Marshall Munns has been going to Finch’s Restaurant since the 1950s, when he used to get milkshakes with cheerleaders after his junior high school football games.
Gary Pezzullo discovered the Raleigh restaurant later, after he moved from Connecticut to North Carolina 23 years ago. Most Saturdays, he stops by for raspberry pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon.
Charlie Alvarez goes once a week, calling in his takeout order during his work break.
For the past seven decades, Finch’s has been feeding Raleigh’s politicians, Little League baseball teams, college students and families looking for a home-cooked meal.
But this fall, Finch’s will serve its last grits and scrambled eggs from its Peace Street location. The state Department of Transportation will rebuild the Capital Boulevard Bridge over Peace Street, and Finch’s as we know it will be no more.
It’s not the end, though. Peggy Jin, who has leased the restaurant space since 1991, hopes to reopen on Chapel Hill Road in Durham later this year.
But for loyal customers, downtown Raleigh without Finch’s is like eggs without grits, or tea without sugar.
“There’s really nowhere like this around here. It’s hard to find good cooking,” said Alvarez, 25. “You get southern comfort.”
Howard Finch opened the restaurant in the 1940s, when Raleigh had fewer than 50,000 residents – roughly one-ninth of its current population. It was once a drive-in, where customers pulled up in their cars and gave waitresses their orders. It was a cafeteria for a while, and it catered meals for the General Assembly.
The restaurant changed ownership several times, but Finch’s has always been the kind of place where customers become regulars and waitresses call you “hon.”
Jin, 51, has worked to keep that atmosphere in place. Born in Beijing, Jin moved to New York City in 1987 in search of opportunity. She came to North Carolina a few years later in search of “easier living.”
“I was determined, cooking this kind of food,” Jin said recently as she made sausage, hash browns and peppers on the griddle. “It’s easy, not that fancy.”
Back in time
Nothing about Finch’s is fancy, from the wood-paneled walls and worn carpet to the broken window blinds. It’s all part of the charm.
And it offers a glimpse back in time, when Raleigh was still a small town that was anything but fancy. Downtown now has plenty of shiny glass office towers, apartment buildings and award-winning restaurants.
Developers plan to build an $85 million to $100 million project on Peace Street, about a block away from Finch’s. It will include 400 apartments and ground-floor retail.
A new Capital Boulevard bridge, the reason Finch’s building will be demolished, will create new traffic patterns and prime the area for even more development.
Jin said she had hoped to open the restaurant in another downtown Raleigh location, but everything she found was too expensive.
“It is growing so fast,” she said of downtown, adding that Finch’s lunch crowd has dwindled over the years. “There are restaurants everywhere. (Customers) don’t have to drive out for lunch. They can walk.”
But business on weekends has tripled or even quadrupled, Jin said. As a Finch’s regular, I’d like to think that’s because people want a break from chain restaurants and crave food that tastes like their grandmas made it.
My favorite at Finch’s is the blueberry pancakes – perfectly fluffy and perfectly sweet. I suspect the Big Man’s Breakfast – eggs, bacon, hash browns and pancakes – has contributed to my expanding waistline. I wised up and started wearing stretchy pants for my Sunday visits to Finch’s.
The food is delightful in a greasy-spoon sort of way, but it’s the people – customers and employees – who have made Finch’s so special for three-quarters of a century.
Everybody at Finch’s has a story to tell. Munns, who used to enjoy milkshakes with cheerleaders, goes to the restaurant almost every day, meeting up with friends.
“We like to chew the fat,” he said. “Camaraderie – that’s what it’s all about.”
Dereck Whittenburg, a member of N.C. State’s 1983 national championship basketball team who is now an associate athletics director for the school, goes to Finch’s once a week or so. I’ve seen fans ask him for a photograph while he’s having breakfast.
Whittenburg said he doesn’t mind the interruption. And he’s never annoyed by fans who want to pose with him for a picture.
“That will never get on my nerves,” he laughed.
A love story
Here’s my favorite modern-day Finch’s story:
Billy Vercoe, 62, has been eating at Finch’s since he was a kid, when he and his family would stop by after baseball games at Devereaux Meadow across the street. In those early days, a toy box was set up in the restaurant for children to occupy themselves.
About five years ago, he started talking to Jin during his visits, and they hit it off. They’re engaged now.
These days, Jin handles the cooking while Vercoe mans the cash register.
“These walls got a lot of talking,” Vercoe said, looking over to the counter where thousands of people have placed their elbows while sipping coffee and downing cheeseburgers. “You can see where the surface has rubbed off over the years.”
As Finch’s approaches its final months in Raleigh, the walls have become works of art. Customers are signing their names, leaving their mark on a beloved institution.
Jin and Vercoe hope customers will follow them to Durham come September or October. I’ll be there, although I surely won’t make it every weekend. I’m going to miss those blueberry pancakes.
Pezzullo, who goes to Finch’s on Saturdays and sometimes during the week, has already calculated how long it will take him to drive from his Johnston County home to the new Durham spot: 50 minutes. For him, it’s worth the drive.
“I know the name of every waitress that works here on Saturday,” he said. “I know their story, they know my story.”
That’s what makes Finch’s great – the stories.