City Portrait: Chapel Hill

Lissa Gotwals
by Wells Tower - North Carolina - Aug/Sept 2009

Why Chapel Hill, North Carolina, may be the South's most civilized town (except when it comes to basketball)


The Hot Spots
Chapel Hill: Inside & Out
By Nic Brown

Twenty-four reasons this town has earned its reputation as “the Southern part of heaven”

Caffé Driade
Hidden under an old oak tree behind a small gravel lot off Franklin Street stands a building no larger than a one-car garage where Chapel Hill’s best coffee is served. Inside there’s room for four tables and a coffee bar, but the best place to sit is outside, where you can settle in the garden or on the porch, or walk a short trail until you find a small group of tables waiting for you in the woods.
1215-A E. Franklin St.;

The best of a surprising number of good burrito joints in town, Carrburritos is—where else?—on the edge of Carrboro, and it serves tacos, burritos, and bottled beer from tattooed arms that were probably inked up at Glenn’s Tattoo Service next door. 711 W. Rosemary St., Carrboro;

Crook’s Corner
A pink pig rests atop a pole that rises out of the roof, hubcaps hang on the exterior, and folk art adorns the walls, but don’t be fooled—after twenty-seven years in business, Crook’s Corner still offers some of the most sophisticated dining in town. Have a frozen mint julep in the bamboo garden while you enjoy the most iconic of all Chapel Hill dishes: chef Bill Smith’s classic shrimp and grits.
610 W. Franklin St.;

Lantern Restaurant
Saigon meets the new South in this hip, elegant, and unpretentious restaurant recently named one of the fifty best in the country by Gourmet. Chef-owner Andrea Reusing creates imaginative Pan-Asian dishes from local produce in ways that make the disparate regions seem perfectly matched. Before you dine, drink a Junebug (Pimm’s, fresh ginger, lemon soda, and cucumber) in the soft light of the small bar’s dim paper lanterns.
423 W. Franklin St.;

Merritt’s Store & Grill
A former gas station now without a pump, Merritt’s is ostensibly just an old convenience store on the edge of town, but cross those worn wooden floorboards to the main attraction: a grill in back serving
legendary BLTs so singular that, after you eat one, all other bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches suddenly seem to have been made from entirely different ingredients.
1009 S. Columbia St.; 919-942-4897

Neal’s Deli
Matt Neal is the son of Crook’s Corner cofounder Bill Neal, and the blood apparently still runs true. This New York–style deli, which Matt opened last year with his wife, Sheila, serves updated classic deli sandwiches (and biscuits in the morning) using meat smoked on the premises. The Manhattan is transcendent. 100 E. Main St., Carrboro;

Pepper’s Pizza
Extreme hair colors and extensive tattoos on the perpetually outlandish waitstaff at this funky pizzeria belie the fact that it’s a popular family destination. Try to figure out what relation—if any—the bizarre pizza names (the Ball Park or the Geddy Lee, for example) have to the well-appointed pies. 107 E. Franklin St.; 919-967-7766

Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen
From a building so small it looks like a glorified storage shed, Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen serves fresh drive-through-only biscuits until 2:00 p.m. every day. On weekends, the line of cars stretches into Franklin Street, completely blocking one lane of the city’s busiest thoroughfare. Nobody seems to mind, though. Folks understand that traffic flow is less important than the need for a fried chicken biscuit. 1305 E. Franklin St.; 919-933-1324

Sutton’s Drug Store
A drugstore with a lunch counter in the heart of Franklin Street, Sutton’s is straight out of a Carolina time warp. The walls are pasted with photos of patrons past, heavy on familiar-faced athletes (read: UNC basketball players). Order an orangeade and two hot dogs with chili, mustard, and slaw—and keep an eye out for UNC coach and Sutton’s regular Roy Williams.
159 E. Franklin St.; 919-942-5161

The Cave
Descend a set of crumbling stairs in an alley, open a door at the bottom that looks like it shouldn’t be opened, and step into an underground room with a ceiling made of plastered chicken wire lit by multicolored Christmas lights. Sit at the bar, order a two-dollar beer from Mr. Mouse, and watch out for dogs—this underground bar (which bills itself as Chapel Hill’s oldest tavern) encourages canine accompaniment.
452 1/2 W. Franklin St.;

