Traveling to Raleigh, Durham or Chapel Hill? Nothing beats eating home-style favorites to soak in the culture and Southern hospitality. Dine in the places natives frequent to experience country cooking, the real flavors of the South. Here are some recommendations for culinary delights from my North Carolina born-and-raised neighbors—in addition to some of my own favorites—based on more than two decades of dining in the Triangle.
1. Chicken Pastry
A favorite Southern meal, chicken pastry transports many to their childhood when Mama and Grandmama raised chickens in their backyards and made their own dough to drop into this inexpensive but hearty dish. “Chicken pastry” is a familiar name to those who were raised “Downeast,” but in the western part of the state, you’ll find “Chicken and Dumplings,” yet another twist on this comfort food.
Chicken and Dumplings is served at Mama Dip’s, a Chapel Hill favorite for country food opened by Mildred Cotton Council in 1976. “Mama Dip” first learned to cook from family members who cooked by taste, but she went on to develop the recipes she uses today in her restaurant, which is run by family members. Look for chicken pastry as a side dish at Carolina Barbecue in Garner.
2. Shrimp and Grits
Originally a breakfast food, shrimp and grits is said to have been created by the Gullah descendants of slaves from West Africa, who combined grits with the shrimp and fish they caught in coastal waters.
Bill Neal, a former chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, is credited with elevating the dish to a lunch or dinner entrée when he created his own unique version. His dinner recipe, which is still served at Crook’s Corner, consists of shrimp sautéed with bacon, mushrooms and scallions served over cheese grits. You can also find a delicious shrimp and grits plate at Nofo @ The Pig, a quirky café, food market and gift shop located in Raleigh.
The Triangle is home to plenty of barbecue joints, most of which serve the vinegar-based “Eastern-style” barbecue, although North Carolina is also known for a sweeter, tomato-based “western-style” barbecue. Head to Hillsborough BBQ Company in Hillsborough, Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, The Pit in Raleigh or Carolina Barbecue in Garner to see which flavors you like best.
4. Fried Chicken
The stereotype of greasy fried chicken gets the boot at Beasley’s Chicken + Honey in Raleigh, where 2014 James Beard award winner of “Best Chef: Southeast,” Ashley Christensen, puts her own unique spin on this classic comfort food. Savor fried chicken on a mouth-watering biscuit (Chicken Biscuit) or with waffles and honey, sweet potato fries and a vegetable side, offering flavors that will linger in your memory long after you leave. The creamed collard greens and roasted beets with orange and white balsamic vinaigrette are heavenly, but the ambiance at the restaurant is firmly rooted in community, with patrons sitting elbow-to-elbow at long picnic style tables and ordering off a chalkboard hung on a wall.
5. Country Ham With Red Eye Gravy
A Southern breakfast of local country ham with red eye gravy and hot cakes, plus a side of spiced apples, at Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant in downtown Raleigh will start your day off right. A North Carolina native whose recipes spring from the days when he helped his mother prepare meals for workers on his family’s farm, Big Ed Watkins opened his restaurant in 1959, and it’s still a popular community gathering spot. Pam’s Farm House in Raleigh also offers a delicious fresh country breakfast with eggs, country ham, biscuits and sausages.
6. Southern Sides, From Fried Green Tomatoes to Hush Puppies
Fried green tomatoes, fried okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potato fries, hush puppies and Brunswick stew are well-loved sides you can savor with your whole hog, pit-cooked barbecue at The Pit in downtown Raleigh's warehouse district. Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue, a family-owned restaurant in Durham since 1952, offers Brunswick stew in small or large bowls with slaw and two sides. Vegetable lovers can also take advantage of the daily vegetable plates at Bullock’s.