Nobody can say exactly when the original Village Diner opened in Hillsborough, but the best guess is 1975. That’s according to Joel Bohlin, and he should know. He bought the restaurant last year, and he has become something of an expert on its history.
He can tell you, for instance, that The Village Diner is the oldest restaurant in Hillsborough. And that, in its heyday, it was a prime gathering place for the community, where mill workers and politicians commingled over fried chicken, meat loaf, collard greens and banana pudding.
Bohlin, a Hillsborough resident who has worked as general manager at Hillsborough BBQ Co., has seen local tastes evolve over the years. When he learned that The Village Diner was up for sale, Bohlin — a Culinary Institute of America grad whose resume includes an externship at the renowned Aquavit in New York — saw his chance to update the old local favorite in response to those changing tastes.
Bohlin hired Justin Cole, who grew up in Hillsborough (where he regularly ate with his grandmother at The Village Diner) and cut his culinary teeth as chef at Nana’s under renowned chef Scott Howell. He brought along David Petipas to man the grill and make desserts. He cooked for Fetch, the food truck that Bohlin owned before shutting it down to focus on the restaurant.
For all their culinary pedigree, Bohlin and his team agreed that the food should remain true to the diner spirit. Indeed, fresh takes on old Village Diner favorites account for much of the menu.
Grits, a staple on the former restaurant’s breakfast buffet, are transformed into fried stone-ground grit cakes on the new dinner menu. “Cakes” doesn’t do justice, though, to these delicately crisp, light-as-a-soufflé orbs served with pepper jelly and an inspired red-eye mayo.
The pepper jelly is homemade, as is pretty much everything here — including everything but the buttered rye toast (that’s from The Bread Shop in Pittsboro) on a shareable starter plate of pimento cheese, pickles (okra, cucumber and red onion) and salted pecans.
Even the humble diner classic tomato soup gets elevated here, transformed into a scratch-made brew rich with ripe tomato flavor, garnished with fried oyster crackers and a drizzle of garlic oil.
An emphasis on sourcing from local farms is reflected in the menu, and is especially notable in the seasonal vegetable plate. In early September, the harvest yielded a corn and black-eyed pea salad, candied yams topped with a salted pecan topping, and the best cornmeal-crusted fried okra I’ve had all year. A month later, the plate was loaded with a grilled cauliflower “steak,” scalloped potatoes, and a tangle of fried carrot and parsnip ribbons splashed with a vibrant caper dressing.
Still, you can generally count on a few staples among the entree offering. Country fried steak with mushroom gravy, snap beans and rosemary potatoes will satisfy your comfort food cravings. So will Hoof Beat Farms meatloaf with mashed potatoes, once you get past the unusual shape of the meatloaf — cylinders rather than the traditional slabs. The flavor is true to form, though, and it’s complemented by a rich roux gravy and a clever play on ketchup in the form of a tomato and onion jam.
Salmon patties (I’ve seen them called salmon cakes or salmon burgers outside the South) are a homespun classic rarely seen in a restaurant, even a Southern diner. Don’t tell my mom, but the salmon patties at The Village Diner are even better than hers.
Then there’s the fried chicken, sufficient reason in its own right to drive to Hillsborough — and then wait the 20 minutes or so it takes to make it because it’s fried to order. You get a leg and a thigh (plus a wing, though the menu doesn’t say so), exquisitely juicy beneath a crisp, peppery crust, served with a biscuit and collard greens topped with chow chow.
What about the chicken breast, you ask? That frequently gets smoked, and may turn up in a sandwich on the lunch menu, joining the likes of a grilled cheese sandwich, cheeseburger with seasoned home fries, and crisp fried oysters on a Bibb lettuce salad with a fennel and horseradish dressing. Fans of the Weeping Radish Butchery chili dog that was a star attraction of the Fetch food truck can score one on the lunch menu at The Village Diner.
The breakfast menu offers more opportunities to enjoy those excellent biscuits — smothered in sausage gravy, or as part of the Millworker’s Breakfast, along with eggs your way, bacon or sausage patties and grits. Or get a side of biscuits with your spinach and mushroom omelet, or — heck, who’s counting carbs? — buttermilk pancakes.
True to traditional diner spirit, the dessert offering usually includes one or two classic pies – sweet potato, chocolate chess, even vinegar pie. They’re all good bets, except for the occasionally too-sturdy crust. I call dibs on the scratch-made banana pudding.
The first time you go to The Village Diner, you may think your GPS is leading you astray. The restaurant is located in a modest low-slung brick building in a mostly residential area a mile from downtown Hillsborough. That’s the community it has served since — let’s say 1975. It’s a good bet that The Village Diner, Version 2.0 is going to have a much larger audience.
The Village Diner
600 W. King St, Hillsborough
Cuisine: Southern diner
Rating: 4 stars
Atmosphere: modest but cheery
Noise level: low
Service: welcoming, attentive and knowledgeable
Recommended: tomato soup, Bibb salad with fried oysters, fried grit cakes, vegetable plate, salmon patties, fried chicken, meatloaf, banana pudding
Open: Breakfast and lunch Wednesday-Sunday, dinner Wednesday-Saturday.
Reservations: not accepted
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.