Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Crook's Corner honored

The James Beard Foundation will honor five restaurants as "America's Classics" on May 9, and Chapel Hill's Crook's Corner is among them. Given to restaurants "with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community," the award will be presented in New York.

Here's the press release's description of the landmark at 610 W. Franklin St. (919-929-7643), from regional food writer Christina Lauterbach:

Hubcaps decorate the flanks of the corner building on the fringe of this college town. A pink fiberglass pig stands atop the roof. The dining room does double duty as an art gallery. From the bar, you may order a cracker plate, piled with house-made pimento cheese, and a block of cream cheese smeared with pepper jelly.

Since 1982, when restaurateur Gene Hamer and chef Bill Neal opened the doors, Crook’s Corner has carried the torch of regional foodways, employing and inspiring a generation of young culinary talent – including two James Beard Award-winning chefs.

Bill Neal was one of the first American chefs to explore the cultural import of the regional food he worked to revive. He brought academic rigor and provincial pride to the professional restaurant kitchens of the region.

Since Neal’s untimely death in 1991, Gene Hamer has served as the restaurant’s steward, while Bill Smith has overseen the kitchen, cooking iconic Crook’s dishes like shrimp and grits, hoppin’ John, jalapeno hushpuppies, and persimmon pudding. In more recent years, Smith has added his own flourishes, including house-corned ham and honeysuckle sorbet.

Others chosen: Chef Vola’s in Atlantic City, N.J. ("Frank Sinatra once said he wanted to be buried with one of Chef Vola’s banana cream pies," notes the press release); Watts Tea Shop in Milwaukee (part of a fifth-generation downtown business that celebrated its 140th anniversary in 2010); Le Veau d’Or in New York (a French bistro that opened in 1937 and hosted Grace Kelly and Craig Claiborne among others); Noriega Restaurant and Hotel in Bakersfield, CA. (opened in 1893, it "showcases the Basque culture of California’s San Joaquin Valley").