Chef contestant—transforms local seafood and produce with international inspiration. Depending on the season, you can expect dishes like chilled Jarrett Bay oysters on the half shell topped with chopped black radish and paired with a Champagne ginger peppercorn mignonette, as well as seafood bucatini with crab roe, mountain magic tomatoes, garlic scapes and dark opal basil.
123 Princess St., Wilmington
The Frank Sinatra quote at the bottom of Manna’s cocktail menu accurately captures the bar’s attitude: “Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the Bible says love your enemy.” Having tasted a few of their drinks, it’s obvious that Manna’s dapper bartenders care equally about about how they execute both the classics and their own concoctions. Ask the sprightly “director of distillates” Ian Murray to make you an Old Fashioned and it’ll stand up to its fiercest peers anywhere. Ask him to make whatever he wants based on your general preferences, and he’ll excitedly whip out his arsenal of homemade bitters, shrubs and tinctures (keep an eye out for “Napalm 666” if you like heat). Baxter, my photographer and travel companion, and I opted for the latter and gladly drank at least two more drinks than we’d originally planned.
11 Carolina Beach Ave. N, Carolina Beach
Before you drive inland, make time to meander 30 minutes north to the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. Here, even on a weekday morning, you’ll likely see a steady line streaming out of the 77-year-old business. Their menu lists four choices—donuts, drinks, coffee and milk—and no single item costs more than $1.25. The namesake pastry only comes one way: lightly glazed and freshly fried. I ordered a half-dozen and would have licked the paper bag clean if a rightful seagull hadn’t clawed one of the palm-size rings from my sticky fingers. Consider yourself warned: They’re only open during the summer, so best plan accordingly.
751 B’s Barbecue Rd., Greenville
Ok, sue me: Baxter and I stopped for barbecue after I said we wouldn’t. I bet you would too for B’s, though. At the end of its own road, the family restaurant has smoked and chopped whole hog barbecue since the late 1970s. Three sisters own and operate the modest cinder-block institution that closes each day— usually not long after noon—when the food runs out. You can get perfectly delicious chicken, but I’d recommend the vinegar-splashed pulled pork (bread optional) with coleslaw and their signature “corn sticks,” which are long, hush-puppy-like fries.
4618 S. Lee St., Ayden
I think I might be one of the few born and bred North Carolinians who had their first taste of Skylight Inn barbecue in New York City. Hear me out: The state might as well be split down a line that divides western tomato-based sauces from eastern vinegar-based ones and I grew up on the western side of that boundary. My barbecue world was so contained that it took Michael Pollan writing about this 2003 James Beard award winner for me to learn about it (my family has spent their entire lives in North Carolina and, until this story, had never heard of it). It’s legendary in the area, however, and like B’s, is a fundamental piece of the state’s barbecue bedrock.
"Frankly I wonder what the South Carolina folks were thinking" pic.twitter.com/wPGR5Tojn6
— Ariel Lauren Wilson (@ariellauren) June 22, 2016
The restaurant’s proprietors sure do display a lot of pride for serving such a humble dish. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see a single-floor brick building with a makeshift United States Capitol–like dome that, perhaps fittingly, could be mistaken for a silver church steeple. They’re known for whole hog barbecue, which they smoke for hours over oak wood before seasoning, chopping (crispy skin included) and dousing with a spicy vinegar based sauce. If you’re a rookie like I was, get the classic “meat w/ bread & slaw.” It includes a thin slab of savory corn bread sandwiched between two red-gingham-print paper boats; the bottom one’s full of barbecue and the top holds the slightly creamy slaw. Add sauce to your liking.
715 W. Fire Tower Rd., Winterville
Two barbecue restaurants (in less than 4 hours) in, we decided what the hell—if we’re here, might as well go to another for supper. Our third and last barbecue stop was at Sam Jones BBQ, which is owned and operated by said Sam, who also happens to be the grandson of Pete Jones, Skylight Inn’s founder and mastermind. While there are important differences between the two businesses (a loaded baked potato, a brand new barn-meets-steak-house-like restaurant, salads), the most important factor—the quality of the meat—is consistent. Otherwise, go to Sam’s next-gen spot if you want a beer, spare ribs or an updated version of the burger Skylight Inn had on their menu back in 1947.
1015 Goldsboro St. S, Wilson
If it weren’t for the relentless drive-thru line, Flo’s Kitchen could pass as a corner service station. It in fact was one before Florence “Flo” Williams started making and serving her cat-head biscuits there several decades ago. The biscuits get their name because of their size, and from one of their few tables that Baxter and I nabbed on a regularly busy Thursday, we watched the all-women staff knead and bake a calculated combination of flour, lard and buttermilk. They serve local delicacies like fatback and a “cup of molasses” that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere, so get them while you can. I also recommend the cheese biscuit, which they melt on the griddle.
