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One man's take on how to survive--and enjoy--lunch in the vast gulag known as RTP.

No Picnic in the Park 

A supercritical analysis of midday dining in the Research Triangle Park

am employed at a company in the Research Triangle Park, and I eat lunch out every single day. I do this for two very good reasons. The first is that I have a policy of not commingling with my co-workers during non-work time, and having lunch with them would certainly qualify. The second reason really gets to the heart of the matter. I do not possess the foresight or skills needed to prepare myself a lunch either the night before or the morning of a work day.

I am a victim of brown-bag lunch exhaustion, inflicted at the tender age of 11. In our days as grade school students, my brother and I always packed our lunches the night before school. Never reaching the hot food line, we stopped short at the milk counter to get a 5 cent carton of milk and have our pink card punched. The hot food kids got blue cards. One day I'll discuss the 1977-1983 lunchroom politics of the Ella M. White Elementary School in Alpena, Mich., but not today.

RTP offers endless possibilities for escaping a homemade lunch. The Park has both exotic and simple dining. For an expert opinion on where to go for the best deli sandwich, barbecue and hamburgers, read on with gluttonous eyes.

But first, the traffic. To eat lunch in the Park is to drive. Making a left turn is a near impossibility. Turning left without a light requires an absence of thought and a careless attitude to the welfare of others. Most people are content to sit and wait for that mystical opening in traffic, but my impatience demands I drive all the way around continually turning right until I can find a light. It is this impatience that has allowed me to find these few dining treasures.

The first place that comes to mind is the gas station on the corner of Sedwick Road and Highway 55. It is a Mobil station, and you can't miss it as it's the only gas station around this intersection. Inside of the Mobil is a deli. This is a fully functional Boar's Head meat and cheese style deli. For those of you new to the deli scene, the Boar's Head meat and cheese selection is of the finest quality and distinction. The deli portion of the Mobil is known as Cappy's, who is most likely the owner of the deli--perhaps the owner of the entire place. I know it is Cappy's because some guy answered the phone once and first said, "Mobil," but cut himself off and then said, "Cappy's." I have not yet seen a sign with the name of the deli portion of the building. It must just be word-of-mouth advertising.

Cappy's has extensive seating for a gas station/deli, both indoor and outdoor. There are the classic deli offerings, including a tomato and mozzarella cheese salad that I've had my eye on now for quite some time. You can get pretty much any style sandwich, hot or cold, including gyros. There is usually a line at noon consisting of RTP people dressed in their semi-casual work attire of beige pants and some sort of shirt neatly tucked into the pants. Each comes equipped with an ID badge clipped to his or her belt. Sometimes they have this badge clipped to the shirt pocket in the classic nerd fashion. If you were to remove the badge from one and trade it for another, you would be hard-pressed to notice a difference.

The best time to go is either before noon or after 1 p.m., unless you are the type of person who enjoys a nice long wait. Cappy's gets first billing here because you can buy a tank of gas and a sandwich at the same place, which gives it a functional uniqueness that is hard to beat.

The next establishment that is worthy of attention is Lewis BBQ. It is not mentioned here for any special ambiance, nor is it here for its unique culinary delights. It makes the list for serving classic Eastern North Carolina style barbecue along with its friends, the overcooked vegetables: green beans, collard or mustard greens, new potatoes and the ever-present macaroni and cheese. Lewis BBQ offers fried chicken or fried fish as well in case you have issues with the pork. Like any other self-respecting barbecue joint in the South, they sell at least five desserts at any one time, just in case the pig meat and veggies didn't fill you up. Each table is carefully adorned with the absolutely necessary bottle of Texas Pete hot sauce, a product of North Carolina labor, and probably some home-brewed sauce as well. Also present is the bottle of ketchup. This is a magical combination that you must try: ketchup + Texas Pete + hushpuppy. Repeat.

The best part about this place besides the food is that they play R&B on an analog radio, one that is subject to interference from time to time when an employee walks too close to it. Any restaurant that has a radio set up like this will always, always have good food. Lewis BBQ is conveniently located on N.C. 55, just South of the intersection of 54/55. Look for the Sherwin-Williams paint store and you're there.

My endless search for the perfect deli sandwich led me to The Deli Box, located at 10800 N.C. 54 in Morrisville. They just celebrated their 26th anniversary at the end of February. This little cafe is just plain cool. The hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. On nice days the place is so packed, parking is only available across the street. They offer outside seating with picnic tables, complete with a gurgling pond. I had a hot pastrami and swiss on rye that devastated me. This is a good thing. They also offer vegetarian fare as well as french onion soup and clam chowder. Part of what gives The Deli Box its magic is the music. On the day I visited, Big Band jazz played uninterrupted. My table was approached by a person who was looking for directions and likened his situation to being "a bat in the sun." On departure, the owner declared that poetry was being recited in the kitchen, for anyone who was interested. The Deli Box is a pure RTP original.

No restaurant list is complete without a place where you can get a really good burger. Arnie's Place is at the corner of Carpenter Fletcher Road and South Alston Avenue. This is a nice bistro. The tables all have linens on them as well as a small jar with daisies. The music playing while I was there was Van Morrison's "Moondance." This is a fine album to listen to while eating a burger next to an open window on a warm winter day.

Arnie's has class. It has character. It comes complete with a bar next door in case that lunch hour needs to be of the two-drink variety. The $6 burger I had was on par with any other, and I didn't have to go to Hardees for their promotional restaurant burger, anxiously waiting to make me nauseous.

Speaking of fast-food, the RTP offers any and all varieties of chain restaurants that I frequent often. None of them warrants reviewing here, as everyone has been to each of them at least once and they're always the same no matter where you go. I used to go to McDonald's every Monday, simply because both words start with the letter "M." Sadly, the McDonald's down the street burned down just before Christmas. You'll be glad to know that they are swiftly rebuilding at an alarming pace, and soon the smell of their fried goodies will again hang in the air.

The happy ending here is that RTP has something for everyone. If your palate demands a certain level of discretion, you have a wide assortment of choices available--from Jamaican to Indian to classic American. On the other hand, if you just want to fill your cake hole for a few hours while you're not working to make the world a better place through technology, well, you can do that too.

l

  • One man's take on how to survive--and enjoy--lunch in the vast gulag known as RTP.

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