By Laurie Paolicelli
When I relocated to North Carolina fifteen years ago, I was excited about many things, but food topped the list. As a Midwestern girl I had my fill of delicious homespun hot dishes for every occasion and a pantry full of cream of mushroom soup to make the casseroles even more hearty. Real Southern food, though, was still a mystery to me.
It takes about five minutes before a Chapel Hillian brings up the subject of food. I learned this when I came here for my job interview. They put me up at the Siena Hotel, and the concierge there offered to drive me to Weaver Street Market in Carrboro and encouraged me walk around and call when I was ready to return.
That was a game changer. I had never seen such an exotic display of to-go food in my life. Moroccan Couscous Salad. Vegan un-chicken salad. Pimento cheese sandwiches with pecans. Sweet and salty chutney. A shaggy tofurkey sandwich. Mediterranean Lentils, Red Curry Tofu, Szechuan Tempeh Barley. I spent $50 introducing my tastebuds to this mysterious new locale.
Later that day a member of the interview committee called to confirm dinner plans. We were going to Crook’s Corner. He wanted me to try the shrimp and grits and honeysuckle sorbet. There was a drink there named after him and he was sure I would enjoy that too.
He was right. I loved the food, the low key atmosphere and extreme kindness extended by the restaurant staff.
Kindness and food seem to go hand in hand in the south. Add to that a small dose of peculiarity and you have your typical Chapel Hill restaurant.
To top it all off, the next day a board member took me to Sutton’s for breakfast. During the meal a world-famous coach stopped by, a pharmacist, former football player, the owner, and other friends.
I took the job, of course. And food – one of the things that drew me here – would become a big part of our tourism sell. My early days on the job and settling a young daughter into our home involved many nights out, and each night I was surprised and delighted by the food and the kindness of the hospitality industry.
I remember the gazpacho that seemed to come in every flavor and texture. I remember meeting colleagues at the Weathervane at the former University Mall and being unable to resist ordering egg salad, chicken salad, and tuna salad, all on the same plate.
I could go on and on and on – and I will. Allen and Sons Barbeque, Timeout, Sunrise Biscuits. Oh, Sunrise! You made my palate, and my stomach, so happy. With specialties like spicy chicken and honey biscuits, fried pork chop biscuits, fried steak biscuits, grits, and — of course — biscuits and gravy.
Elmo’s. Aurora’s. Jim’s Barbecue on Elliot Road. Saratoga Grill in Hillsborough, which remains a favorite to this day.
I’m reminiscing now because so many of these restaurants are already gone, and soon so will many more. Because the restaurant industry in Orange County is struggling, and parts of it are dying. School closures, curfews, capacity limitations on groups – all the wise and necessary safety measures imposed due to the pandemic – have resulted in dozens of our favorite joints closing down.
So, what I’m asking you now, just as someone who loves this community and its food as much as you do, is if we could all pledge to order some take-out meals this month and the next? And if not for yourself, do it for a friend. Do it for someone you know needs a good meal.
Each of us can do something to help sustain our favorite places, whether your favorite spot is Acme, Neal’s, Tandem or Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro, or Carolina Brewery, 411, Kitchen or Il Palio in Chapel Hill, or House of Gatewood, The Wooden Nickel, Antonia’s or Radius Pizza in Hillsborough, to name but a few of the gustatory gems all around us.
One of the greatest gifts we can give others and ourselves is at the heart of what Orange County offers us: farm fresh food, fun settings, smiles, warmth and a feeling of welcome. Of family. Of love. Because that’s what the best food is: love on a plate. And we need as much of that as we can get.
Please join me in a #TakeOutPledge to help save area restaurants.
See restaurant options here: https://www.visitchapelhill.org/restaurants
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.