Inside, Finch’s is known for its beige lunch counter, which stretches across a good length of the main dining room (there are three). Its worn formica top was one of the first things Peggy Jin wanted to change when she bought the restaurant in 1991. But regular customers were enraged. “Those are my arm spots,” they told her, referring to whitened areas on the countertop that flank each seat, where generations of diners have rested their arms and rubbed away the coloring.
Jin decided to leave the counter alone, busy with the repercussions of other changes she’d introduced. For one, she upped the price of the daily lunch special—a meat and two sides—from $3.75 to a whopping $4.25 (it’s now $6.75). “People complained,” she says of the small increase. But the biggest shift that puzzled many customers was Jin herself: a young Chinese-American behind the stove at a southern meat-and-three that served stewed vegetables, meatloaf and barbecue. “A lot of people didn’t accept me in the beginning,” she recalls.
After Jin took over Finch’s, a billboard was erected on Peace Street for a nearby McDonald’s. Emblazoned with the slogan, “Locally Owned,” the sign stood as a reminder of the narrow-minded attitudes Jin sometimes faced early on at her business. But she hung in there, thinking to herself, “I am local.”
Jin never intended to operate a restaurant. Her first kitchen stint was out of necessity, at a Wendy’s in 1987. She had recently relocated to Manhattan from Beijing, and since she couldn't speak any English, the fast food restaurant was the only place that would hire her. There, she acquired basic kitchen skills, cooking hamburgers and baked potatoes. “I learned American eating habits,” she says. “I learned how to flavor their food.” She also picked up some English, though not enough to pass the manager’s exam, which she was encouraged to take.
Jin moved to North Carolina in 1991. Pregnant with her daughter, she thought the state would provide a larger, more affordable space compared to what was available in New York.
She purchased Finch’s not long after her move, retaining the staff in order to provide a familiar face to customers. In 1999, Jin helped celebrate waitress Mildred Hall’s 35th year of service at the restaurant (a framed plaque honoring Hall rests on a wooden shelf near a corner booth). The veteran staff also helped Jin understand the recipes she inherited with Finch’s. Upon an initial look, Jin recalls thinking that the restaurant’s barbecue chicken looked good. But the barbecue pork: “I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ I’d never seen that in New York City.”
Today, she’s comfortable with all of the cooking. “I know how to do everything—from biscuits to whatever,” she says. Compared to Chinese food, which requires a lot of preparation and diced vegetables, Jin kids that “American food is easy. It’s a big piece of meat.”
Occasionally, Jin prepares fried rice for guests, but her specialty is hamburgers. “She makes the best burgers,” a customer yells across the dining room when he sees me talking to Jin. She claims that Finch’s also has great chicken salad, beef vegetable soup and spaghetti. Jin used to offer the latter once a week, but due to high demand, it’s on the menu every day.
The most popular meal, however, is breakfast, particularly on Sundays. Jin tried to start that service when she bought the restaurant, but couldn’t draw a crowd. It took a hurricane to get folks through the door. The Sunday after Fran (or Floyd? Jin questions), she stopped by to check on the restaurant. “People flooded in,” she says. “Are you cooking?”
Jin called her waitresses and worked the line. “Sunday is the best day since then,” she says.
Change can be a good thing.
Finch’s Family Restaurant (401 W. Peace St., Raleigh) is open 6 a.m.—3 p.m., Monday through Friday, 6 a.m.—1 p.m. Saturday, and 7 a.m.—2 p.m. Sunday.
Never say never. Campbell ended up in the restaurant business. Earlier this week, she celebrated 40 years of running her own Fuquay establishment, Campbell’s Diner. “If you ever start [a restaurant], it’s hard to quit,” she says of her tenure.
It’s the last man standing on a developed part of Main Street that packs nearly 40 restaurants—mostly brick, and mostly chain eateries—into a three-mile stretch. With rusty-brown lettering that spells the restaurant’s name across its beige wood siding, Campbell’s is a trailer. From the road, tiny windows draped with scalloped white curtains obscure the dining room, which feels as homey as the building itself. Stationed behind a long lunch counter, a small white refrigerator displays family mementos: baby pictures, sports portraits and a newspaper clipping with Campbell, her husband, Junius, and the headline, “Campbells celebrate 65th anniversary.”
