Owners opt to close Durham’s Magnolia Grill

aweigl@newsobserver.com May 2, 2012 

Two stars of the Triangle dining scene have decided to exit the stage.

Award-winning chefs Ben and Karen Barker announced Wednesday that they will close their renowned Durham restaurant, Magnolia Grill, on May 31. In an email, the Barkers wrote that they were ready for a change and need to spend more time with family.

“We have all of our parents, all 80 years old, or nearly,” they wrote. “We want to see them more. We have two grandchildren we’ve barely spent any time with; we want to see them more. We have co-workers we’ve been around more than our sons – it’s time for that to change.”

The Triangle’s culinary world reeled at the news that the region’s most award-winning restaurant is closing.

A tearful Scott Howell, who was a sous chef at Magnolia Grill in the early 1990s and now owns Nana’s in Durham, said, “They were my parents when I came here. They helped me learn about North Carolina.”

Walter Royal, Ben Barker’s first sous chef at Magnolia Grill and now executive chef at Raleigh’s premier steakhouse, The Angus Barn, said: “I’ll tell you what: That restaurant will certainly be missed.”

Decades in the Triangle

Magnolia Grill’s closing marks the end of the era.

No other chefs in the Triangle have consistently turned out such excellent, creative and high-end fare for decades. And no other chefs have put the Triangle dining scene on the national map like this husband-and-wife team who met their first day of school at the Culinary Institute of America.

The couple came to Chapel Hill hoping to work for the Triangle’s most well-known chef at the time: Bill Neal at La Residence. Neal, who disliked culinary school grads, refused to hire Ben. When Neal left to open Crook’s Corner, his ex-wife hired both Ben and Karen. A few years later, they struck out on their own, opening Magnolia Grill in a storefront on Durham’s Ninth Street that used to house Wellspring grocery.

The Barkers became known for their refined take on Southern cuisine: Ben for his complicated, yet balanced, dishes, and Karen for her whimsical desserts that used ingredients such as Nilla wafers or Peppermint Patties.

A dozen years ago, Ben, now 58, was named best chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation – the Oscars of the food world. It was a first for a North Carolina chef. Three years later, Karen, now 54, won a James Beard award for outstanding pastry chef. Until last year, they were the only North Carolina-based chefs to receive such accolades.

Protégés by the dozen

The Barkers trained dozens of chefs, many of whom have gone on to open their own restaurants, including Bret Jennings at Elaine’s on Franklin in Chapel Hill, Jason Smith of 18 Seaboard in Raleigh and Phoebe Lawless of Scratch in Durham. Many say the Barkers taught them how to run a kitchen, trained their palates and were role models on sourcing local ingredients from farmers long before “locavore” joined the foodie lexicon.

It’s not clear what’s next for the Barkers. In a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, Ben Barker said: “It might be we retire. That’s as equal a possibility as something else.”

For many, the news was bittersweet. Chefs and patrons were happy that the Barkers are exiting on their own terms, when they are still healthy and with many years ahead to spend time with family. But many were sorry to lose their go-to restaurant for anniversaries and birthdays, to never again taste one of Karen’s desserts or Ben’s twice-baked grits soufflé, the only dish to have remained on the menu for years.

“I’m so happy for them but so sad for the rest of us,” said chef Amy Tornquist, who owns Watts Grocery in Durham. “I hope I can get a reservation.”

And so does everyone else; the phone at Magnolia Grill was busy for hours Wednesday as people tried to get a reservation before they are all gone.

Weigl: 919-829-4848.

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