When the Northside District first opened, I did not plan on eating there. The historic black neighborhood in Chapel Hill it references has undergone constant gentrification. The restaurant's name smacked of an empty make-nice gesture.
Although the tensions between the neighborhood and the proliferation of hip shops, bars, and housing developments have by no means been resolved, I find myself eating at the Northside District often—and liking it quite a lot.
The restaurant-bar is the most recent endeavor in a revolving door of restaurants to occupy 403 West Rosemary Street (see sidebar). The owners are in fact not the suits I imagined. Almost a year ago, the beloved bros who once ran the Chapel Hill Underground venue, David Chong, Eddie Sanchez, and Stan Pickens, teamed up with Mike Krock, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, to open the restaurant.
"We really want to build a place where people can actually just talk about stuff and meet interesting people," says Chong. "And places can be that—something that actually betters the community in a lot of different ways. When you look back on your life and you're like, 'That place was my home,' it's because of the people that were there."
Twenty comforting staples on the menu span a variety of culinary worlds. They make up a selection of classic favorites with some inventive flourishes.
Maduros are listed first. The sweet and sticky plantains are thick chunks, lightly salted and seasoned with mint and cilantro. Citrus chili sauce swirls the plate, and I encourage swiping through these trails liberally.
The sope is perfect for a light pre-party supper, with its fresh avocado slices splayed and bright like a green flower against bright red chorizo. On a bed of flaky masa, the spicy sausage is balanced by raw, sliced radish and pickled onions and ginger. It leaves my bottom lip buzzing.
Other dishes range from adobo tacos and chicken biscuits to the popular Northside Noodles (you'll find it among our favorite soups in the INDY's recent Dish issue). Half of the menu is vegetarian; most of it can be modified to be meatless.
Chong says the team created its eclectic yet comforting selection by being authentic to its own tastes and experiences. "We are not reinventing the wheel. Nobody is," he says. "The best ones are doing what their grandparents did or doing what their mom did really, really well. We wanted to make food that we grew up eating. That we knew."
Chef Krock uses inventive fixings and sauces to remake familiar foods. A standout is the Wu Tang Slider. Seared pork belly sticks out the sides of this tiny sandwich like wings on a pig that can fly. A pile of sesame slaw and sour cucumber quick pickles melds with soy sauce and chili oil into a juice that drips off the sandwich. The tang in the name is literal. The tongue wants for nothing. Chong noted that he has people who come in two or three times a week to order that sandwich. I believe him.
The quality of Northside District's food is enhanced by its affordability. The most expensive item (excepting any add-ons) is the chicken biscuit plate, priced at a refreshing nine dollars. (I'm not sure when I got used to spending a minimum of twelve dollars on a sandwich, but it has to stop.)
The restaurant serves its full menu until two in the morning. "We never even discussed it," Chong reflects. "It was just something we were going to do. The only thing we ever talked about was what people late at night want to eat." Hence, the mountain of fried potato, garlic, cilantro, and chorizo gravy that is North Fries.
You know that old elementary science rule about liquid conforming to the shape of its container? Well, reverse that and you'll have an understanding of how the Northside District functions as an environment: with flexibility to one's needs. I've eaten early dinners alone with a book at the bar. I've come in covered with sweat and glitter to enjoy a late-night snack in the crimson-walled lounge nook. I've popped in with a large group of friends, ordering and sharing items in the style of tapas.
Talking with Chong, I seized the opportunity to learn more about the decision behind the name, which had earlier caused me such queasiness. Chong explained that he used to live in Northside, and, when moving into the business space, it seemed as good a name as any other. "We're here. We might as well respect the neighborhood and call it what it is."
In the spirit of calling things what they are, the Northside District is a casual place to eat and drink. The menu and ambience are unpretentious but ultimately satisfying. The owners and staff (these two roles are often one and the same) are genuinely working to build a great place to hang out—for themselves, for me, and maybe for you, too.
Northside District only opened late last year, but it feels like I've been going there forever, because I have. Has anywhere else in Chapel Hill had so many name changes and yet so much comforting continuity? My memories of the multiple incarnations are fuzzy—it's a bar, after all. But I know I started haunting 403 West Rosemary around 2000, when it housed Henry's Bistro. It served dinner, but I probably never had it: Henry's was the place to go late night, after a show at the Cradle or Local 506, to drink more and feast on a killer menu. I'll never forget the pan-fried veggie dumplings and the Kobe beef sliders (this was before I kicked meat). I was bereaved when Henry's closed, but happily, it reopened as Fuse in the early aughties. The space stayed virtually the same, with its outdoor patio, bar-anchored dining room, and cozy, quirky front parlor looking out onto Rosemary Street. Its nighttime scene featured a healthy assortment of jazz and DJ nights that drew a markedly international clientele into the fold with the homegrown scenesters. After about nine years, Fuse folded, but it quickly returned—first as The Standard, then as Industry—within the same owner family. (They had some amazing pizzas, like one with fig compote I still try to re-create, and added some movie nights to the mix.) Will Northside District last? In some form, almost certainly, as the spot is a perfect bridge between the Carrboro and Chapel Hill bar scenes. "It's a nice space, right in the middle," says current co-owner David Chong. "It combines the student, grad student, intellectual aspect with the homegrown, casual, bohemian one. It's a place where you see really different people coming, and that's always been what I want to foster." —Brian Howe with additional reporting by Jamie Stuart
This article appeared in print with the headline "Casual Cachet"