A dry-erase board pinned to the wall lists featured vegetables and meats (hamburger steak, an obvious favorite, is served on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Most of the recipes for such dishes were perfected in or inspired by relatives’ kitchens—many of which were professional. Campbell says her menu is similar to what her father served at Fuquay Restaurant, and what her brother, Billy Powell, offered at his post, Powell’s Café, which was located just outside of town. The dressing for the meatloaf at Campbell’s is a take on the barbecue sauce that Junius Campbell, 89, used to serve at Mike’s Barbecue, a wholesale and retail business that he ran on the outskirts of town.
Campbell began her own stint in the food industry when Floyd Baker, the man who took over her father’s place upon his retirement, decided to give it up. Campbell didn’t want to see the place close, so she left her job in electronics to oversee the business for five years. After that amount of time, she decided she was done with the hard work that a restaurant demands and closed it. “That lasted about nine months,” Campbell says. She missed the daily contact with customers and employees, so she bought a trailer near her husband’s business and opened Campbell’s. It was the day after Labor Day in 1971.
“Everyone came out to eat,” Campbell says. But everyone also asked that she move uptown. The trailer made relocating possible. So in 1974, Campbell hauled the building to its current spot on Main Street, which she rented for $45 a month. “Two days later, we were open again,” she says. Workers poured in from the nearby nuclear plant as early as 4:30 a.m. in search of a hot meal.
The restaurant has a regular base of customers including a group called ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out), which meets for breakfast once a month. Campbell, like her customers, hopes that anyone who buys the property will allow the restaurant to stay. “I can’t move the diner,” she says. “Trailers deteriorate.”
Campbell and Junius, who eventually closed his barbecue business in order to help with the in-town restaurant, no longer work a regular shift at Campbell’s Diner. They turned over the day-day-day business to two longtime employees last January. “It was time for us to slow up,” she says. Still, Campbell continues to make weekly runs to the State Farmers’ Market in Raleigh, where she’s bought fresh vegetables from wholesaler Dennis Ennis and his family for 45 years. She also regularly visits Campbell’s.
Junius dines at the restaurant almost every day at 11 a.m. “I tell him to go eat a big lunch and then if I don’t cook dinner that’s OK,” Campbell says.
With her new time off, Campbell enjoys dining out, too. She regularly joins a group of six to ten women—many of whom are from her church—for daily lunches. “There are 75 restaurants in town today,” she says. But to her, Campbell’s isn’t one of them. It’s home.
Campbell's Diner (530 N. Main St., Fuquay-Varina, 552-6921) is open 6 a.m.—2 p.m., Monday through Friday and 6 a.m.—11 a.m. Saturday.
Inside the dark, narrow restaurant, a long counter with red vinyl stools recalls Mecca’s start as a lunch counter that served Raleigh’s downtown workers. At the time it was located on Fayetteville and Hargett streets. Five years later, the entire restaurant and its furniture—dark wooden booths and a mirrored-backed drink counter—moved to the current spot on Martin Street. Back then, Mecca was one of the first, if not the only, restaurants in the area. “If you worked downtown, you probably had to eat here,” says Floye Dombalis, whose father-in-law, Nick Dombalis, started the business.
From the beginning, Mecca served a hot meal, three meals a day—a style of cooking that harkened back to the traditional family farm dinner. There was no need for advertising. Customers filed into the restaurant out of necessity, sticking around out of loyalty or habit once the competition moved in with other offers.
Today, some 80 years later, things are about the same. Businessmen and women pack the restaurant’s booths on their lunch breaks and before and after work, and they order from a menu that is practically unchanged. A tribute to Nick Dombalis’ Greek heritage, the restaurant has long featured Zorba’s marinated beef tips on rice with garlic bread and a salad ($9.35, plus an additional 75 cents for a Greek salad). There’s also the Gary Dorn Burger, veal cutlet topped with lettuce, tomato and onion.
“Who’s Gary Dorn?” two customers asked a server on Monday night. She shook her head and looked at another employee, who shrugged. “We should brush up on our history to work here.”
