Libby Green pulls a chair up to my table, one of nine at her Durham restaurant, Libby's Too. She eyes my plate. "You like those?" she asks of the salmon patties I'd ordered for lunch at a waitress' suggestion. "I do," I tell her. She grimaces. "I don't." Nearly 30 years deep in the restaurant business, Green says salmon cakes are the one dish of which she's grown tired. "I used to like them," she says.
Green's frankness is reflected in the restaurant itself. A hand-scrawled sign that hangs behind the short counter where orders are taken reads "Cash only. Don't ask." Green's brazenness is anything but inhospitable, however. Whether she's positioned at the service window that connects the kitchen to the dining room or seated at one of the restaurant's tables, she speaks to everyone who enters, calling many by name.
The restaurant isn't Green's first. She originally opened a spot on Angier Avenue in East Durham in 1982. Before she purchased that restaurant and named it Libby's, it was the Big Tub, a meat-and-three that operated next to a Laundromat and gave Green her start as a waitress in 1970. "It's all I've ever done," she says of the restaurant business. It's also all she's ever wanted. As a child, Green says, she used to "play kitchen" in a trailer that her father owned on the edge of their property in Durham, thinking, "I hope I can have a restaurant one day."
For a while, she had two. In 1993, she opened the second Libby's in a newer building—its current home on Hillsborough Road near the Orange and Durham county lines. But after two years of running two places simultaneously, she scaled back to one restaurant, closing the original.
Green uses recipes inherited from her mother, whom she grew up cooking with as the youngest of 10 children. Her sister Kathy Hicks also cooks at Libby's Too. "We always have real creamed potatoes, dry beans and greens," Green says of the menu. Lunch staples also include hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken and barbecue sandwiches.
The rest changes daily depending on what's available and is displayed on a dry-erase board that leans on a shelf in the corner of the restaurant. There are a dozen or so vegetables, three different meats and pie. For $8 (with tax, or $8.54 if it's to go), a lunch plate includes the choice of one meat, two sides, bread and tea. I chose hush puppies, creamed potatoes and slaw to accompany my salmon patties. Rich and buttery, the potatoes were best.
"You want more of those?" Green asks upon noticing that I'd finished that particular dish. She eats a red hot dog covered with chili for her lunch. "Are hot dogs your favorite?" I ask. "No, I eat everything—don't have no favorite," Green responds.
"Except salmon cakes," I remind her.
"Yeah, and anything with cheese," she adds.
Her favorites are clearer in other categories. Framed Duke posters cover the restaurant's wood-paneled walls. "I like football, but basketball is my favorite," she says.
I don't mention that I pull for Carolina. Though I've seen Green welcome everyone into the restaurant, I want to ensure that I can go back.