Most of you know that I know Paris like the back of my hand, but there is one other town that I don’t write about much (even if I should). They say to write what you know, so why have I not written before about the place that I (theoretically) know best in the world? On my annual trips back to my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I return to many town staples and try to visit as many new (or new-to-me) spots as possible. While many of my favorite places have closed down over the years (RIP Pepper’s Pizza and Spanky’s), some have withstood the test of time and continue to be local favorites. Here are my picks for the best places to eat and drink in Chapel Hill:
WHERE TO EAT
Crook’s Corner: The little restaurant with the pig on the roof will always hold a special place in my heart after working there during the summer after I graduated from college- but that’s not why it holds the top spot on this list. The food is absolutely, genuinely fantastic. Current chef Justin Burdett took over after longtime chef Bill Smith retired at the end of 2018 and has put his own twist on things while keeping the classic menu items like the shrimp and grits (which is no ordinary shrimp and grits, let me tell you). Many dishes are seasonal, and even those who departed Chapel Hill long ago return for the honeysuckle sorbet in the spring, the picnic platter in the summer, and the persimmon pudding in the fall.
610 W. Franklin Street. Open Tues-Thurs 5:30pm-9:30pm; Fri-Sat 5:30pm-10pm; Sunday brunch 10:30am-2pm, dinner 5:30pm-9pm. Reservations recommended- website HERE.
Al’s Burger Shack: Declared the best burger in America in 2018 by Food & Wine Magazine and Trip Advisor, Al’s definitely lives up to the hype. The burgers are juicy, made with antibiotic- and hormone-free beef from pasture-raised NC cattle, as well as other local ingredients, and they come in two sizes in case you’re less hungry. Their crinkle-cut fries are seasoned with sea salt and rosemary, and they stock local beers to drink as well as homemade milkshakes with Maple View Farm ice cream. It’s honestly the burger that will make you say “where has this been all my life?”
516 W. Franklin Street and 708 Market Street. Open Mon-Sat 11am-9pm. Website HERE.
Merritt’s Grill: You’ve never had a BLT until you’ve had one from Merritt’s. Available in single, double, and triple depending on how full you want the sandwich, you can add everything from avocado to pimento cheese to cajun chicken, on a choice of 7 different types of bread. If BLTs aren’t your thing, they do also serve breakfast specials, burgers, and hot dogs, but frankly I’m not a BLT person and still think these are incredible.
1009 S. Columbia Street. Open Mon-Wed 7am-4pm, Thurs-Sat 7am-7pm, closed Sundays (subject to holiday hours). Menu HERE.
Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen: Along the same vein, you’ve never had a true Southern buttermilk biscuit until you’ve had one from Sunrise. Though it looks nondescript from the road, don’t be misled by its small size and drive-thru-only service- this breakfast bakery packs a punch. Enjoy a salty, buttery biscuit on its own or as a sandwich, if you manage to choose between bacon, sausage, egg, chicken, or country ham. Tip: get the cinnamon roll, thank me later.
1305 E. Franklin Street. Open 6am-2:30pm daily (except Sunday 7am). Menu HERE.
Sutton’s Drug Store: A Chapel Hill fixture since 1923, Sutton’s is probably better known for its diner-style fare and family-like atmosphere than it is for ever being a pharmacy (CVS took over the pharmacy portion in 2014). They’re famous for their burgers, except on Tuesdays and Thursdays when you can get 2 hot dogs plus fries for $3.25. Photographs paper every possible surface, a tradition owner Bill Woodward began back in 1983- look closely and you’re bound to find a famously familiar face or two (or even perhaps your own!). If you want the real Chapel Hill, you’ll find it here.
159 E. Franklin Street. Open Mon-Fri 7am-6:30pm, Sat 7am-4:30pm, Sun 9am-3pm. Website HERE.
Mama Dip’s: For a full range of real Southern cuisine in an adorable restaurant, head to the restaurant Mildred Council (aka Mama Dip) opened in 1976 under the name Dip’s Kitchen, after her childhood nickname. She herself was revolutionary– advocating for farm-to-table before it was popular and cooking for illustrious figures such as Michael Jordan, Charles Kuralt and President Bush. I had the pleasure of meeting her briefly when I was about 8, having her sign a copy of her cookbook Mama Dip’s Kitchen as a Christmas gift for my mom, and she was as sweet as her pecan pie. At the restaurant, dishes like fried green tomatoes, sweet potato biscuits, and chicken and dumplings are staples, all washed down with a cold glass of sweet tea.
408 W. Rosemary Street. Open Mon-Fri 11am-9pm, Sat-Sun 8am-9pm. Website HERE.
Vimala’s Curryblossom Café: Serving traditional Indian fare with ingredients sourced only from local farms, Vimala’s is a delicious spot that directly supports the local economy. Vimala herself is an outspoken activist for environmental justice and workers’ rights, and all her employees at the café are paid a living wage. Maybe that’s why it was voted Best Indian Restaurant in the Triangle 8 years in a row!