To do so would require a lengthy course. The restaurant is a hodgepodge of memorabilia. Displayed high above the counter are cartoonish figurines, each about 1 foot tall, of Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, Elvis Presley, Ronald Reagan and The Three Stooges. Floye Dombalis says her husband, John Dombalis, ordered them from Saks Fifth Avenue in collaboration with a regular customer who was also the voice of the Wolfpack, Gary Dornburg.
Other restaurant relics include faded framed pictures of folks like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and baseball giant Carl Yastrzemski (the latter photo is signed). “That picture has caused more comment among men and women than anything else,” Floye Dombalis says. (It got a shout-out in The Boston Herald in 2009.)
But most of the talk about Mecca has to do with a ham. “The old ham is so ugly you can taste it,” read a headline from 2007 in the Chicago Tribune.
The story goes that in 1937, Nick Dombalis bought a 44-pound country ham from a man who was passing through town. He placed it in Mecca’s window, where it sat and rotted for 33 years and became a local celebrity. Now preserved in a freezer in the restaurant’s basement, the black ham is carted out for special events, including Mecca’s 80th anniversary last year. Aside from the deteriorating ham, however, most of Mecca’s food is fresh. “Locally grown sides,” a display board advertises from the restaurant’s front sidewalk.
Ideas are fresh, too. After 81 years, they have to be to keep Mecca relevant and running. In January, the restaurant extended its hours to midnight during the week, and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. In its early days, Mecca was open from 6—12:30 a.m. with the slogan, “It is the Mecca’s purpose to please you at all times.”
It is, however, the first time the restaurant has doubled as a bar. Cocktails, bottled beers and wine are stocked as a means to “bring in more revenue,” says Floye Dombalis. Her son, current owner Paul Dombalis, came up with the bar concept.
His son, fourth-generation Mecca employee John Dombalis, who spends most days as a banker, oversees the turnout on Saturday nights. Manager Alec Barrows oversees the turnout on evenings and weekends. “I’m the old school,” says Floye Dombalis. “I was not in favor it.” But with the success of the new venture, she sees the point. Mecca is old fashioned with a twist. And these days, you can order that sentiment as an actual drink, complete with a side of greens.
Mecca (13 E. Martin St., Raleigh) is open 7:30a.m. - 12 a.m., Monday through Thursday, and 7:30 a.m. - 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday.
Correction (Sept. 1, 2011): See comments below.
“It’s a form of witnessing to say they stand for Jesus Christ,” Terry says of the restaurant’s initials. The definition, if not explicitly explained, can be inferred from the interior of the building, where Scripture and inspirational plaques adorn the walls, gospel music pipes from a CD player, a Bible rests open by the cash register, and Terry, a petite woman with wide eyes and an inviting grin, moves about as a model of warmth and hospitality.
“We serve real food for the soul,” Terry says of J.C.’s. Or as crisp hand-painted lettering on the side of the building puts it: “Where the food is anointed and you won’t be disappointed.”
Earlier in the week, I felt that only part of the motto might be true. I had no doubt of the anointing. As Terry told me and I experienced, the restaurant is a spiritual place. But the food gave me pause when Terry confessed that most of the vegetables are cooked with turkey in place of a more traditional slab of pork.
My hesitance was unnecessary. The greens—a mix of chopped collards and cabbage—were an excellent blend of bitter, sweet and smoky flavors. And the fried okra was just as it should be: slightly crisp (not soggy from a deep-fryer) and lightly breaded. I also had one of the day’s specials, a heaping portion of fried chicken drenched in a sweet batch of barbecue sauce. But the coveted food is oxtails, available on Fridays. “People call in on Monday and Tuesday to order those,” says Terry, noting that they always sell out before the dish is even prepped at the end of each week.
But Terry never intended to make food professionally or own a restaurant. Instead, she spent nearly 20 years with her husband as a missionary, living and working in Africa, India and most recently, Japan. It was two of Terry’s siblings, Charles and Sheilah Lee, who set out for a career in cooking.
Around 1997, Charles turned what used to be Parker’s restaurant into his own place called Lee’s. A year later, he gave it over to Sheilah, who refashioned the place as J.C.’s and came up with the restaurant’s slogan.
