Dining options in Eastern North Carolina used to mean barbecue or Southern steam-table fare. Celebrating an anniversary meant venturing to a steakhouse.
Not anymore. A handful of bistros and upscale restaurants have sprouted from Wilson to Faison.
Now diners can choose from a 500-bottle wine list at On the Square in Tarboro. At Chef & The Farmer in Kinston, they can enjoy dishes prepared by a chef who was a semifinalist for best chef in the Southeast from the James Beard Foundation, the Oscars of the food world.
These towns are really starting to bloom, says Peter Edgar, who owns Quince in Wilson.
Edgar and others are changing the regions culinary landscape, no easy feat in towns with double-digit unemployment and median household incomes around $35,000. They have succeeded by not only appealing to the locals but also attracting diners wholl drive from the Triangle or stop on the way to the beach.
In these places, diners find menus that celebrate the seasons with locally grown asparagus and peaches, pork and chicken, line-caught fish and clams from Sneads Ferry. Theyre treated to staunchly Southern or eclectic menus at comparable prices to Triangles dining scene a $7 lunch to a $25 entree. The only thing old-fashioned at these five restaurants is the warm Southern welcome offered by their chef-owners.
Chef & The Farmer
The rising star of this scene is Chef & The Farmer in Kinston, which recently reopened after suffering a fire that shut it down for four months. During that time, chef Vivian Howard was named a Beard award semifinalist.
When Howard was growing up, she couldnt wait to leave Kinston. She went to boarding school as a teenager, graduated from N.C. State University and moved to New York to work in advertising. She soon grew bored writing copy about shampoo and quit. To make ends meet, she walked dogs and waited tables. Eventually she worked her way into the kitchen at Voyage under chef Scott Barton.
You really saw her come into her own in the kitchen, says Barton, who connected with Howard over a mutual interest in Southern food.
Howard, 34, earned a culinary degree and worked for such renowned chefs as Wylie Dufresne and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
At Voyage, Howard met her future husband, Ben Knight, 36, a waiter and artist. On their first trip to North Carolina to introduce him to her family, her dad, a commodity hog farmer, offered to help them open a restaurant anywhere in North Carolina.
They later realized that Howards dad had scoped out a location in downtown Kinston the 100-year-old former mule stable their restaurant now occupies. They moved to Kinston in 2005 and opened their 75-seat restaurant in 2006.
Howards menu is Southern-focused. Her very popular blueberry barbecue chicken is a play on the Eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce. (They plan to sell their bottled sauce soon.) She is also renowned for vegetable dishes, and her menu is stacked with updated Southern staples: creamed corn, squash casserole, watermelon and goat cheese salad.
Chef & The Farmer quickly garnered attention beyond Kinston. For the last three years, it earned a AAA Four Diamond Award. And the words that Greg Cox, The News & Observers restaurant critic, wrote in 2008 when he awarded them 4 1/2 of 5 stars still hold. He described Chef & The Farmer as much more than just a stopover. Its a worthy destination in its own right.
The couple are continuing the culinary revitalization of this former tobacco town with plans to open an oyster bar with Mother Earth Brewing founder Stephen Hill next year.
On the Square
Inez Ribustello also was lured home by her father, a commercial real estate developer in Tarboro. In 2001, Ribustello and her husband, Stephen, were working at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. She was beverage director, and Stephen was a sommelier. After Sept. 11, the couple found new jobs in New York, but the restaurant business was struggling.
Her parents suggested the couple come to Tarboro for a break. While they were visiting, a woman asked if theyd like to buy her restaurant, On the Square. Inez, 36, and Stephen, 37, didnt have the capital, but her father and a local doctor agreed to invest.
They opened in October 2002, with Inez working the front of the house and Stephen handling the kitchen.
Over the years, they have made the place their own. At first, they served breakfast and lunch, as their predecessor had done. Quickly, they ditched breakfast, and now they only serve lunch on weekdays. They started with a small plates menu on Thursday and Friday nights but eventually offered a full-service dinner menu.
