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Recommendations for Chapel Hill

  • g

We have a son starting school at UNC this Fall, and we would appreciate restaurant recommendations, at all budget levels and all cuisines, since we will be traveling there often the next four years. We have some familiarity with the area and have been to Crook's Corner and 411 West in the past, but do not know what is new and worthy. Thanks in advance for the input.

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  1. Upper end:

    Bonne Soiree (French, of course!), in the downtown Chapel Hill district on Franklin St. We just had a fantastic meal there last month.

    Il Palio (Italian), in the Siena Hotel on Franklin St. near University Mall. We've been here several times and enjoyed it very much.

    Elaine's on Franklin - a little more hipster, trendy food than the first two: http://www.elainesonfranklin.com/

    A little less expensive:

    The Lantern (pan-Asian): http://lanternrestaurant.com/
    I've not been here, but a lot of people seem to like it.

    More casual:

    Panzanella in Carrboro in the Carr Mill Mall: http://www.panzanella.com/
    There are other people on this board who are more impressed with this place than I am, but it's got a nice atmosphere, the service is good and I've always liked what I've gotten there, I'm just not wowed by it. It's consistently good though.

    Carr Mill Mall also has Elmo's Diner, which I've never been to, but it's really popular. There's always a line for this place when I've been in the mall (usually weekend days), while you can always get a seat at Panzanella.

    The Weathervane, which is Southern Season's restaurant in University Mall: http://www.southernseason.com/cafe.asp
    There are some folks on the board that don't particularly care for this place, but I like it quite a bit. They have good wines by the glass and I've always liked the food and the service (I typically go for lunch).

    I'll also add a shout-out for The Loop, which is a pizza/sandwich place in Eastgate Shopping Center (there's a Trader Joe's in the same center, in case you like their stuff): http://www.looppizzagrill.com/
    It's a small chain place, with locations in the Southern states. You line up at the counter and give your order, have a seat and pick up your stuff when they call your number, so there's no sit-down service but I do like their pizza and they offer a lot of creative combinations.

    If you are willing to venture out into Durham, there's a bunch of places there that are very good, at all price points.

    1 Reply
    1. re: romansperson

      Romans gave some good recommendations. Here are some more:

      Pizza--Italian Pizzeria III (for NY style and good subs, too), Brixx (for California style thin crust)
      Hamburgers--Buns, Sutton's Drugstore
      Diner-type--Breadman's, Elmo's
      Bar food--Tyler's Taproom
      Barbecue--Allen and Son
      Locally produced mid-level--Acme
      Dessert--Locopops, Maple View Farms Ice Cream

    2. For "dressed up" southern food I second Crook's Corner, for down home traditional southern food - Mama Dip's on Rosemary

      For traditional Mexican there is a taqueria heading south out of Carrboro called Fiesta Grill - haven't been there in a few months so I hope it's still there. It was featured in a spread in Gourmet magazine on Durham's growth in traditional Mexican fare.

      Don't forget that Durham is a short drive away with many many dining options as well. My favorites are Nana's, Magnolia Grill, Four Square (all upper scale), Q-Shack (bbq, naturally), Sunset Grill (bar food in a locally owned place close Southpoint Mall).

      Congratulations on your son's acceptance! GO HEELS!

      7 Replies
      1. re: chicaraleigh

        Yes! Yes! Hie thee to Mama Dip's. We went with a friend a couple of years ago, and loved the place.

        Crook's Corner I never went to. But I buy their grits now and again for use at home. They're sensational.

        1. re: jmckee

          Mama dips - may have been good once, but now, not so much. Don't waste your time or money.

          1. re: Soup

            Mama dips has been subpar for a few years now. It's unfortunate, but don't waste your time there.

        2. re: chicaraleigh

          I'm going to have to differ with you on Mama Dip's. We visited shortly after moving to this area several years ago, and I've rarely been more disappointed. I'm Southern born and bred, and what we were served there was some of the most lackluster food I've ever had in my life. The ingredients weren't of particularly high quality or freshness, the dishes were flavorless, and the service was wholly indifferent.

          Went back earlier this year to see if things had changed, and...well...unfortunately they haven't.

          1. re: Suzy Q

            Suzy Q, I have to agree with you. We tried Mama Dip's when my son went for orientation in June of this year and were disappointed in the lackluster food and unfriendly service, both of which go against my past experiences with soul and/or southern food restaurants.

            1. re: gb25

              If you're in the mood for that kind of food and up for a bit of a drive when you're in our neck of the woods, venture out to Fuquay-Varina and check out Joyce & Family restaurant. Great food and really great people, too.

              1. re: gb25

                Totally agree on Mama Dip's. It used to be something special when it was less known and across Rosemary St. I live in Chapel Hill and avoid the place actively. Poor service, small portions, high prices. I'd recommend K&W cafeteria instead if you want to eat this kind of food.