431 W. Franklin Street, Suite 16 (inside the Courtyard). Open Mon-Sat 11am-9pm. Website HERE.
Lantern: When it comes to where to eat and drink in Chapel Hill, Lantern tops many lists. This renowned restaurant has been serving Asian-inspired fare using seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients for nearly two decades now and shows no signs of slowing down. Adding a diverse wine list and a staff of charismatic servers and talented chefs to the mix and it’s no wonder that Lantern was named one of America’s top 50 restaurants by Gourmet Magazine (and owner Andrea Reusing won the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast).
423 W. Franklin Street. Open Mon-Sat 5:30pm-10pm. Website HERE.
WHERE TO DRINK
The Crunkleton: This is possibly the least-pretentious members-only bar you’ll ever visit. Gary Crunkleton’s namesake venture has earned its reputation, serving up arguably the best craft cocktails in Chapel Hill (and you know I love a good cocktail) in an atmosphere that’s refined yet laid-back. It’s as good a first-date location as it is a place to hang out and play billiards with friends.
320 W. Franklin Street. Open Tues-Sat 5pm-2am. Membership obligatory ($10 at the door, valid 1 year). Website HERE.
TRU Deli & Wine Bar: With a wine and beer list that rivals the stellar sandwich ingredient list. TRU quickly became a Chapel Hill favorite after opening in 2012. The outdoor seating allows you to enjoy good weather (and copious indoor seating when the forecast isn’t so agreeable) and they run daily drink specials. This was where we would come in college when we wanted a more refined night out than the craziness of the other Franklin Street bars- the ideal place to just sit and chat with friends around a bottle of wine or a west-coast beer on draft.
114 Henderson Street. Bar open Sun-Wed 11am-12am, Thurs-Sat 11am-2am. Website HERE.
Refuge at the Franklin Hotel: The cocktails here came highly recommended, and the decor is minimalist and chic. The doors open onto a front patio that overlooks Franklin Street, making Refuge an ideal cocktail spot no matter what the weather. They even host free yoga classes in the hotel followed by cocktails!
311 W. Franklin Street. Open Mon-Thurs 4pm-10pm, Fri-Sat 4pm-11pm. Website HERE.
Linda’s: This is the kind of bar that, if you adopted it early on, especially in college, this was the only bar you’d ever go to. Come for the drinks, the open mic, or the trivia night; stay for the loaded cheese fries.
203 E. Franklin Street. Open Mon-Fri 11am-2am, Fri-Sat 4pm-2am. Website HERE.
Goodfellows: This underground dive bar was my personal hangout on Franklin Street in college, due only in part to the pint-sized flavored Long Island Iced Teas, but they boast a solid beer and cocktail selection as well. With karaoke two nights a week, occasional community events (read: free food), and TVs around the bar during every Carolina sporting event, it may just become your favorite hangout too.
149 1/2 E. Franklin Street. Open daily 8pm-2am. Facebook page HERE.
Top of the Hill/Back Bar: Boasting the best view over downtown Chapel Hill, this restaurant-brewery hybrid began brewing beer back in 1996 and serves delicious bar food all night. They only serve their in-house beers, and while they have different brands of spirits, they also serve spirits from their own distillery located down Franklin Street. Top of the Hill (or TOPO as it’s fondly known) is the main restaurant, while Back Bar is its pub-style little sister in the same building, with a pool table, foosball, darts, and arcade games available to punch up your nights out.
100 E. Franklin Street. TOPO: open Mon-Sun 11am-2am. Back Bar: open Wed-Thurs 5pm-2am, Fri-Sat 4:30pm-2am. Website HERE.
He’s Not Here: There are a few different variations on the legend of He’s Not Here, but most of them stem from stories patrons asking or calling for various illustrious Chapel Hill figures- Michael Jordan, James Taylor, Lawrence Taylor. The closest, however, is the story of wives or girlfriends calling the bar in search of their man and receiving the answer “he’s not here”. The original owners opened the bar while both going through divorces, and it became the default response when the phone rang, given how often their ex-wives (and their lawyers) called. At the time the bar was called the Carolina Keg, but was eventually renamed He’s Not Here. It’s one of the best-known bars in Chapel Hill, primarily for selling beer in 33-oz (that’s nearly 1 litre for the non-Americans) cups known as Blue Cups.
112 1/2 W. Franklin Street. Open Mon-Thurs 4pm-2am, Fri-Sun 2pm-2am. Website HERE.
Beer Study: If you’re a fan of craft beer, this is the bar/bottle shop for you. With over 20 beers on tap and many more bottled options available, you’re sure to find something you love. They frequently hold tasting events and fundraisers, making it a great place to get to know the community, and what better place to enjoy a cold beer than on the patio in the sunshine?
106 N. Graham Street. Open daily 12pm-12am. Website HERE.
Baxter Arcade: When four local dudes get together to open a nerd-chic bar, you know it’s going to be a good time. With an outdoor patio, indoor lounges, over 50 vintage arcade games (at only a quarter per play), local beers and micro-brews (plus a signature cocktail called the She-Hulk), and a personalized pint glass if you can get your name on the leaderboards- if you were a fan of the arcades of the ’80s and ’90s, there’s literally nothing not to love about the Baxter.
108 N. Graham Street. Open Mon-Fri 2pm-2am, Sat-Sun 12pm-2am. Website HERE.
Where are your favorite places to eat and drink in Chapel Hill? Are they on the list?
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