In the spirit of Halloween ...
ELEGY WRITTEN IN A RESTAURANT GRAVEYARD
(With apologies to Thomas Gray)
Here lie the former restaurants,
Now nothing more than empty haunts:
Café, bistro, bar and grill
Whose doors are closed and ovens chill.
Steakhouse, buffet, diner, deli —
Never more to fill a belly.
Fancy French and barbecue joint —
Reluctant partners at the vanishing point.
Pizzeria ran out of dough,
Chinese palace’s fortune read “no.”
They fed us once, so let’s raise a toast
To all the gastronomic ghosts.
Two decades have passed since I last took a stroll through the local restaurant graveyard, and who could blame me? It’s a sad, scary place.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that in the intervening years, the pilot lights have been extinguished on quite a few commercial stoves. Looking across the rows of tombstones chiseled with the names of these restaurants, I find myself moved by some indefinable spirit to pay my respects once more to some of the more notable and interesting.
Join me – if you dare – as I make my rounds again, starting with the most recent of the dearly departed.
Landmark Raleigh restaurant and popular breakfast haunt dropped off the twig after nearly three-quarters of a century. Mourners find consolation in the owner’s announced plans to reincarnate Finch’s in Durham.
Tasca Brava, 2001-2017
Born in a Cary strip mall, died on Glenwood South. Brought authentic Spanish tapas to the area long before small plates became a thing.
Queen of Sheba, 2002-2017
Direct descendant of Blue Nile, the area’s first Ethiopian eatery, this deceptively modest Chapel Hill eatery boasted an ancient and noble pedigree.
An Asian Cuisine, 2006-2017
A dramatic contemporary decor, on-point service, and an inspired new take on Asian cuisine prepared by one of the area’s most gifted chefs (now working his culinary magic at the Umstead Hotel) made An a five-star gem in Cary.
Little Hen, 2011-2017
Flew the coop after bringing a refined take on farm-to-fork fare to Apex suburbia for a too-brief span.
Cafe de los Muertos, 2014-2017
The fate of this short-lived coffee shop was foretold in its name.
Shrimp Boats, 1970-2016
Insiders knew that the Southern fried chicken was as good as the shrimp at this Durham mainstay, which sailed off into the sunset a year ago. Saltbox Seafood’s Ricky Moore has plans to open a second location of his popular seafood spot here.
Campbell’s Diner, 1971-2016
For nearly half a century, you could find pickup trucks parked in front of this converted double-wide trailer in Fuquay-Varina, their owners hungry for grits and biscuits for breakfast or a homespun meat-and-three for lunch.
One of the area’s first Greek restaurants, this Spartacus never used a sword in battle. It did, however, slice off Olympian mountains of gyro in its heyday in Durham.
Rolled up the trawling nets for good after serving the area’s widest seafood selection – everything from fried flounder to steamed combo platter – on butcher paper-draped picnic tables in a rustic eatery across from Brightleaf Square. Acclaimed chef Matt Kelly will bring seafood to this spot soon with his new Saint James seafood restaurant.
518 West, 1996-2015
Spinoff of 411 West in Chapel Hill, this bold venture brought contemporary Italian fare to Glenwood South before Glenwood South was a thing.
Knghtdale Seafood & Barbecue, 1988-2014
Known for supplementing its namesake menu with wild game on Tuesday nights, it never felt the same after road widening forced it to abandon its original home in a quaint 1930s roadside building and move into a conventional retail cluster.
Fat Daddy’s, 1985-2014
After beating national chain Fuddrucker’s at its own game for years – and ignoring the cardiologist’s warning about cholesterol – this local build-your-own-burger joint finally flatlined.
Served its specialty honey-dipped fried chicken 24 hours a day for more than five decades before buzzing off to that great beehive in the sky.
Magnolia Grill, 1986-2012
Winner of two James Beard Awards, pioneer in the farm-to-fork movement, and mentor to many aspiring chefs who have since gone on to open their own restaurants – including their son Gabe Barker’s Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro – a culinary giant whose legacy lives on.
Dillard’s Bar-B-Que, 1953-2011
Cafeteria-style purveyor of Eastern N.C.-style pork barbecue (distinguished from the competition by a decidedly South Carolina-style mustard-based sauce), now just a smoky wisp of memory.
Joe’s Place, 1979-2009
Several restaurants have since occupied the 1920s building that Joe’s Place once called home, including the current Parkside, but the old neon RESTAURANT sign still hangs above the door as a testament to the diner that fed downtown Raleigh for three decades.
Ram’s Head Rathskeller, 1948-2007
Long after Tar Heel fans have forgotten about the last-second loss to Villanova in the 2016 NCAA men’s basketball championship game, they’ll be lamenting the more tragic loss of this Franklin Street institution.
One of the area’s first all-vegetarian restaurants, this quirky Chapel Hill spot eventually added fish and then meat to the menu before finally buying the farm.
Off to the side, you’ll see a small section of the cemetery reserved for restaurants whose locations are rumored to be haunted. How else could you explain the fact that the addresses of Bistro 64 (2006-2011 in Cary), Foster’s (1995-2011 in Cameron Village) and King and I (1998-2011 in Cary) remain vacant to this day? Come to think of it, all three closed the same year. Coincidence?
Moving on to the final resting places of restaurants that had their heyday before the turn of the century, we come across a few old graves whose dates and epitaphs have been partially worn away by time. But old-timers will surely smile at the memories of Canton Cafe, an-old school Chinese restaurant on Hillsborough Street; Somethyme (flourished in the mid-’70s in Durham), a vegetarian gathering place for latter-day hippies, and its offspring, Anotherthyme (1982-2009); Villa Capri (1958-1967 on Hillsborough Street, and then moved to Ridgewood Shopping Center until it closed in 1984), a family-run Italian restaurant whose owners went on to open the still-flourishing Casa Carbone; or Villa Teo, where the legendary Bill Neal worked before winning national acclaim at Crook’s Corner.
Rising again ...
As our bittersweet stroll comes to an end, it seems fitting to end on a happy note: Zombies!
Wait! Don’t run away! In the restaurant world, zombies are restaurants that have died and then come back to life. And they’re more common than you may think. Just in the past year, we’ve seen Standard Foods and Boylan Bridge Brewpub reopen in downtown Raleigh. The Irish pub Tir Na Nog has already risen once from the dead, and its owner is determined to revive it again. I wouldn’t bet against it.