Crook’s Corner, the beloved Chapel Hill restaurant that elevated shrimp and grits from a humble fisherman’s breakfast to a signature of Southern cuisine, is changing hands and beginning another chapter in its storied 36-year history.
Owner Gene Hamer and executive chef Bill Smith, a leader in the Southern food renaissance, are handing over the restaurant to a small group that includes star mixologist Gary Crunkleton of The Crunkleton, who is opening a second location in Charlotte this winter, and former Crook’s general manager Shannon Healy, who now owns Alley Twenty Six in Durham.
Crunkleton and Hamer said the deal will be finalized this week.
Smith, 69, is revered for dishes from his Atlantic Beach Pie (or, as he jokingly calls it, “that stupid pie”) to his annual batches of honeysuckle sorbet. While he’ll stay on in a sort of “chef emeritus” role, he’s handing over the kitchen in January to chef Justin Burdett of Asheville, known for his work at Local Provisions and The Admiral.
Burdett arrived in August to begin learning the dishes, and Smith said they quickly became friends, discovering what Smith calls a mutual love “for PBR and punk rock and chicken livers.”
“It’s happy and sad – you know what I mean?” Hamer said about the deal. “The main part of this is, Crook’s will continue. Bill will be moving into an advisory and PR role.
“It’s a continuation. It builds on the past and continues into the future.”
This isn’t the first curve in the road for Crook’s, a restaurant with a story that’s almost as rich as “that stupid pie,” Smith’s lemon icebox pie with a saltine cracker crust that took the internet by storm a couple of years ago.
Crook’s started with the late Bill Neal, a food visionary who started La Residence, a restaurant in Chapel Hill often called “La Rez” by locals. Hamer was a bartender at La Rez as a student, while Neal was creating his twists on classic Southern cooking, including shrimp and grits.
Neal got the opportunity to leave and start a new restaurant in a small building at the end of West Franklin Street, where Chapel Hill gives way to Carrboro. The building was originally a fish and produce market owned by Rachel Crook. In 1951, Crook was murdered — it was never solved — and the building was inherited by her niece, Rachel McLain.
The little building changed hands and uses for years, becoming everything from a taxi stand to a bait and tackle shop. It was a barbecue restaurant when Neal and Hamer got the chance to lease it in 1982, right down to the pink pig on the roof.
Bill Smith, a line cook at La Rez, came with them. (Other chefs who went on to fame after working for Neal and Crook’s: Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill in Charleston and John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss.)
In 1985, Craig Claiborne of The New York Times came to Chapel Hill to review Crook’s. He was so impressed, he got Neal to cook for him in Neal’s small apartment kitchen. He wrote about the food so glowingly, more writers followed, including Phyllis Richman of The Washington Post.
“They were stampeding in the door,” Hamer remembers. “It put us on the map.”
Neal’s strong vision for elevating Southern home dishes to the level of cuisine had cemented the restaurant’s reputation in both Chapel Hill and the national food scene by the time he died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 41.
When Neal died, Hamer took over the restaurant and — eventually — convinced a reluctant Smith to take charge of the kitchen, continuing to make the dishes from Neal’s menu and eventually adding his own.
Smith has often downplayed his role: “I always said I don’t want to be in charge of anything, and look what it got me.”
What it got him, though, was national fame. Smith was nominated twice for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. He has written the cookbook, “Seasoned in the South,” with recipes from his own life as well as Neal’s dishes. He has been featured in numerous TV shows and magazines, including Kinston chef Vivian Howard’s PBS series, “A Chef’s Life.”
Outside the kitchen, Smith has been an outspoken leader on gay rights and immigration issues.
For several generations, parents with students at UNC have made a point to get dinner at Crook’s. And many former students always visit when they return.
“They come straight to us,” Smith says. “And they always want to tell me about it.”
In 2011, Crook’s was named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of America’s Classics, restaurants that hold a special place in their region.
The next chapter
So why the change? McLain, Rachel Crook’s niece, who still owned the building while Hamer owned the parking lot, died last year at 98, Hamer says. He and another tenant, in the building next door, started to hear about the possibility of the buildings being sold.
Fearing that the restaurant would be torn down and the land redeveloped, Hamer started looking for another arrangement. He eventually landed on Crunkleton and Healy, who found a financial partner and agreed to buy both buildings and the parking lot.
Crunkleton, who owns The Crunkleton bar a few blocks down on Franklin Street, said the restaurant is special to him. He and his wife, Megan, had their first date and their wedding brunch there. His 50th birthday was a surprise party at Crook’s.
“They could burn the food and we would still go,” he says. “It just feels like home.”
Crunkleton says they’ll make some cosmetic changes, enlarging the bar for dining and making the patio usable all year, and they may expand into the Passport Motors building next door. But they also want to retain the traditions, allowing Burdett, the restaurant’s third chef in its history, to keep the old dishes while adding new ones, just as Smith did for Neal.
Burdett comes with plenty of accolades of his own. National food publications like Food & Wine have named a chef on the rise, and Local Provisions was named one of Eater’s 21 best new restaurants in America in 2016.
“It’s an honor to come in and be the third chef,” Burdett said. “Everyone knows Crook’s Corner and Bill Smith and Bill Neal and the whole legacy. I jumped on it immediately; I would be a fool to pass it up.”
Smith, who is working on a new book, will represent the restaurant at food festivals and special dinners.
Hamer will officially retire. Smith will leave “when he wants to leave,” says Hamer. “He’ll stay on the payroll. The only person who will lose a job is me.” (He says part of the deal is that he will always get to eat there for free, which Crunkleton confirms.)
“The real effort is to continue what is here,” Smith says. “Maybe you have to be from here to understand the place it holds. There might be places in New Orleans that hold similar places in the public’s affection.”
Asked about the role that Crook’s has played in the national food scene, Hamer struggles to put it in perspective and finally settles on this:
“Bill Neal said he wanted to do for Southern food what Alice Waters and Chez Panisse did for California. He said Southern cuisine is just as important as any regional cuisine. That’s what Bill Neal did and what Bill Smith set out to do.
“Everybody’s got shrimp and grits now, but it started here.”