Under Sheilah’s watch, the place became much more than a restaurant. “It was an outreach center to help the destitute and down and out,” says Terry. “It was her passion. She clothed people and fed them.”
But in 2008, Lee became ill with cancer. Upon her death that year, the Herald-Sun wrote, “If you were down on your luck, you didn't so much need to have a grip on your bootstraps if the late Sheilah Lee had any say in the matter—she was the type who'd pull you up herself.”
Terry didn’t want her sister’s mission to fade, so she left Japan in order to take over the restaurant. “We’re living out of seeds she planted in the community,” she says of the current business. And Terry’s ministry hasn’t ended. “It’s still our form of witnessing. There are all walks of life coming through here,” she says.
Terry recently saw through one of her sister’s dreams in hopes to make the restaurant more inviting. She remodeled the interior of the building, removing a long lunch counter to make room for new booths and tables. The flooring was redone and the walls were painted bright brick orange, teal and yellow. Terry hopes the updates will draw more people to the spot, because as she sees it, “That’s what J.C.’s is about. It’s about people.”
J.C.'s Kitchen (706 E. Main St., Durham, 680-6227) is open 6 a.m.—8 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
That wasn’t always the case. When the Riverside opened in the 1940s, Exchange Park Lane was one of the major thoroughfares to Hillsborough. The Riverside helped make motorized travel possible. Initially, it operated as a service station called Windy Bill’s, and later expanded with a drive-up window that sold food—of which there was no shortage in Hillsborough.
Leon Lea, one of Riverside’s current owners, writes about Hillsborough in a short history of the restaurant: “It was being criticized in those days saying it had 14 places to eat and nowhere to buy a funeral suit. You had to go to Durham.”
Leon believes that that’s probably still true, saying, “There are always plenty of places to eat.” But the Riverside offers a menu of fresh, slow-cooked vegetables much different than other restaurants in nearby downtown Hillsborough.
Inside Riverside’s small dining area, color printouts pinned near the cash register display an array of sandwiches and a fish plate that is sometimes available. But the focus of the restaurant and its offerings is a short buffet in the back, which offers one meat and two vegetable sides for $5.99. Also front and center is a large painted portrait of a wide-grinned Princess Diana, created for the Riverside by one of its regular customers.
Yesterday at lunch, Dorothy Lea, the restaurant’s co-owner, caught me staring at the sign by the cash register, trying to decide between turnip greens or baked yams. “Oh, that’s not right,” she said, putting down a stack of dishes to erase the board. “Look over here.”
Leon and Dorothy are the sole employees at the Riverside. Six days a week (the restaurant is closed on Sundays) they arrive around 4:45 a.m. to prepare breakfast, which starts at 6:30 a.m. The couple stays until at least 6:30 p.m., and sometimes later, for dinner.
When the Leas took over the Riverside eight years ago and became the restaurant’s seventh owners, they employed other staff. But due to the recent recession, explains Leon, the restaurant has seen a 35 percent dip in business, leaving all the tasks to them.
Dorothy, who grew up in Hillsborough, remembers eating at the Riverside since she was 6 years old. She does all of the cooking from recipes she inherited from her grandmother, whom she cooked alongside for about 24 younger grandchildren. Before opening Riverside, Dorothy ran a catering company out of her home. “We had business, so we decided to open the restaurant,” she says.
Leon, who previously worked for the Pentagon and a fiber optics business in Research Triangle Park, holds a degree in business administration from UNC-Chapel Hill and oversees the books, cash register and the buffet (though Dorothy shares the latter two responsibilities). “Everybody does everything,” Leon says.
Yesterday, in the middle of lunch, Leon came into the restaurant carrying multiple bags of groceries. But most of the vegetables are bought fresh at local markets, says Dorothy. It shows: The yellow squash I ordered retained its sunny summer skin. And on top of the buffet, a basket of plump red tomatoes sat not far above a sweet, baked dish of the same.
While I finished lunch, Dorothy rang up the bill for two of the three other customers in the restaurant, who introduced themselves to her before leaving, offering praises for the pie they’d just polished off.
“Are a lot of your customers regulars?” I asked Dorothy.
“Some,” she told me earlier. “I just wish I could get more people.”
I was sold after the tomato bake and fried cornbread. She definitely got me.
