Not long ago, I got an e-mail from a reader musing about - well, I'll let her tell you: "I was at Sarah's Empanadas the other day, and realized they've been open almost 20 years! It might be interesting to see a column that covers the longest-operating local restaurants. I'm not sure how to find out who else has been around over, say, 15 years, but it probably isn't a long list."
Hmm, I thought, that is a pretty intriguing question. I started doing a little research, and it didn't take me long to realize that far more restaurants have achieved the 15-year milestone than I had thought. To tame the information overload, I decided to set the bar a little higher - at 21 years, to be precise.
Why such an odd number? As it happens, I moved to the Triangle 21 years ago, in the fall of 1986. From my perspective, any restaurant that was already up and running when I got here qualifies as an old-timer. More important, two landmark events in local culinary history took place in 1986. In November of that year, Ben and Karen Barker opened Magnolia Grill, a restaurant that has served as a training ground for a generation of Triangle chefs and more than any other is responsible for putting the Triangle on the national culinary map. That same year, Yamazushi -- the area's oldest sushi bar -- opened, effectively becoming the leading edge of a trend that, two decades later, has been assimilated into our cultural mainstream.
My, how things have changed. Among the 10 longest-running restaurants I've been able to turn up in the Triangle, the closest to an ethnic restaurant is Mecca, which opened in 1930 in downtown Raleigh and has been known to sneak in an occasional Greek salad among its traditional dinner offerings. Or maybe Ram's Head Rathskeller in Chapel Hill, which began building its reputation for cheap steaks and lasagna in 1946.
Otherwise, the old-timer top 10 list is a pretty all-American affair, starting with Carolina Coffee Shop in Chapel Hill, whose 1922 opening makes it the granddaddy of them all. Finch's, on Peace Street in Raleigh, began dishing up eggs over easy and country style steak to local politicos in 1945. At the opposite end of the price spectrum, those same bigwigs have been sitting down to bluepoints on the half shell at 42nd Street Oyster Bar on Jones Street since 1931 (except for a brief closing in the mid-'80s). And folks have been celebrating promotions and anniversaries at Angus Barn since 1960.
The term "joint," which once commonly referred to a wide range of paper-plate-casual eateries but is seldom seen these days, is preserved by four of our oldest establishments. There's a barbecue joint (Clyde Cooper's, 1938), a hot dog joint (The Roast Grill, 1940), a fried chicken joint (Chicken Hut, which opened as Chicken Box in 1957 and changed its name in 1966), and a burger joint (Players' Retreat, 1951).
But no empanada joint. Sarah's Empanadas didn't come along until 1988. By that time, Mama Dip's had been serving fried chicken livers in Chapel Hill for 12 years, and Irregardless had been catering to Raleigh's vegetarian crowd for 13. As for the other restaurants I've turned up in my culinary archaeological digs, check my blog: http://blogs.newsobserver.com/epicurean/ You may find a couple of surprises. And if I've overlooked any restaurants, please feel free to add them.