Food & Drink
Southern Road Trip: Tar Heel Eats
Turning back the clock to a time when the midday meal was king
Photo: Lissa Gotwals
About a century ago in Thomasville, North Carolina, my great-great-grandfather and namesake, J. W. Boyles, rose from his red-clay roots by selling the fizzy drinks and frozen treats that farmers and businessmen alike ordered with their hamburgers and pimento cheese sandwiches at hole-in-the-wall lunch spots. Back then, before most of us began dining at our fluorescent-lit desks, locals looked forward to the ritual of the midday meal. Across North Carolina today, there are places where they still do.
With those—mostly small-town—dining establishments in mind, my girlfriend, Sara, and I set out to eat our way through two gut-busting days of rib-sticking lunches, working our way from the coast to the mountains.
After a night in Kinston to eat at the Chef & the Farmer and check out the hip O’Neil hotel, we begin our trip in earnest under an aqua water tower at El’s Drive-In in Morehead City, which has been feeding locals and vacationers for fifty-seven years. We pull up fifteen minutes before it opens at 10:30 a.m., and five cars are already idling underneath the gnarled oaks in the parking lot. Seagulls circle the picnic tables, and seasoned servers watch the crowd like lifeguards. Cheeseburgers and trays of onion rings arrive at car windows in minutes. But we’re here for the shrimp burger: sweet, tender fried shrimp on a squishy bun with ketchup and slaw. (El’s is one of two restaurants in the area known for the summertime favorite. The other is Big Oak Drive-In & BBQ, in Salter Path. Each has its die-hard fans.)
Driving northwest, we pass large tracts of pine forest and tin-roofed farmhouses on a narrow highway that takes us directly to Bum’s Restaurant in Ayden, run by Latham “Bum” Dennis since 1966. Dennis cooks whole hogs over local oak and pecan wood but is equally famous for his vegetable sides such as mashed rutabagas, stewed sweet potatoes, and soft, sweet cabbage collards, the heirloom cousins to the tougher, darker greens you’ll find at the supermarket. “Around here, we call those other collards ‘Georgia collards,’” says Dennis, standing at his steam table. Before we leave town, we buy a grocery bag full of cabbage collards and a bottle of heirloom pepper vinegar at the nearby Collard Shack, which shares a gravel lot with the celebrated Skylight Inn BBQ.
We get back on the road, hightailing it west to the Roast Grill in Raleigh for, yes, our third lunch of the day. “Welcome to 1940,” the third-generation proprietor, George Poniros, says when we walk in. Little has changed since his grandmother opened the joint seventy-six years ago. The chili is still made from the same seventy-year-old recipe, and the dogs still come extra-crispy. “My grandmother accidentally burned them one time, and people really wanted them that way,” Poniros says. Your blackened dog comes with yellow mustard, chili, and chunky diced onions unless you shell out a quarter extra for slaw. A regular tells us that when Elvis visited in 1956, he ate a dozen. I’m close to bursting, but I manage three.
We stay the night in nearby Winston-Salem, walking off a bit of our caloric intake around the old tobacco capital, where businesses are now colonizing a formerly lifeless downtown. Camino Bakery, a/perture Cinema, Krankies coffee, and Tate’s Craft Cocktails are all worth a visit.
Our overnight stop puts us in good position the next morning for the twenty-minute drive to the town of King. At first, the exit looks run-of-the-mill, with the usual cluster of fast-food joints and gas stations, but a mile and a half down the road is a drugstore soda fountain from another era. “All the old-timers tell me they used to get their tonsils taken out upstairs and then come down for cherry smashes,” says Annie Brinkley, a soda jerk at King Drug, when we sit down at the marble countertop. The cherry smash is still on the menu, and so is the fresh-squeezed orangeade. Kids still idle at the counter eating griddled pimento cheese sandwiches and sipping chocolate shakes after their appointments at the doctor’s office (now next door), while their parents fill prescriptions and browse shelves of greeting cards and magazines. I take a cue from the locals and wolf down one of those pimentos, chasing it with an orangeade and a shake.
Sara and I both have roots in the towns around Pilot Mountain, a natural guidepost for centuries of travelers like us. You’ll start to see its rocky crown just north of King, on the way to Pilot Mountain State Park. The main attraction at the park is a steep drive-up overlook that gets busy in the summer. We step off the beaten path and hike down stone stairs to the short but scenic Jomeokee Trail, a shaded hike that circles the towering sides of the knob and occasionally opens up to reveal long, lush views of the surrounding farmland.
On a sunny day, you can see halfway to Ted’s Kickin’ Chicken in Pfafftown, an out-of-the-way, bars-on-the-windows spot that’s still mostly a local secret. The house specialty is dipped chicken—fried chicken plunged post-fry into a thin, prickly vinegar-based sauce inspired by the regional barbecue tradition. “It’s vinegar, hot sauce, and eight to ten secret ingredients,” says the owner, Dennis Martin. You’ll want that roll on the side for sopping.
By the time we leave, it’s late afternoon. Thankfully, our last stop, Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, is open for dinner, too. The chef, Elliott Moss, worked for Chick-fil-A for eight years before going on to earn critical acclaim at the Admiral in Asheville, and he brings both sides of his résumé to Buxton Hall. With plates of grilled catfish sausage and smoked pimento cheese, he pays tribute to many of the traditional dishes we’ve stuffed ourselves with in the last two days while teasing them with hints of smoke, herbs, and citrus. I order one last drink. It’s called Family Traditions. Prepared with Ancient Ancient Age bourbon and scratch-made versions of Tang and Mountain Dew, it tastes a bit like the past swirled with a future I’m looking forward to—though I may skip lunch for a while.