1729 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Rd., Saxapahaw
A solid 20-minute drive west of Chapel Hill-Carrboro, the town of Saxapahaw (population 1,648 according to the 2010 census) has undergone a recent rural renaissance. The cotton mill that was the center of the town’s working life until it closed in 1994 has been resurrected to house a “5-star gas station,” thrift store, pub, three-story music venue/café and now a state-of-the-art whole-animal butcher shop. The overwhelming majority of Left Bank’s meat comes from three nearby “progressive” farms that keep as stringent environmental standards as the butchers maintain their craft. Go there for all your cuts, as well as any charcuterie, bread and pickle cravings. They make use of all the parts and have frequent specials to prove it.
408 W. Weaver St., Carrboro
Although Carrboro is technically in the Triangle, I decided to include the town on my list for a couple reasons: 1. Tourists sometimes don’t recognize it as being separate and distinct from Chapel Hill, and 2. It’s home to one of this past year’s most anticipated openings. When Ben and Karen Barker, the first two North Carolina chefs to ever win James Beard awards, closed their landmark Durham restaurant Magnolia Grill in 2012, it was truly the end of an era. The institution pioneered a certain Southern farm-to-table ethos that’s come to dominate the state in recent decades, so when news spread that they had plans to help open a pizzeria helmed by their son Gabe (who worked at Delfina in San Francisco), fans were chomping at the bit.
Named in honor of the nearby farmers market, Pizzeria Mercato has been warmly received for its Neapolitan-style pies and sides that change along with the seasons; some late-summer highlights include a chickpea crepe with fairytale eggplant, Calabrian chile, ricotta and fresh herbs, as well as the salami pie that comes with tomatoes, fior di latte (a mozzarella-like cheese), salami Calabrese, red onion and spicy honey. Keeping with Karen’s great baking tradition, though, the desserts were the main event for my table. Order several if you can, and especially seasonal gelato, a slice of lemon curd cake and the salted chocolate chip cookie.
3808 W. Gate City Blvd., Greensboro
I owe learning about many of the highlights on this road trip to my dear friend Jesalyn Keziah. As a community food coordinator who helps grassroots initiatives statewide advance local food access, a big part of her job is learning what, where and how North Carolinians eat. She keeps a running list of notable finds, and for my unfortunately short window in Greensboro (other recommendations welcomed in the comments!), insisted that I go to this strip-mall gem.
Kim and The Le opened Bánh Mì Saigon Sandwiches & Bakery in 2009 to serve one of the namesake city’s most iconic street foods. I’ve never been to Vietnam, and I know very little about Vietnamese cuisine, but I do know that these sandwiches are a delicious and rare find. Their menu—in both Vietnamese and English—has about 15 different variations, all featuring ingredients that they make in-house, baguette-style bread included. The “#1,” or the classic with pork live pâté, slices of Vietnamese ham and pork roll and the “#3,” or pulled rotisserie chicken, are some customer favorites. I had the latter, which had flavorful roasted thigh meat topped with shredded pickled carrots, onions, jalapeños and cilantro. The 16-ounce Vietnamese iced coffee washed it down well and was rich enough to dissuade me from trying the homemade desserts. Along with their diverse selection of different imported canned sodas and drinks, though, they’re on my radar for next time.
131 N. Main St., Davidson
Like Catch and several of the remaining restaurants on this list, Kindred is a passionate project of a chef—Joe Kindred in this case—who grew up in the state, moved away, got a top-notch fine-dining education elsewhere and then came back to share his take on North Carolina’s best ingredients. It’s a Main Street anchor in the small college town of Davidson, a good 30 minutes north of Charlotte, that came out of the gates running after being named one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants in 2015. Joe and his wife Katy’s San Francisco-meets-Southern experience shines through with standout dishes like crispy oysters with dill yogurt and Calabrian chile oil, an NC shrimp roll with Meyer lemon and tarragon and cinnamon ice cream with butterscotch cookies.
8470 Bellhaven Blvd., Charlotte
Charlotte is the state’s largest city and, until relatively recently, its food scene’s reputation has played backup to those of the Triangle and Asheville. Clark Barlowe is one of the chefs overhauling this image, though, and from 15 minutes outside of the city at Heirloom: His “locally sourced, globally inspired” restaurant serves a new 12-course menu every day (it can be pared down to nine, seven, five or three depending on your appetite). He’s another North Carolina boy partly trained in distant kitchens—the French Laundry and El Bulli to name a couple—who’s enamored with what grows nearby, and not just on farms. Barlowe’s also an adept forager who crafts dishes like winter melon soup with maitake mushrooms and lemon balm, as well as soufflé pancakes with pawpaw cream, maple syrup and black walnuts. Check Heirloom’s website after 1:00 p.m. each day to see what’s on the menu for that night.
