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ISO Chapel Hill Dinner Spot

Here's yet another post looking for suggestions from the local hounds. My dad and his wife are coming into Chapel Hill for a night and we are going to meet them for dinner. They will have been driving a lot that day, so I don't want to get in the car and take them back over to the Raleigh/Cary area I know better. I need some Chapel Hill expertise, and you are the folks to deliver it!

I'm going to throw you a laundry list of criteria to help you help me find the perfect place to meet everybody's preferences in our dining group.


1) In or very close to CH. No significant driving (especially since it's a Friday evening).

2) Mildly upscale is okay, but nothing "coat-and-tie" dressy.

3) No place where the only good thing to eat is beef dishes or barbequed pork. One of our party prefers chicken/fish/veggies to beef and pork.

4) Must allow for table conversation. No noisy pub-dives, takeouts, or counter dining.

5) Ethnic foods are highly prized. Almost any culture, but authentic native style... Not fusion places such as Jujube or Lantern (based on what I infer from their menus).

Rule 6: THERE IS NO........................................rule six!

7) One of our party is not a fan of Thai food (dock that person several million points!!!)

Okay, gang. Work your magic! :)

Dang, if only Queen of Sheba was still open. We all loved that dining experience the last time they drove through town.

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  1. I'm thinking that Talullahs (sp?) would fit the bill fairly perfectly. Right on Franklin, not upscale but nice, lots of veg/chicken/fish options (esp. if you go with the mezze), quiet enough (at least early) that there isn't any problem with dinner conversation, and with Turkish food you've got ethnic without scaring anyone off (who can't handle a kebob??).

    1. Was about to suggest Jujube until I read item 5. Hmm... how about Fiesta Grill? Close to CH, ethnic, and excellent seafood options... otherwise, much to my chagrin, Tallulah's seems to be the only other option to fit all criteria. Elaine's does authentic stuff in some cases, depending on the dish, but I don't know if that's too fancy. Fits most of the other criteria, tho.

      1. Given those constraints I'd take them to Crook's Corner.
        1. parking. Franklin st on Friday night can add 5 miles to your drive as you circle. Crook's has a parking lot.

        2. I'm more comfortable there in a t-shirt and jeans than, say, Elaines

        3. Current menu (www.crookscorner.com) is fish and veg heavy.

        4. Sit outside, it can get a bit loud inside esp. if you're near the front

        5. Ethnic is such a loaded word. The new Southern of cooking done at Crook's (or Magnolia Grill, or Elaines...) is as distinctive as any cuisine of foreign origin. This is particularly true if your guests aren't from around here. The food expresses a strong sense of place in concepts, ingredients, and execution. What is more authentic than that?

        6. Since you don't have a rule 6: Crook's doesn't get a ton of love on here but it remains one of my favorite local spots (and it's hard enough to get a table w/o y'all there). I think that it is partially that familiarity breeds contempt, its reputation makes expectations impossibly high, or maybe it really isn't as good as when Bill Neal was cooking there but I've had a bunch of solid meals, a few exemplary meals and no bad meals there in the 5 years we've been down here.

        That said, I wouldn't rule out Jujube or Lantern for lack of specificity . Both places are fusiony but serve a fine meal.

        3 Replies
        1. re: brokegradstudent

          Just one thought about new Southern food ... if people want to stay away from pork they'll have a hard time. Quite often the seafood/fish/poultry dishes or their sides have some sort of pork/lard/bacon or whatever added.

          1. re: brokegradstudent

            Yeah, maybe you need to give us an idea of the relative priority of your rules. Chapel Hill is hardly a bastion of ethnic cuisine of any kind, unless you consider the fact that fusion/updating/recontextualization *is* the "ethnic cuisine" of upper-middle-class white liberal foodie-types. ;-) . . . in which case I'd definitely throw Jujube into the pile for consideration.

            Although brokegradstudent is half-right about parking on Franklin, there is a "free" valet service with a stand in front of West End Wine Bar . . . you just get validated at any of the participating places, which is most of the restaurants & bars at that end of Franklin.

