Restaurant Review

After years of searching, East End finds a tasty place

CorrespondentFebruary 10, 2012 

  • 201 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill


    Cuisine: American regional, seafood

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: upscale-casual

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: widely variable

    Recommended: oysters, crawfish bread, sausage and peppers sandwich, bread pudding

    Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; get a sitter; limited vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary. Excellent.

    Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

If corporations are people, as Mitt Romney has famously proposed, then I'm pretty sure I've discovered a business that has suffered from a multiple personality disorder for the past 10 years. The patient has been on the mend of late, however, and after a thorough examination, I'm happy to report that the prognosis is excellent for a full recovery.

East End Oyster & Martini Bar came into this world in the fall of 2001, in the wake of 9/11. The newcomer struggled to survive in times that were difficult even for established restaurants, and was on life support by the following spring. In May, new owners adopted the upstart eatery and administered extensive therapy in the form of a complete makeover.

They put white linens on the tables and gussied up the menu to include the likes of coconut shrimp and grouper piccata. The awning over the entrance now read "East End Fine Seafood & Martinis."

The martinis caught on, but the fine seafood - not so much. In 2004, the white tablecloths came off and the kitchen was closed. East End Martini Bar, as it was now known, became a private membership bar. Not surprisingly, given its Franklin Street location, it fell in with the partying college crowd.

Wishing for more

But, while 25-cent beer specials and colorful cocktails with names like Grape Gatsby and Pink Panty Pulldown paid the bills, one of the bar's owners yearned for something more substantial. Howard McDonald, a passionate self-taught cook with a taste for seafood acquired when he was growing up on the Florida coast, longed to reopen the kitchen.

Last May, after buying out his partners and installing a new kitchen, McDonald realized his dream when he introduced a modest menu of starters, small plates and sandwiches.

Make that deceptively modest. At first glance, the offering appears to be geared strictly to the college bar crowd, with a liberal sprinkling of burgers, Buffalo wings and such. Look a little closer, though, and you'll discover that its appeal is much broader.

The wings come from locally raised chickens, for starters. Same goes for the boneless breast you can get grilled or fried and topped with a spicy house-made pimento cheese on a brioche bun. Ditto the homemade chicken stock used to cook the risotto in delicate risotto cakes.

The local connections

Hogan's Magnolia View Farm supplies the grass-fed beef in the burgers, which are available with a wide assortment of toppings ranging from smoked gouda to crawfish étouffée. (Caveat: grass-fed beef is less forgiving of being cooked medium-well than grain-fed beef. I've had modest success in imploring the server to pass along my request that the burger be cooked as close to medium-rare as allowed by the health department).

The Italian sausage in East End's sausage and peppers sandwich comes from Chapel Hill Creamery (which fattens the pigs on leftover whey from cheesemaking), and it's served on a Guglhupf pretzel roll. The Durham bakery also supplies the baguette that's the foundation for an addictive Cajun crawfish bread appetizer, as well as the brioche in McDonald's stellar bread pudding.

You get the idea: Howard McDonald cooks pretty much everything from scratch, and he likes to work with local food artisans and farmers.

And fishermen. As luck would have it, McDonald's wife and partner, Brandy, is the daughter of Wesley Potter, a fifth-generation shell fisherman. Potter, who plies the waters of Pamlico Sound, provides the oysters that, for my money, are the restaurant's premier attraction.

And a deal

My favorites, when I can resist slurping these plump, expertly shucked beauties raw, are char-grilled on the half shell with just a spritz of white wine, garlic butter and lemon, and a sprinkle of parmesan. They're consistently first-rate however you order them, and downright irresistible on Tuesday-Friday nights from 5 to 7 p.m., when they're half price.

In the coming warmer months, Potter's nets will start hauling shrimp that the chef will feature in his signature shrimp and grits and the occasional po' boy. Blue crab season will bring a spicy crab dip and crab cakes made with 95 percent crabmeat.

That's about the time that East End (it goes by that streamlined name now) will celebrate the first anniversary of its new persona as a restaurant. Or, as Mitt Romney might put it, its transformation from problem child to model citizen

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