          2. CONGRATS to your son! GO HEELS!

            Romansperson gave great suggestions, and I would like to ad Cafe La Residence. Which I have loved for, good grief, 15-something years.

            And very, very high-end (NC's ONLY 5 star restaurant) is the Fearrington House in close-by Pittsboro. I think they also serve tea if you just want to get a "flavor" of the place. Most defintely worth a drive to the little village just to see the oreo cows grazing in the meadow.

            202 W Rosemary St
            Chapel Hill, NC 27516
            (919) 967-2506

            Fearrington House
            2000 Fearrington Village Ctr
            Fearrington Vlg, NC 27312
            (919) 542-2121

            1 Reply
            1. re: Tehama

              More good suggestions. Yes, Fiesta Grill is still open and is a great Mexican establishment (though, it's a bit west of Chapel Hill and looks like nothing from the exterior--it's in an old garage/body shop building).

              How did I forget Merritt's Store for great BLT's?

              And, yes, Go Heels!!!

            2. Go to Carr Mill Mall - go to the 'communist grocery' Weaver Street (it's a co-op), maybe your son will join and work there a bit to get the member benefits. Panzanella is OK, and Elmo's is better.

              Go to the Carborro Farmer's Market!!! Locally produced yummy-ness.

              We're headed to Jujube again tonight, and really recommend the place.

              If he eats pork he's got to go to Merritt's for a BLT.

              The special events at Carolina Inn are always good, but I've never gone for just a meal. Summer-Fridays, 12-days-of-Christmas, etc.

              The beer is better than the food at Top of the Hill, but the beer may be enough reason to go.

              1 Reply
              1. re: AreBe

                Thanks to everyone who took the time to give what appear to be great suggestions. We will do our best to follow up on all of them, and any subsequent ones that are posted, beginning mid-August when we drop him off at UNC. I'm glad to see the recommendation for Magnolia Grill. I tried it when I was in the area for business in the 90's, right after it got a great mention in Bon Appetit (or similar) and it was great. Hopefully it is still as good.
                PS Everyone in our family is a Gator, so we've been practicing saying GO HEELS!

              2. Don't forget to to add Whole Foods Market to your list of places to eat options. They've got a little cafe for eat-in, or you can purchase for takeout from their great selection of salad bar, prepared packaged foods (including great sushi), and deli counter hot/cold entrees.

                1. Welcome to the UNC family!

                  I'll second the recommendations for Buns, Locopops, Maple View, and Carrburritos.

                  For fantastic Southern food I would skip Mama Dips (go once to say you did, it's total tourist trap), and head over to her daughter's restaurant Bon's Home Cooking in University Square on Franklin Street (at the back of the building, next to Ken's Mini-mart, near Granville Towers). Bon's food is fresher/better, the kitchen/dining room is immaculate and well run, and Bon herself is there all the time.

                  3 Replies
                    1. re: jkw

                      I knew it was going to close eventually, just didn't realize so soon... UNC just bought the property with plans to redevelop eventually, and a friend overheard someone asking Bon if the restaurant would reopen in a new location. Hopefully she will find a better location, or take over her mother's business as others have said, it was truly the best place for southern food in Chapel Hill.

                    2. re: mpjmph

                      I think I read Bon's is shutting down?

                    3. some very good places no one's mentioned (i've been to only a few of the upscale places mentioned and to be honest, most are overrated. 411, Elaine's, Talulla's, anything upscale on Franklin st. this is chapel hill, you should not spend a lot on a meal, you will be dissappointed.)
                      -Lime and Basil- good vietnamese, get the summer rolls, pho, or house fried rice
                      -Merlion-good "singaporean" food, get the chinese type of dishes
                      -The Waffle Place- better than Breadmen's but go during the week for less of a wait
                      -Kanki's steakhouse- go for the sushi
                      -Breadmen's does have a great turkey club sandwich
                      -Baba ganouj on Franklin for a good gyro and of course, baba ganouj
                      -Weaver st. market is a beautiful place to eat when the weather's nice, go during the week again so it's not crowded, and the breakfast is best
                      In Durham I like the Chamas churasscaria- this resto is good for during busy times, b/c the meat and buffet are very fresh. this is not as inexpensive - $35/person for set meal, and you must try the capirinhas.
                      -also Taverna Nikos in Durham is a favorite. slightly upscale Greek.
                      Avoid: Penang, Top of the hill (unfortunately way down hill only a couple of things are good now), and most of the restaurants for dinner on Franklin st. I've yet to eat at Lantern for dinner, though, and it seems appealing.

                      13 Replies
                      1. re: fara

                        i think you are more than a little too hard on franklin st. even top of the hill, which i am not a huge fan of, is really a solid place to eat.

