Magnolia Grill patrons clamor for one last meal

aweigl@newsobserver.com May 31, 2012 

MAGGRILL-NE-051712-TEL

Dozens of patrons line up outside Magnolia Grill in Durham Thursday, May 17, 2012. Award-winning chefs Ben and Karen Barker announced that they will close their renowned Durham restaurant on May 31.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com

— They called it Magnoliaville.

Like the tent village known as Krzyzewskiville, where students camp out for Duke basketball tickets, Magnoliaville is the people who have lined up outside Magnolia Grill almost every day for the past few weeks trying to get a final meal before it closed Thursday.

Within a few days of the May 2 announcement by owners Ben and Karen Barker that their Durham restaurant would close on May 31, all the reservations were gone. A diner’s only recourse was to wait in line for one of fewer than 30 seats in the bar area available each night.

On Tuesday, a woman started waiting at 8:30 a.m. Another woman fainted on a hot day. Many who were turned away one night would return the next. People traveled from as far as New Jersey and Louisiana to stand in the line; one of them was Brett Anderson, the restaurant critic at The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

The line is a testament to these diners’ love for Durham’s renowned restaurant and their grief over its closing.

The Barkers – Ben, 58, the intense executive chef, and Karen, 54, the inventive pastry chef – had decided enough was enough. After 26 years, they want to spend more time with their sons and grandchildren, who are 4 and 9. They want to relax at their home in Topsail Beach. They want to get a new puppy. They want to drive across the country to visit a son working as a chef in San Francisco.

They feared the tedious parts of their jobs would rob them of what they loved about being in the kitchen. “We need to step away from it in order to discover the facets of it that we enjoy,” Ben Barker explained.

Selling was not an option. Ben Barker says they couldn’t have found a qualified candidate with financing to take over so quickly.

So they gave a month’s notice, as they have long insisted their employees do. (They reasoned that if they could hold on to their staff until the end, diners would enjoy the same quality of food and service up until the last night.) “This seemed like the most efficacious to just stop,” Ben Barker said.

They kept their decision quiet. Their staff and the landlord only found out the night before the Barkers sent out a mass email. The only thing that raised suspicion among local chefs was this: In January, the frugal Ben Barker didn’t order a year’s worth of office supplies, as he normally did to take advantage of a discount. Instead, he told his office manager to order as needed.

End of an era

Magnolia Grill’s closing marks the end of an era in the Triangle’s dining scene. For almost a decade, the Barkers were the only chefs in the state to have won James Beard awards, the highest honor a chef can receive. They mentored dozens of chefs who have opened their own restaurants and businesses across the country; many have returned in recent weeks for one last meal.

Some had to stand in line.

Typically, the line started in the early afternoon. Folks brought lawn chairs and bottled water. Some sat on the ground in their nice clothes. Others brought clothes to change into in the bathroom. Some were regular patrons, while others realized this was their last chance to dine at a restaurant they had meant to visit for years.

A camaraderie developed. They would talk about memorable meals or dishes, like the grits souffle, the one item to have been on the menu the longest. Men would talk about how they proposed to their wives at Magnolia. Couples would talk about celebrating anniversaries or birthdays.

“We all sort of developed friendships and relationships,” says Mark Cohen, who stood in line for four hours last Friday. Cohen drove from New Jersey with his wife and 12-year-old son, who has been going to Magnolia Grill for his birthday since he was 6.

And they talked about their grief. One of many, Karen Stark, 59, of Durham, said: “This is a huge loss for me.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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