Crook’s Corner, a Landmark North Carolina Restaurant, Has Closed

Crook’s Corner, the restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., that helped spark a renaissance in Southern delicacies beginning within the 1980s, has completely closed, Shannon Healy, an proprietor, stated Wednesday.

Mr. Healy stated the enterprise, which shut down within the spring of 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic, struggled to regain its footing after reopening final fall. It served its last meals on Sunday evening.

“The pandemic kind of crushed us,” he stated. “We were trying to reorganize some debt, and we just couldn’t get it done.”

Crook’s Corner was opened in 1982 by Gene Hammer and Bill Neal inside a former fish market. Mr. Neal had made his title regionally as a chef with the French restaurant La Résidence, which he opened along with his spouse, Moreton Neal. He envisioned Crook’s as a new sort of Southern restaurant: a place the place the area’s meals could be handled with reverence.

This was uncommon within the early 1980s, stated Bill Smith, a longtime chef on the restaurant. “Crook’s treated Southern cuisine like it was delicious cuisine instead of the food of the Beverly Hillbillies,” he stated. Mr. Neal “insisted Southern cuisine belonged in the pantheon.”

The restaurant caught the eye of Craig Claiborne, the New York Times meals editor, who was himself a Southerner. In a 1985 article, Mr. Claiborne known as Mr. Neal “one of today’s finest young Southern chefs,” and praised Crook’s variations of hoppin’ John, shrimp and grits and muddle, a fish stew from the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Another pig, and one in every of many awards the restaurant and its cooks gained.Credit…Justin Cook for The New York Times

Crook’s, as locals referred to it, grew to become a part of a nationwide motion of cooks and eating places specializing in native delicacies and substances, stated Marcie Cohen Ferris, an emeritus professor of American research on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“It was one of those sites — and there weren’t many around our country in 1980s — where restaurateurs, farmers, food entrepreneurs and local craftspeople were starting to come together,” Dr. Ferris stated. “Then Crook’s becomes this incubator of new Southern cuisine, because so many young people come through there.”

The James Beard award winners John Currence, of Oxford, Miss., and Robert Stehling, of Charleston, S.C., are among the many outstanding Southern cooks who labored with Mr. Neal early of their careers.

Mr. Neal died of AIDS at age 41, in 1991. Mr. Smith, who labored with Mr. Neal at La Résidence, took over the kitchen at Crook’s, and continued to introduce signature Southern dishes, like fried oysters with garlic mayonnaise and Atlantic Beach pie, a lemon pie with a saltine cracker crust.

The informal restaurant, identified for its fiberglass pig statue and hubcap assortment exterior, by no means relied on the trimmings of European effective eating. And the menu was at all times seasonal. “If you could get soft-shell crabs and honeysuckle sorbet on the same night, that was reason for celebration,” Mr. Smith stated.

Mr. Smith retired quickly after Mr. Healy and his enterprise accomplice, Gary Crunkleton, purchased Crook’s from Mr. Hammer in 2018. Carrie Schleiffer took over as chef from Justin Burdett, Mr. Smith’s successor, in April.

Mr. Healy was a bartender and supervisor on the restaurant for years earlier than he grew to become an proprietor. He stated he was drawn to the restaurant partially by its lack of pretension.

“Instead of making simple things sound fancy, they did the opposite,” he stated, like utilizing the phrases “garlic mayonnaise” on the menu as an alternative of aioli. “The tables looked like an old diner on purpose. When it opened, the idea that you were doing excellent food in a non-white-tablecloth environment was very different.”

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