            If you don't want to drive to Durham, where taquerias (and Korean restaurants) abound, or to Cary, where the decent Indian food is (those being the three cuisines that seem to have enough native-speakers living nearby to support "native-style" restaurants), then I suppose I'd agree that you'd do well at Tallulah's, assuming that the recent ownership changes haven't had a bad effect.

            Or, if Panzanella isn't too fusiony, you'll get a good meal there. And they have ample parking ;-)

            We haven't talked much about Merlion here lately, but it's apparently fairly straight-up Singaporean (although here's the catch . . . Singaporean food is itself a fusion of its neighboring cuisines) and I had a really great meal there last year, as have quite a few other folks on this board.

            1. re: rossgrady

              I surely do wish they'd open one of those decent Indian food places in Chapel Hill.

              Totally agree on Panzanella (but does anyone consider Italian ethnic?) and Merlion as good recommendations. I'd say of the two Panzanella has a much nicer atmosphere, if that is important. Nothing really wrong with the atmo at Merlion, especially if you feel like dining in a Holiday Inn restaurant or on a cruise ship.

          2. How about Merlion in Southern Village? It's a Singaporean restaurant that fits all of your criteria. Singaporean food make skirt the flavors of Thai food but there areenough dishes that are more Chinese or Indian that should appease your Thai-averse party member.


            1. You see? I knew I could count on you! I hadn't even heard of Merlion and it looks like it should fit the bill nicely. Thank you! I'll let you know how it comes out.

              By the way, I have eaten at Elaine's once and found it thoroughly delightful. But my dad wasn't in the mood for that "kind" of a meal. A pity, as I'm eager to go back.

              1. I just realized I forgot to perform the place-links due-diligence, so here, for posterity's sake:

                Elaine's On Franklin
                454 W. Franklin St, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

                Fiesta Grill
                3307 Nc Highway 54 W, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

                456 W Franklin St, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

                423 W Franklin St, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

                1201-L Raleigh Rd, Chapel Hill, NC 27517

                101 E Weaver St, Carrboro, NC 27510

                410 Market St, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

                Crook's Corner
                610 W Franklin St, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

                1 Reply
                1. We had a good meal at Merlion and it satisfied everybody's hankerin's. Thanks for the suggestion. I hadn't even been into the Southern Village complex before. It looks like there are other potentials for restaurant experimentation in there. Parking for Merlion is very easy, in a parking deck behind the building, with an elevator that leads straight into the lobby area including the restaurant. Service was gracious and pleasant. Tables are just a "touch" closer together than they might be in a perfect world. The ambience is relaxed and welcoming. You know you are in a real sit-down restaurant, but there is a casual aspect lent by the bare wood tabletops. I liked the compromise between open kitchen and separate area. You can see that there are chefs back there working, but they aren't in your face and a distraction to your meal.

                  Out of a variety of starters and main courses, only one was a disappointment. The special of grouper with lemon featured a remarkably bland and overcooked piece of fish swimming in a thin lemon broth. On the plus side, it is served in a very cute fish-shaped warming tray over a candle!

                  Coconut fried shrimp were an excellent starter, with a perfectly crisp and crunchy coconut coating that compli/emented the large shrimps nicely. I liked the coarse salt coating on the edamame as well.

                  For my tastes, the hit entree was the Pad Kee Mao (Spicy Hor Fun). The spices, basil, vegetables, chicken and shrimp melded perfectly. This will be my go-to dish here.

                  1. lantern is the best 'ethnic' place and best overall restaurant in CH imho......Fusion or not their food is spectacular. Never eaten a bad meal there. Hadn't been in a year or so and went a couple of weeks ago and was blown away (tea-smoked chicken)

                    Tallulah's is fun too if you want more Turkish than Asian.

                    Merlion is a good call too, but I would also categorize Singaporean food as inherently 'fusion'.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: sabarrett

                      Does Tallulah's have a website? I've tried to find one and haven't been able.