Defined as a place with a plate lunch or dinner that offers a choice of one meat entrée and three vegetable sides, meat-and-threes first began to proliferate in the South during the early 20th century. The restaurant was a result of changing needs of many of the region’s workers. As Dr. Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, explains, “Meat-and-three restaurants and cafes of the 1920s to the 1950s reflect the significant labor changes of the New South as the region transitioned from agriculture to industry and southern cities like Durham and Charlotte became working downtowns filled with a mix of mercantile, government offices, and professional buildings.”
New cafes created a place where office workers could buy cheap, fast and filling meals. (This was not necessarily the case for factory and millworkers, who were forced to eat on the job as they found time.) But while the table around which many gathered to eat lunch changed from a home setting, the menu did not—at least not overnight. “A plate lunch of one meat and three vegetable or starch sides, served with a buttered yeast roll, harkened back to the traditional mid-day dinner of rural Southerners, but was served uptown," Ferris said.
After World War II, restaurants increasingly popped up outside of town centers with the rise of the highway system and a car culture financed in part by money that veterans received from the GI Bill. With this came an onslaught of barbecue stands and drive-up cafes like the Toot-N-Tell restaurant near Highway 70 in Garner.
Opened by Brookie Pool in 1946, the drive-in sold hot dogs (six for $1), hamburgers and milkshakes to customers who tooted their horn and told their order to a carhop. The restaurant's popularity took off by word of mouth. “Who can forget the stupid name?” says Donna Sparkman, Pool’s granddaughter, who co-owns of the family business.
Sparkman’s parents, Maryann and Bill Sparkman, bought the restaurant from Pool’s estate in 1968. At first they held on to their day jobs: Maryann was a secretary at Corning Glass and Bill was a Garner police officer. But by 1976, they took on the Toot-N-Tell as full-time work, expanding the building seven times to add seating. Today, the Toot-N-Tell winds back through three large dining rooms. The second eating area houses a salad bar, and the third, a long buffet of meats, vegetables and desserts.
For years, the Toot-N-Tell was one of the few restaurants in town. “When CP&L’s [Carolina Power & Light] lights went out, we were the first to get turned back on because we were the only restaurant,” explains Sparkman. The extra space was necessary to accommodate crowds. And the buffet, she says, was created in order to serve people as fast as possible.
Yesterday evening, I visited the restaurant for dinner and ordered the Toot-N-Tell Tuesday Special: baked chicken with rice or spaghetti, two sides and a dessert ($5.50). I went with rice, incredibly fresh field peas, creamy macaroni and cheese and a humble scoop of banana pudding. Basically, in the stress of choosing from 17 vegetables, I ordered mostly starch. I don’t regret it.
Alongside the majority of the evening’s customers—a mix of old and young, black and white—I sat in a well-worn booth in the first dining room. There, framed photographs hung around the perimeter depicting sports teams, soldiers, brides and grooms, and the Toot-N-Tell’s many expansions. It was reminiscent of a family’s hallway, where various pictures and awards often hang on display. For Donna Sparkman, who has worked beside her mother at the restaurant for nearly 40 years, it is something of a home.
“This is my whole entire life,” she said, surveying the dining room and her customers. “I really feel like this is my house and I just go home to sleep.”
Sparkman was sitting with me at my booth in order to tell me about the restaurant’s history. My dinner arrived and sat on the table while we continued to talk. She eyed it nervously while I took notes. “Let me warm that up for you,” she eventually offered, the perfect host. I might as well have been at Sparkman’s own kitchen table. Along with a dozen other diners in the restaurant, I was.
The Toot-N-Tell (903 W. Garner Road, Garner, 772-2616) is open 5:30 a.m.—8:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday and 7 a.m.—3 p.m. Sunday.
Jan Halle, who helped co-open Johnny’s in Carrboro over four and a half years ago, reveled in her horoscope printed in the Independent earlier this week. “It said, ‘You’re going to jump out of a plane. You’re going to start a new life.’ It was fantastic.”
When I spoke with Halle earlier today, her new life was well under way. She was drinking iced coffee in an unusually empty and quiet Johnny’s, and answering the door for neighbors and customers who came knocking to find out more about the business’ close earlier this week.