Their menu is eclectic. Stephen is half Greek, half Italian but he wishes he was Japanese, Inez says. Thats how we describe the menu. That means diners can order panzanella, the Italian bread salad, and then a miso-glazed sea bass with fried rice. And just last month, the couple launched a sushi truck in downtown Tarboro.
What the heck? Were not in this for the money, so why not sushi? she says.
So far, its been a hit. The first couple weeks, they sold out.
Peter Edgar graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, one of the nations best known chefs schools, in 1991. He worked in restaurants in the Northeast before traveling the world as a private chef on a yacht. He met his wife, Minshall Wainwright, in the Bahamas, and eventually she got him to move home to North Carolina.
Edgar, 48, worked at several restaurants in the Triangle, including Fearrington House, as his wife finished her MBA at Duke University. Eventually, the couple moved to Wainwrights hometown of Wilson. After several years working in food service at East Carolina University, Edgar decided to launch a restaurant in Wilson; Quince opened in a former hardware store in 2008.
Edgar started as the restaurants chef, but now he runs the front of the house. The food ranges from comfort fare, such as pot roast manicotti, to Southern dishes, such as a pimento cheese plate and squealin puppies, spicy hushpuppies with sausage.
About the transformation of the regions restaurant scene since he moved here in 1995, Edgar says, I like the direction Eastern North Carolina dining is going.
SoCo Farm and Food
Chef Jeremy Law and his wife, Kimberly Kulers, likely own North Carolinas only farm-to-one-table restaurant. Last year, the couple converted an 1,800-square-foot garage on their 11-acre horse farm outside Wilson into a bed-and-breakfast that serves dinner four nights a week.
Law, 38, who most recently worked at Chef & the Farmer, offers a different dining experience. Except for one or two nights a month, guests can dine at SoCo Farm and Food only if they book a reservation for at least eight people. The first Friday of the month, guests can make a reservation to dine at the restaurants large communal table. Diners enjoy a four-course prix fixe meal of modern Southern food for $40. And since Law doesnt have a liquor license, guests must bring their own wine if they wish to imbibe.
He aims for a modern take on Southern food with such dishes as a molasses-roasted tomato tart with a cheese straw crust or smoked natural beef short ribs with creamy herbed grits and a beer gravy.
Law is not only the chef but also the farmer. He grows cucumbers, melons, squash and tomatoes on a third of an acre. He harvests blueberries from about 50 bushes planted last year. And this year, he added several beehives, which Law says boosted the gardens production.
Were starting to figure this gardening thing out, Law says.
Sarah McColman and Joanie Babcock met in Charlotte; McColman, 64, was a schoolteacher, and Babcock, 55, was a chef. McColman, who grew up in Faison, never thought shed move back to this one-stoplight town off Interstate 40, population: 979.
But Babcock, a Johnson & Wales graduate, had spent years working for others in the restaurant business and wanted to open her own place. It would cost a lot of money to open a restaurant in Charlotte, she says. And so, the couple looked at opening a restaurant in a former car dealership on Faisons Main Street. They knew an upscale restaurant wouldnt thrive without selling alcohol.
But Faison was a dry town. So the women got the issue on Faisons ballot in November 2003. Voters would decide if restaurants could sell liquor by the drink. It passed, 84-63. McColman and Babcock opened Southern Exposure the next year.
Babcocks menu aims to please a wide audience with rib-eye steaks, pork chops and fresh fish making regular appearances. There are hints of the South from buttermilk fried chicken salad to New Orleans barbecue shrimp but also a grilled Reuben sandwich and shrimp linguine.
Beyond lunch and dinner service, the restaurant hosts garden clubs and class reunions. On Sundays after church, the locals come. No one sits still at the table; everyone is up, chatting with everyone else in the room.
Babcock says, This little restaurant is the civic center for Faison.