Willard Page stepped out of the kitchen of a 115-year-old Victorian house near the once-humming railroad depot in this small Richmond County town and dabbed his grease-stained apron as the sweat pooled at his brow.
For a little more than three hours, the 80-year-old restaurateur had been standing over a hot deep fryer, cooking the crispy fried chicken that brings loyal crowds to the Seaboard Station Restaurant that he and his wife started 28 years ago.
Over and over, Page pulled the fresh chicken out of a bucket in the restaurant kitchen – each one filled with pieces from 10 whole fryers. The recipe is simple. It’s what his mom taught him. Salt. Pepper. Dredge the pieces in self-rising flour. Then each one gets 11 to 15 minutes in cottonseed oil sizzling at 375 to 380 degrees.
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On this late Sunday morning and early afternoon, Page fried 877 pieces of dark and white meat – the celebrated draw to a buffet table filled with Southern-style vegetables and other home-cooking.
“There’s probably people from all over the world who know about this chicken,” Joe Smith said after enjoying a Sunday dinner with his wife Sherri and mother-in-law Jo Taylor.
As Smith and his family lingered on the wide front porch after eating, other families waited there or in the front yard near the big magnolia for a seat inside.
Tony Martin, a chatty businessman from nearby Rockingham, about 100 miles southwest of Raleigh, says the chicken is seasoned just right, but that he and his family have made it a Sunday tradition mostly because of the fellowship.
“It’s a friendly place,” Martin said as he stretched out his hand to greet Antonio Blue, the mayor of neighboring Dobbins Heights, who was dressed in a suit and tie.
The air-conditioner on the side porch was humming overtime in the 90-degree heat, but no one in line for the next available table was sweating the wait. Some discussed Roger Federer’s victory at Wimbledon, while others called out “I love you” to family and friends coming and going.
After Blue was seated and finished one full plate, he returned to the buffet table, with his suit jacket off, his tie removed and shirt untucked to fill up a salad bowl with piping hot drumsticks just piled onto the serving tray.
“You’ve got to try some,” Blue said offering a taste of a cuisine with origins that go back much further than the Southern tables that made it famous.
No secret recipe
Amy Quick, a hostess and waitress who also has a gymnastics and dance studio in Hamlet, has worked at Seaboard Station Restaurant for 10 years, following in the footsteps of her mother, who also has worked in what is their home away from home.
“There’s no big secret recipe,” Quick said about the chicken, answering a common question. “I don’t know how they get it to taste like that, but it sure is good.”
Seaboard Station is only open for lunch on Sunday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Page, who also owns a shutter company, tends to the chicken on Sundays. During the week, Shelby Dawkins is at the fryer, using the same simple recipe that can be very difficult to duplicate at home and get the same crispy, brown skin.
At 80, Page has done many things in his life to make a living, including time in the Navy and playing lead guitar for several bands with a beach music flare.
“I’ve never had a job,” he says. “I’ve always had somewhere to go. If you enjoy what you do, it’s not a job.”
The story of how Page became a restaurateur is as steeped in Southern flavor as the food he serves.
Page became a restaurateur after a conversation over peach brandy on the front porch of the Victorian house on Charlotte Street. He was talking with some men who had been investors in an earlier restaurant that had occupied the house and learned that the woman who had started the restaurant had health issues, making it difficult to keep the business running.
Page went home with a proposition for his wife Judy. She was in a position to be able to retire from her job at the telephone company, so they decided together they would take over the restaurant. They have spent the past 27 years making it into a place where people come to eat and catch up on Richmond County news.
Longtime employee Shirley Yates, 75, tried to retire from the restaurant and lasted about three months before she returned, looking to be rehired.
“The boss lady, she’s a good woman,” Yates said, talking about how the owners and other employees were more like family than co-workers and bosses. “They’ll do anything in the world for you.”
Seaboard Station stands at the end of a largely residential street, just a block back from storefronts showing signs of loss after the closing of Rockingham Speedway, or “The Rock,” as the former NASCAR racetrack was called. Hamlet was in the news in the 1990s for the state’s worst industrial disaster – a fire at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant that left 25 dead and 55 people injured.
The residents now point to the Hamlet Depot and Museums, in the old Victorian Queen Anne train station, as an attraction for visitors to the area. The museums and Seaboard Station Restaurant are about 25 miles from U.S. 1, which goes by the golf courses in Pinehurst and Southern Pines.
In Rockingham, residents say, visitors who like outdoor activities might want to take an early morning paddle along the Hitchcock Creek Blue Trail, then head over for a lunch with the Pages and friends at the restaurant.
“It’s just good country food,” Sherri Smith said, giving a special mention of the chocolate pie.
Good Eatin’, the News & Observer’s weekly visit to local eateries in North Carolina, will continue through Labor Day. To see other installments, go to nando.com/goodeatin.
If you go
Seaboard Station Restaurant, 12 Charlotte St., Hamlet, N.C. 910-582-1017. Open Sunday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
From the menu:
Buffet includes famous fried chicken and other meats, home-style Southern vegetables, a salad bar and dessert table with pound cake and slices of pie. Weekday, $9.59; Sunday, $11.50.