According to Halle, the business had become too much for co-owner Brian Plaster, who has been busy with Frosty Trading Post, a similar venture in Pittsboro. Plaster will continue to oversee that operation, and Halle will put her energy into reopening Johnny’s. “It’s sad that it closed but it will rise again. I’m dedicated and determined that it will,” she says.
Halle, a doctor at UNC for 37 years, has had several inquiries about the store and hopes to find the right person to help carry it forward. “I’m a physician, so what do I know about business?” she asks with a laugh. “I have to figure out my role.”
Halle can’t confirm an exact date for the reopening, but promises a place with the “same flavor” that Plaster created. “I love this place and I love what he’s done with this place,” she says.
In the meantime, some aspects of Johnny’s will carry on as usual. On Saturday, Jody Argote of Parlez-Vous Crepes will be with her truck in its normal spot at the side of Johnny’s lot. “We’ll be there with our regular menu at the regular time and we’ll be selling cold beverages. The only thing missing will be going inside,” Argote says.
Or as Halle puts it, "It's like someone's gone fishing for a week or two."
Halle co-owned the former Johnny's building, but not the business. Thus, when Halle reopens the 901 W. Main Street space in Carrboro, it will operate under a different name.
Johnny's will continue at Plaster's newest venture, Frosty's Trading Post in Pittsboro (2143 Jones Ferry Rd., Pittsboro). Plaster's fiance, Courtney Buley, says that Plaster has not finalized a name for the business, but she anticipates something like Johnny's at Frosty's.
Spotting local food just got a lot easier. Earlier this week, Piedmont Grown launched a label that identifies farm fresh foods and artisan products that have been grown and produced within the 37 counties that constitute the North Carolina Piedmont.
Noah Ranells, a project manager for Piedmont Grown, as well as a farmer and the Ag Economic Development Coordinator for Orange County, says the new brown and green label can appear “anywhere where food is sold.” Artisan producers who have been certified by the non-profit can place the local logo on their foods, for instance, and complying farms can display the labels with their products.
So far, Ranells says over 100 restaurants, farms, and producers have been certified. It’s a number he hopes will continue to grow in an effort to connect consumers to a local food system.
For information about the certification process, interested farms and producers should visit Piedmont Grown's website. There, consumers can also access a directory and map of participants.
Jim Anile, chef and owner of Durham's Revolution, has a new venture planned for the former space of Cafe Zen (410 Blackwell St., Durham) at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. L'Uva, an Italian restaurant and wine bar, is set to open in July, after Independence Day. "I don't want to be there before July 4," he explains, alluding to American Tobacco's holiday baseball crowds. "I don't want to get off on those sort of feet."
Anile says the restaurant will feature "simple, straightforward Italian food, all handmade." Weekly menu changes that incorporate fresh, local options will be announced regularly on L'Uva's website.
The restaurant will feature outdoor seating. Inside, expect an environment and menu slightly more casual than that of Revolution (but much more elegant than the stadium next door).
Last week Facebook and Twitter lit up when Seth Gross, owner of Bull City Burger and Brewery (107 E. Parrish St., Durham, 919-680-2333), announced that the restaurant would be "jumping on the bandwagon with a four-wheeled mobile vehicle." Fans were eager for another Triangle food truck. But it turns out that Gross intended his use of the word "wagon" to be read literally. His new venture: a hand cart called the Patty Wagon that will operate within a twohttp://www.bullcityburgerandbrewery.com/BCB&B/Home.html-block radius of the downtown eatery.
One of Bull City Burger and Brewery's immediate neighbors is City Hall, where employees, Gross believes, have limited time for a lunch break. "We decided we'd take the food to them," he says. One reason Gross selected the wagon over other modes of transportation was for its ability to travel where other things aren't allowed. "It can go in a building and up an elevator to an office," Gross says.
The wagon is decked out with Bull City glass growlers, which knock together to alert customers. "You hear clinging bottles coming down your hall and you know your lunch is ready," Gross explains.
However, you need to order your lunch in advance and the Patty Wagon will then deliver it. Orders must be phoned in to Bull City Burger between 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. The Patty Wagon then makes deliveries between noon and 1 p.m. There is a $2 delivery fee and a $10 minimum for orders.