By the time D. G. Martin gets his plate of food, he knows the age of his waitress, the tiny town she’s from and her daddy’s profession.
“Has he been a preacher always?” he asks the 21-year-old Ashley Earp, a college student from Meadows and server at Holt Lake Bar-B-Que and Seafood in Smithfield.
Martin, an affable man who always seems to have a gentle smile on his face, is really interested in getting to know the people who serve him tall glasses of sweet tea and steaming plates of barbecue.
He’s been eating at locally-owned restaurants like this one, right off the interstate for more than 50 years now. The retired lawyer, politician, college administrator, newspaper columnist and UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch host has always appreciated a little country cooking and lots of Southern hospitality.
Martin, 76, shares some of his favorite spots in his new book, “North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners, and Barbecue Joints.” (UNC Press, 192 pages.)
The book is organized by interstates and features more than 100 notable local roadway haunts that serve not only as eateries but also as fixtures of their communities.
“These are the places where politicians eat and make announcements,” says Martin as he scans the Holt Lake restaurant filled with blue-collar workers, seniors and business folks. He recommends we order seafood family style. Our server suggests we move to the larger table because of all the food coming. Minutes later, she brings out plates filled with boiled potatoes, fried shrimp, fish and chicken and a bowl of coleslaw and another one of Brunswick stew. Each table already has a pitcher of water, sweet tea, a bottle of hot sauce and salt and pepper shakers. In a sweet voice, she asks, “Do you have everything you need?”
Martin, who grew up in Davidson, about 160 miles southwest of Raleigh, developed a kinship for these types of places as a high school football player. It started at the annual Mallard Creek Church barbecue. He noticed that “friendly people make a meal into something memorable.”
He recalls as a basketball player at Davidson College for legendary Coach Lefty Driesell, the team often celebrated with steak dinners at fancy restaurants but found refuge and fellowship at the Open Kitchen, a family-owned restaurant in Charlotte. A robust red sauce with pasta and slices of pizza made them feel better after a loss on the field.
When Martin served in the United States Army stationed at Fort Bragg, the Haymont Grill & Steak House in Fayetteville became his second home. The neighborhood restaurant became a favorite place for Martin and his fellow lieutenants to stuff themselves on juicy fried chicken, flavorful meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
“Pete Skenteris, the longtime owner, took care of us,” he says. He helped Martin fit in with the locals. Martin is still upset the Haymont was destroyed by fire earlier this year. “A little bit of me got destroyed, too.”
For Martin, the community gathering spots provide a meal and dining room friendships, small niceties and exchanges between regulars and newcomers.
His culinary friendships continued when Martin returned to North Carolina after graduating from Yale Law School. He joined a Charlotte law firm, where he traveled throughout the state on business, making more friends at local diners, roadside eateries and renewing those he started years earlier.
Places like Lexington Barbecue, where the owner recognizes Martin as soon as he walks in. “Even when I first started eating there and nobody knew me, they still treated me like family,” he says of the restaurant recognized as one of the best Southern barbecue spots.
But Martin also makes an effort to get to know the people who own and work in the restaurants, too: “You have to reach out too. Let them know you are interested in their history.”
Sometimes, the owners are reluctant to talk about themselves. But Martin often finds out their stories through the waitstaff. That’s how he learned the owner of the Whistle Stop Café in Norlina is shy. “She has the friendliest crew,” he says but she prefers to stay in the kitchen, cooking country fried steak and chicken livers.
But Martin wants the rest us to take his guide and have our own adventures. “Go there and have your own experience,” he says. He encourages readers to go a little out of their way to be greeted like an old friend at one of these places even if it’s your first visit.
Meet the Author
Here are D.G. Martin’s upcoming book events:
▪ 2 p.m. Oct. 1, McIntyre’s Books, 220 Market St., Fearrington Village, Pittsboro, 919-542-3030
▪ 7 p.m. Oct. 4, Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh, 919-828-1588
▪ 7 p.m. Oct. 5, Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd., Chapel Hill, 919-942-7373
▪ 7 p.m. Oct. 10, Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham, 919-286-2700
▪ 7 p.m. Oct. 12, Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, Charlotte, 704-525-9239
▪ 6 p.m. Oct. 13, Main Street Books, 126 S. Main St., Davidson, 704-892-6841
▪ 4 p.m. Oct. 15, Country Bookshop, 140 NW Broad St., Southern Pines, 910-692-2037
A Few Restaurants Worth The Trip
Here are a few of D.G. Martin’s favorite places:
▪ Toot-n-Tell Family Restaurant, 903 W. Garner Road, Garner, 919-772-2616
Each weekday, this Garner institution offers a blue plate special with a meat and two vegetables. Or enjoy the buffet featuring country cooking fare including fried chicken, chitterlings and collards.
▪ Saltbox Seafood Joint, 608 N. Mangum St., Durham, 919-908-8970, saltboxseafoodjoint.com
This joint serves tasty, seasonal sustainable seafood from the Carolina coast. This small establishment only has outdoor seating.
▪ Margaret’s Cantina, 1129 Weaver Dairy Road, Chapel Hill, 919-942-4745, margaretscantina.com
This cozy restaurant and community gathering spot serves Mexican and Southwestern cuisine using local, seasonal produce and meats.
▪ Troutman’s Bar-B-Q, 362 N. Church St.,Concord, 704-786-5213, troutmansbarbecue.letseat.at/
For decades, this Concord establishment has been feeding families its hickory wood, smoked barbecue pork, red slaw and hot sauce.
▪ The Soda Shop, 104 S. Main St., Davidson, 704- 896-7743, davidsonsodashop.com
This old-fashioned soda shop in downtown Davidson specializes in comfort food including chicken salad sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs and fresh-squeezed orangeade and lemonade.
▪ The Open Kitchen, 1318 W. Morehead St., Charlotte, 704-375-7449, worldfamousopenkitchen.com/
Home to the area’s first pizza pie, the Open Kitchen serves Italian and Greek cuisine including veal parmigiana, Greek salads, cannoli and tiramisu.