883 Highland Ave. SE, Hickory
I actually first tried Highland Avenue’s food in the West Village last April at a James Beard House dinner. Their homemade charcuterie stood out as part of a collaborative “Small Towns, Big Flavors” menu, so I decided to follow up for a full meal. Their slick, homestead-inspired dining room occupies the upstairs of a former textile mill that, until recently, had been used for fire department drills. There are still visible flames, but they’re now contained on the stove tops of the exposed kitchen. Newly named executive chef Sam Stachon makes “New American cuisine” here, honoring the best of the best local ingredients with signature dishes like beef tartare with pickled onions, corn bread puree, black pepper, herbs and a fried egg. Whatever the dessert special is, be sure to save room for it.
317 N. Green St., Morganton
Named after an actual town that was flooded and erased in the early 20th century by a nearby manmade lake, Fonta Flora takes pride in its surroundings. The brewery aims to make uniquely North Carolina–style beer with a special Appalachian emphasis: Think an aromatic saison with tulip poplar, ground ivy, spruce tips and green black walnuts, or consider the golden “Funk and Flora” Appalachian wild ale collaboration with Asheville’s Wicked Weed Brewing that contains foraged yarrow, sourwood leaves, wild ginger and black locust flowers. The brewery has a cult following in and beyond the state but very limited distribution for now. You might find Fonta Flora ales on the Heirloom drinks menu, but if you want a full dose, you’ll have to drive to the source.
61 Locust St., Spruce Pine
The last few stops on my list hit particularly close to home. I grew up on my family’s farm 15 minutes north of this earnest restaurant that, for over five years, has succeeded at serving natural wines, Murray’s Cheese imports and globally inspired takes on foraged ingredients in a mountain town of about 2,000 people. Chef Nate Allen was most recently nominated for the Best Chef Southeast James Beard Award and received a very warm review from Eater’s Bill Addison who called his dining experience “a Blue Ridge Mountain high.” Allen’s food won me over years ago, and mostly recently, in the restaurant’s new open kitchen dining room, I swooned over seared eggplant with baba ghanoush, cucumber, mint and a benne seed vinaigrette. Knife & Fork recently added a $55 five-course chef ’s tasting menu—go for it.
99 N. 226 Hwy., Bakersville
Helen’s is probably the first restaurant that I ever visited. It’s one of only a handful of options in my roughly 300-person hometown, and once every couple of weeks, my siblings and I would openly hoot when mom announced that she was “about to call in an order.” It was more of just a burger and fries place then, and my go-to was the “cheeseburger with just ketchup” and a cherry Mountain Dew (They ingeniously ladled cherry syrup into the bottom of a 16-ounce Styrofoam cup before adding the soda. It was as much my Willy Wonka dream as it probably was my dentist’s nightmare).
The ownership has changed a couple of times since then, and the restaurant’s now run by Tom and Glenda Meeler, who, according to my Meema, “are good people who do a very nice job.” Many locals agree, and after a recent visit, I do, too. Mr. Meeler frequently makes rounds to politely introduce himself and, with clear sincerity, thanks his guests for coming. He and his wife have expanded the menu to where it’s more like a catalog, offering everything from gluten-free bread to a taco salad. Similar to when I was growing up, though, burgers remain a highlight here and the “Route 66”—with fried jalapeños, homemade pimento cheese, bacon and grilled onions—is a highlight. I mostly go for one of my mom’s favorites these days, though, which is the pinto bean plate with chopped Vidalia onions and a slice of corn bread for $4.25. Helen’s also sells bags of freshly ground grits from the nearby Dellinger’s Grist Mill that are worth their weight in potential luggage fees.
If you’re an Airbnb fan, you know that the site has listings for just about anywhere. Same goes for rural North Carolina, and to mutual benefit, many farms have harnessed the service to host guests on their property. Duck Dance Farm is one of these listings, and about 45 minutes north of Asheville, the farm offers two campsites (one in the woods, another by the creek) and a cabin for rent. I had the pleasure of staying in the lovely cabin that Andrew, the host, built. He and his family keep ducks and geese on the farm in addition to giving tours and offering classes on waterfowl husbandry, aquaculture and other homesteading subjects. The stay also offers an optional from-the-farm breakfast for a suggested $12. Mine was delicious and included duck bacon, a poached duck egg, wild berries, hash browns and a popover. Andrew’s wife, Pat, is a marvelous cook who proudly makes lemon curd “that’ll cure any heartbreak”; she’ll likely have coconut macaroons ready for your arrival.