The Station
Built in a rail station where the tracks divide Chapel Hill and Carrboro, the Station’s interior—with a wooden bar, an ancient phone booth, and dark paneling—resembles an old hotel lobby. That is, if there’s a hotel in the world with a projector screen that lowers for Carolina basketball games and a small stage in the corner that hosts surprise performances by the likes of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. 201-C E. Main St., Carrboro;

The West End Wine Bar
On a warm Chapel Hill evening, there’s nothing better than drinking champagne on the roof of this eclectic wine bar. If you need a beer, though, you won’t be out of luck. They serve only the best—Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life. And of course, there’s the wine. Let the knowledgeable and unassuming owner, Jared Resnick, help you order.
450 W. Franklin St.;

The Carolina Inn
A bastion of the town’s Southern gentility, the Carolina Inn sits near campus and has played host to Chapel Hill’s most important guests since 1924. The building, well preserved (and well renovated) over the years, was originally designed after George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He never slept here, but if you can, you should.
211 Pittsboro St.;

The Franklin Hotel
More SoHo than Tara, Chapel Hill’s newest boutique hotel is luxurious—even if the rooms are a tad small. It’s within walking distance of almost everything, town or gown, and the bar is one of Franklin Street’s hidden treasures.
311 W. Franklin St.;

The Siena
At the bottom of the hill leading away from campus, the Siena sits just off the road like a transported Tuscan villa. It boasts a vigilant staff, spacious rooms, and Il Palio, arguably the nicest Italian restaurant in the region.
1505 E. Franklin St.;

The Bookshop Inc.
When a For Sale sign recently appeared on the front door of the Bookshop, you could sense Chapel Hill’s dismay. The 100,000 used and rare books include a huge fiction section and a roster of fine art catalogues. The thought of losing it all seemed unbearable. The town just breathed a huge sigh of relief, though: The For Sale sign is now gone, replaced by a new owner intent on running business as usual. Whew.
400 W. Franklin St.;

Carrboro Farmers’ Market
The popular Carrboro Farmers’ Market (Wednesdays and Saturdays) features a couple dozen local farmers selling whatever came from the ground that week. Don’t leave without talking to Peregrine Farm’s muttonchopped Alex Hitt (the elder statesman of local organic farming) and buying a bag of beets from Cov DeRamus’s TeiKei Farm. 301 W. Main St., Carrboro;

Designer Alexander Julian has had a retail space in Chapel Hill since before he was born. His father opened this preppy outfitter in 1942, and though Alexander went on to dress more of the world than the town (remember Colours?), the store is still family owned.
135 E. Franklin St.;

Toots and Magoo
This small boutique sells art, antiques, paper goods, and a selection of items so stylish that you might just buy a few despite the fact that they might be somewhat useless. It also hosts diverse art-making workshops and mounts minute exhibitions of world-class artists, like the recent Kiki Smith show.
142 E. Franklin St.;

Ackland Art Museum
In the center of downtown stands the Ackland, steward to one of the largest permanent collections in the region. With more than a dozen special exhibitions a year, it’s at the center of Chapel Hill culture. Also—that sculpture of William Hayes Ackland inside? It’s his tomb. That’s right, Mr. Ackland is still there, just waiting for you to visit.
101 S. Columbia St.;

No doubt, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is beautiful. But don’t stop at the impressive view from Franklin Street. Park your car and walk past Silent Sam (the bronze soldier still standing in honor of Confederate dead), past the iconic Old Well, and enter the main quad, where the original McKim, Mead, and White–designed buildings peek columned and stolid from between the branches of ancient oaks.

Cat’s Cradle
Owner Frank Heath has made Chapel Hill a don’t-miss stop for almost any band touring the South. His club—humble in décor—sells itself on impeccable taste alone. After decades of booking only the best (unheard-of or legendary), Cat’s Cradle is the definitive venue for live music of consequence. 300 E. Main St., Carrboro;

Gimghoul Garden
If the sign in Barbara Stiles and Bernice Wade’s front yard reads, “The Garden Is Open,” as it does almost daily each spring, then stop and smell the flowers. These ninety-four-year-old twins live on Gimghoul Road in a house surrounded by every manner of blooming thing, perfectly maintained for the pleasure of any curious visitor.