Some restaurants become synonymous with certain dishes: the shrimp and grits at Crook’s Corner, the chocolate chess pie at Angus Barn, the macaroni and cheese at Poole’s, the hot chocolate souffle at Fearrington House, the whole fried fish at Lantern.
Those are the dishes that regulars return for and new customers seek out – ones that can never be removed from the menu for fear of a diners’ revolt. Those signature dishes have stories all their own, sometimes tales about the recipe’s origin and popularity, other times about how the restaurants keep up with demand.
Consider The Angus Barn’s chocolate chess pie, which owner Van Eure said her mother co-opted from a church cookbook decades ago and was later tweaked by kitchen manager Betty Shugart. It’s not only sold in the Raleigh restaurant’s country store, but a third of the diners who order dessert choose that pie. On average, Eure said, the kitchen staff makes about 600 chocolate chess pies a week.
Still, that can’t beat Angus Barn’s pound cakes, which are given away to diners celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. The chefs bake 700 to 1,000 cakes a week, Eure said. People have been known to lie about their celebrations to take home a pound cake.
Few Triangle restaurants operate at the same volume as Angus Barn, but their signature dishes are still a production.
Raleigh’s Mecca Restaurant, a downtown institution, serves up to 300 orders of its fried chicken a week. Down the street at 18 Seaboard, customers devour about 85 orders of grilled meatloaf a week. (Chef/owner Jason Smith is proud that it costs the same as when he opened eight years ago: $8.) Durham’s Scratch bakery makes 1,020 to 1,200 of its beloved doughnut muffins each week. (Buttermilk beats out chocolate by a ratio of 2 to 1.) Nearby, at Saltbox Seafood Joint, owner Ricky Moore cooks up 6 gallons of grits on Saturdays for his crab and grits brunch special.
At Durham’s Six Plates Wine Bar, one dish was such a hit it forced owner Matthew Beason to tweak his restaurant’s concept. When he opened in 2007, the idea was to serve a rotating menu of six seasonal dishes, hence the restaurant’s name. Among the first six dishes were “lamby joes,” a take on sloppy joes made with ground lamb and chorizo sausage. A few weeks later, Beason said, “We tried to take them off. That failed.”
Now the lamby joes are among several menu holdovers, including arancini, sliders and truffle fries. Beason even added lamby joes to the menu at his second Durham restaurant, Mattie B’s Public House. Between the two restaurants, chef John Eisensmith cooks up about 75 pounds of ground lamb a week to satisfy customers’ lamby joe cravings.
For Arthur Gordon, one signature recipe lead to another. At the Irregardless Cafe in Raleigh, Gordon’s lemon tahini dressing is such a favorite that it’s sold by the bottle. The dressing also became the basis for another signature dish, Morgan Street Chicken, a take on schnitzel in which chicken breasts are marinated in the dressing, rolled in bread crumbs and cashews and then fried. Irregardless serves an estimated 5,000 Morgan Street Chickens a year.
In Chapel Hill, chef Bill Smith enjoys a legacy dish from the late chef Bill Neal: shrimp and grits. Neal took the humble fishermen’s breakfast of South Carolina’s Lowcountry and elevated it to dinner. The dish – and the restaurant – gained a national reputation in 1985 when the late Craig Claiborne shared the recipe in The New York Times. Even though Smith inherited the recipe, he never felt compelled to change the dish or take it off the menu.
“I’ve got more sense than that,” he said.
Besides, Smith put his own signature dish on the menu: Atlantic Beach pie, a creamy lemon pie with a crust made of crushed saltines. Smith made it for a gathering of Southern food enthusiasts, food writers and chefs three years ago. Since then, the pie has been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” as well as in such magazines as Our State, Local Palate and Southern Living. It’s so popular that the eatery had a line out the door after the first NPR broadcast.
Smith said the pie’s popularity goes down easier since it is not a big production to make: “If I’m going to have to make millions of it, I’m glad it’s easy.”
Owner Gene Hamer said three women came in for dinner recently: one got a salad and the other two each got a slice of Atlantic Beach pie.
The scenario is similar at Poole’s Diner in Raleigh where people come for the macaroni and cheese.
“We grate a lot of cheese, and we cook a lot of pasta each day,” said head sous chef Jason Tomaszewski. A typical night at Poole’s, Tomaszewski said, means at least one person at every table orders the macaroni and cheese.
“We have tables that come in and all they order is the mac and cheese,” he said. “They don’t order anything else.”
Then there’s what happens when a restaurant is forced to change its signature recipe, as chef Colin Bedford discovered at the Fearrington House in Pittsboro.
When Bedford signed on as executive chef in 2009, he said owner R.B. Fitch told him: “Congratulations, you got the job. The chocolate souffle will remain on the menu forever.” The recipe was inherited from the late Edna Lewis, a renowned chef and author who worked at Fearrington House in the early 1980s.
But about 18 months ago, Bedford learned that the German chocolate they used for years to make the souffles was being discontinued. His staff tried to replicate the dish with other chocolates, but results were inconsistent (a delicious problem since the staff got to eat the failures).
A lot was at stake. Chocolate souffles account for more than half the desserts served at Fearrington, roughly 150 every two weeks.
It took about a year, but Bedford finally developed a recipe that worked consistently – and diners took notice. Bedford saw an immediate uptick in diners selecting the restaurant’s tasting menu when souffle was added as a dessert choice. Plus, the revised recipe has a bonus: It is now made without flour.
Bedford said he learned his lesson: “I’m not going to stand in the way of ladies and chocolate souffle – so I made it gluten-free.”