When I set out to write a column on Southern plate lunch restaurants, I had one thing in mind: The Coffee Pot of Smithfield. Anchoring one end of a small strip of rotating shops (vacuum repair, tattoos, Internet sweepstakes) on a stretch of Highway 301 known as Brightleaf Boulevard, the meat-and-three is no more than a mile from the house where I grew up. It's the restaurant where I learned to like collards. It's where I, the daughter of a single working parent, ate a hot, home-cooked dinner with my mother two nights a week. There was also breakfast.
Every Tuesday morning from the time I got my driver's license until the moment I left for college, I met a friend at 7 a.m. at The Coffee Pot. We ordered the same meal each time: French toast, sausage links, orange juice and a glass of water. A few months before we graduated from high school, owner and cook Carolyn Artis finally asked us an important, highly anticipated question: "Do you want your regular?" My friend and I clinked glasses of orange juice like tumblers of bourbon. We were in. It was a Smithfield rite of passage akin to a first taste of the town's salty, thinly sliced Johnston County ham.
I was reminded of that moment recently when I visited The Coffee Pot to ask Artis for an interview. She agreed, saying, "You can write about it because it's your restaurant." Artis certainly makes it feel that way. For the past 12 years, when my visits have mainly been limited to holidays, she hasn't missed a beat with my breakfast order (except that I've added coffee) and has faithfully asked about my friend when he's been absent.
But, of course, it's not my restaurant. The Coffee Pot is full of regulars to whom it feels like home. Take, for instance, the faithful group of men who have gathered daily for lunch at a long table in one of The Coffee Pot's two dining rooms for as long as Artis can remember. A hand-scrawled paper with "reserved" saves a place for them, including former state Sen. Allen Wellons, state Rep. Leo Daughtry and Frank Holding, executive vice chairman of First Citizens Bank.
That's just one table. There are also construction workers who are regulars at the counter. There are teachers and janitors. There are black and white customers, young and old. And Artis calls most of those folks by name. If she doesn't, it's a good bet that missing information can be filled in by her two veteran servers—Patricia Scott, who has worked at the restaurant for 18 years, and April Maupin, who has been there for 10—or Artis' son, Tyrone Pearce, who has co-owned the restaurant and worked alongside her for the past 13 years.
Artis began her tenure at The Coffee Pot in 1971. It was her first job. She started out as a dishwasher and moved to the grill in 1979. "The cook walked out one day and they were busy, so I put on my apron and cooked," she recalls. She's been cooking ever since.
Artis got a recipe for crab cakes from Nelson Pitche, The Coffee Pot's former owner. But the rest of the dishes are prepared by memory based on what she learned by cooking with her mother as a child in nearby Kenly. Paired with two vegetables, plate lunches include stew beef and rice on Mondays, chicken pastry on Tuesdays and fried chicken on Wednesdays. Artis' favorite, however, is hamburger steak (it thus shows up on the menu multiple days).
My mother ordered the steak with crisp, buttery grilled onions earlier this week when we stopped at the restaurant for lunch. Part of going home is going to The Coffee Pot. There, I'm guaranteed to run into more of my cousins than I will at a family holiday dinner, and everyone else in town, too.