One on One: A diner in New York and North Carolina roadside eateries

Published 12:05 pm Saturday, February 3, 2024

By D.G. Martin

What does Old John’s, a diner on the Upper West Side of New York City, have to do with North Carolina?

An article titled “The Best Diners Are Still Just Diners” in the January 7 edition of The New Yorker praised Old John’s for staying true to its nostalgic ideal.

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The author, Helen Rosner, celebrates diners that have remained diners. “I always read the whole menu at a diner, but I don’t really need to. My order is both predictable and unremarkable: a cup of soup, a cheeseburger with fries. Sometimes I’ll switch things up and have a Greek salad, with extra feta cheese, or corned-beef hash and scrambled eggs, though the side of fries always remains. A cup of coffee – lots of milk – and a slice of pie. If I were to scroll back through my life, tallying every diner meal, every fat ceramic mug of watery coffee, I think they might number in the thousands.”

Rosner reminds me of my regular breakfast order at Sutton’s in Chapel Hill. “Two over easy with bacon and, sometimes, grits.” Martha, Hollie or Elsie, always attentive and smiling, know what I want before I open my mouth.

Rosner, who was writing about Old John’s (though she could have been writing about Sutton’s) said, “There are people who think of a diner as just a place to get a meal, and then there are those of us who understand diners, who cherish them, who seek them out and settle into them. We are recharged by time spent in diners in the way that
adults who emerged from happy childhoods are recharged by a visit to their parents’ home. Every diner is different; every diner is exactly the same. The ideal of a diner – its promise, its function – is not to be great but to be there. To be open when you need a restaurant to be open, to have seats when you need to sit, to exist sufficiently outside of time and space and trend that its reliability is itself reliable.”

For more than 35 years I have been writing about such diners and other eateries in North Carolina, where locals eat, and visitors are welcome. My readers liked those columns better than my usual ones about politics and books. When I invited them to write about their favorite local haunts, I got enough material for more columns and for a series of magazine articles that featured local eateries near the interstates. All that led to UNC Press’s “North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners, and Barbecue Joints” in 2016.

Because the book helped readers find North Carolina eateries that were like Old John‘s in New York, “Roadside Eateries” was a great success. But there are problems. Thanks to Covid and changing tastes, more than 30 of the book’s eateries have closed including the following, listed by nearby interstates:

I-26: Ward’s Grill, Saluda.

I- 40: Judge’s Riverside, Morganton; Smith Street Diner, Greensboro; Allen & Son, Chapel Hill; Margaret’s Cantina, Chapel Hill; Toot-n-Tell Restaurant, Garner; Holland’s Shelter Creek Fish Camp, Burgaw.

I-73 & 74: Dixie III Restaurant, Asheboro; Hill’s Lexington Barbecue, Winston-Salem.

I-77: Acropolis Cafe & Grill, Cornelius; Carolina Bar-B-Q, Statesville; The Cook Shack, Union Grove; The Lantern Restaurant, Dodson.

I-85: Wink’s King of Barbecue, Salisbury; Tommy’s Barbecue, Thomasville; Captain Tom’s Seafood Restaurant, Thomasville; Angelo’s Family Restaurant, Graham; Bob’s Bar-B-Q, Creedmoor; Nunnery-Freeman Barbecue, Henderson.

I-95: Sheff’s Seafood Restaurant, Pembroke; Candy Sue’s Restaurant, Lumberton; Fuller’s Old Fashion Bar-B-Q Lumberton (relocated to Pembroke); Durham; Miss Maude’s Café, Smithfield; Holt Lake Bar-B-Q & Seafood, Smithfield; Bill’s Barbecue and Chicken Restaurant, Wilson; Broadnax Diner, Seaboard.

Their loss the bad news.

The good news is replacements have been found and UNC Press plans to publish an updated edition on April 1.

You can find a preview and a new cover at uncpress.org/book/9781469660936/north-carolinas-roadside-eateries-revised-and-expanded-edition/ or Google UNC Press Roadside Eateries.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.

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