                        i wasn't aware that breadman's had anything that was "great" :)

                        you have some excellent out of the way recommendations, but i can think of quite a few places on franklin st (beyond the lantern, which is excellent) i would recommend to anyone. foodies that live in or near chapel hill are very, very fortunate indeed.

                        1. re: chili367

                          hmm. chili, i have to address some of this. for one thing the only "out of the way" places i recommend are the two in durham. the others are on or near Franklin, but are more downscale. Kanki's has pretty good sushi, very fresh, and if you like sushi it is a way better meal than what I've had at the upscale 411 or Tallula's. In fact, I had terrible meals at these two. I would definitely avoid both. I appreciate what we have in CH, but if you really want good food and a good atmosphere, AND upscale, you will need to avoid the aforementioned.
                          As for top of the hill, how many dishes are good there?I think the country fried chicken and mushroom gravy is about the only sure fire thing, along with the mushroom gravy and grits, and the seafood butter appetizer, and the cheesecake. ok i've been tehre many times - departments love to take students there and i can honeslty say iv'e been very very dissapointed when i stray from the mushroom gravy/ butter molds.
                          beyond those that i've mentioned i wouldn't recommend to a chowhound- what else did you have in mind ham's? (ok, their fried pork chop is good)

                          1. re: fara

                            I agree re. 411, TOH, and Tallula's (particularly after the change in management). I never considered them upscale but haven't been impressed by either.

                            Elaine's is expensive but the food is reliably good, the presentation and service impeccable, and I've found the atmosphere appropriate to the price range. Friends from NY, Chicago, and DC who aren't shy about not liking things all praised the food there.

                            I like Crook's but I think it helps to think of it as a neighborhood bistro rather than fine dining experience. It is good, simple, casual food. Very fresh and very local, particularly this time of year.

                            I had a nice meal at La Res once (my only meal there). Lantern is very good.

                            I think the biggest problem on Franklin is that the middle is missing. By this I mean that there is plenty of very cheap, sometimes decent food (Suttons, burritos, IP3, Med Deli,...) and good options on the higher end (>$25/person) but lots of bad food between ($10-$25/person). Big places like Ham's, Spankys, TOH, 411, and Carolina Brewery (though their foods seems slightly better recently than in the past?) serving lots of people mediocre food, I think, creates the illusion that there isn't good food in CH.

                            Often, we find ourselves hungry in Chapel Hill around dinner time or after work and face precisely this problem. We could get something cheap, we could try to limit the damage at a higher end place, we could hope for a better than normal experience in the middle, or we could give up and go home to eat. Usually we resolve this predicament either at Fiesta Grill (conveniently on the way home for us) or eating in. Still, I'd love a better option (please, if you have one tell me of it) in that $10-$20/person in Chapel Hill.

                            1. re: brokegradstudent

                              yes, upscale is relative. you pose a good question, i will think about it. i've never been to fiesta grill, will try it. also, really, the raw fish at kanki's is quite good, i don't know if you've been in the sushi bar before but i think that is a big plus for chapel hill. also, if YOU think of anything let us know :)

                              1. re: brokegradstudent

                                I'd have to agree with this assessment of dining on Franklin Street, and most of Chapel Hill. If I want to eat really cheap, I can go get some very good BBQ, or a burrito, and enjoy both the food and what I've paid for it. While we had a bad experience at Lantern (which seems to be very out of the ordinary), we've enjoyed 411 and other, more expensive, restaurants as well. The problem is we can't find those middle places that have good value for a regular meal. Milltown can be good, but what you get for the money isn't amazing (except the steak frites, which is a very nice meal IMO). We used to like just getting a burger and a grilled cheese at Southern Rail, but then they started always burning the grilled cheese before just taking it off the menu entirely. The most consistant, great mid-priced food is probably at Sandwhich, but they aren't open at night, and it's expensive for a sandwich as well.

                                Other places we've lived have had great, mid-range pasta places, Thai and other Asian restaurants, even nice regional food, but my largest complaint about the food choices in Chapel Hill are that I rarely feel like I'm getting a good value for my money, and I'd rather eat out cheaper more often, or cook at home more and then eat out rarely, but at a great place.

                                1. re: cheinonen

                                  I find Panazanella in Car Mill Mall, very good value. The appetizer portions, salads etc are really large; you can share and the pasta is home made, the food locally sourced.
                                  I eat there all the time & while a dish might not have been to my taste I've never had a a bad meal there. And I'm speaking as a picky ex-new-yorker.

                                  1. re: Rory

                                    Another picky ex-urbanite here (although from DC, not NYC) who will sing the praises of Panzanella.

                                    I do not like 411 West at all, and am very sad about how far downhill Talulla's has gone since it changed ownership. I like having a beer at Carolina brewery, but don't much care for the food. I will say, though, that I think Spanky's does a good enough job for bar food, and my husband swears by their burgers. I haven't been to Crooks in 4 years, mostly because I was unimpressed, but things may well have changed since then. I do love the Lantern, although I wish they'd change up the menu a bit. Elaines is often very very good. And finally having tried Baba Ganoush (sp??) I whole-heartedly recommend it. I would avoid Penang.

                                    1. re: LulusMom

                                      I second Baba Ghanoush as well as Merlion

                                      1. re: LulusMom

                                        Love the Pepperoni pizza with olives at Panzanella. Best pie in town!

                                        1. re: LulusMom

                                          Ex-NYC here as well, and agree with most of the previous points, but want to add that you should try Crooks again, especially for brunch on Sunday, which seems to be a rarity around here. I find Elaine's wonderful, but agree with previous comments about the pricing. Penang is AWFUL, just flat out bad food. Panzanella has a great focus on local, organic foods which makes sense because of the tie-in with Weaver Street Market. I would also add Provence in Carrboro as a great place for traditional French country cooking.

                                          1. re: deliciousgoodstuff

                                            You're so right ... I have Crooks on my short list of places I need to get back to soon. And I also agree that Provence is a great little place. Their fish of the day is always worth having, but the rest of the menu is good too.

                                            1. re: LulusMom

                                              This is the season when Crooks excels. Everything is insanely fresh and the simplicity of the menu becomes a virtue.

                                            2. re: deliciousgoodstuff

                                              As I mentioned in my post that started this thread, I was familiar with Crooks Corners from trips to Chapel Hill on business. I first tried Crooks Corner in the mid-90's and fell in love with its shrimp and grits (my local business associate took me there and, although skeptical at first--I like shrimp and I like grits, but shrimp AND grits?--I ordered it and ended going back the following day for a repeat). Since then I've had it at many places (Bobby Flay's Bar Americaine in NYC and Emeril Lagasse's Nola in New Orleans, for example) and have even made it myself and, while god, none lived up to the one at Crook's. But when I took my son to Chapel Hill on the college tour back in '07, the dish was disappointing. I'm happy to report, though, that I just went back earlier this month, this time for Sunday brunch. Everything was good, but the shrimp and grits were outstanding and just like I remember them. I definitely recommend Crook's. Unfortunately, we tried Elaines and were very disappointed. Overpriced with small portions (and that's a statement made relative to restaurants in its category). Tried Bin 54 and liked it and my son has insisted on Angus Barn when I visit and have liked it as well (for what it is, in any event).

                              2. How about for lunch? What's good for lunch in Chap. Hill?

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: heddagobbler

                                  Sandwhich is my favorite place for lunch, but the bill can add up pretty quick for a sandwich and chips. I also liked Neal's Deli over in Carrboro when I went for lunch a couple of weeks ago.

                                  1. re: cheinonen

                                    Seconded. Excellent food (don't forget to try the chips), but the bill can be high. But definitely worth a try.

                                2. I've always considered 411 to be for "food rookies" (although their specials tend to be better than the rest of their seemingly 15+ year old menu), and mama Dip's is overrated; but many others' suggestions are spot on. Definitely for dessert go to Locopops, or, a bit further out of town (towards Hillsborough from Carrboro,on Dairyland Road), go to the "main" Maple View Farm ice cream store... the view is amazing. Kids love either place (but what kid doesn't love dessert?!).

                                  A few other places I'd recommend is Neal's Deli in Carrboro, and La Russa in Meadowmont. La Russa has the best Italian food I've had in the South for the price. I believe they get their past from NYC.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Rand

                                    Thanks to all for the recommendations. We're dropping our son off at school end of this week and will try 2 or 3 of them (and more in the months/years to come).

                                  2. After visiting Chapel Hill with my Tarheel parents at least once a year for my whole life, this may be the nostalgia talking (and I'm not even sure half these places are open anymore!), but our faves were:

                                    Hector's on Franklin, for pita hamburgers and really good hotdogs!
                                    Some by-the-slice pizza place near that on Franklin
                                    The Rat (probably overrated to some, but the Gambler is one of the tastiest things I've ever had. And their lasagna rocks too) - this place is very possibly closed now, anybody know?
                                    My grandma makes the best green beans in the world! Call Mildred and she'll hook you up! =)

                                    My dad also used to talk about places called the Grill and the Zoom, which don't exist anymore, but I figured if any of y'all were at UNC during the 70's that might make you smile.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: SarahEarDoc

                                      The Rat's been closed for quite some time now.

                                      1. re: Suzy Q

                                        hector's as well. two huge losses in terms of history and nostalgia. what's next? sutton's shutting down?

                                    2. one thing that has amazed me, I go to chapel hill, durham area fairly regular, is I've yet to find a great southern place to eat. I'm still convinced that I'm not going to the right place. I'd love to find a great meat and 3 or fried chicken place.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Soup

                                        The two best Southern joints I know of are in Fuquay (Joyce & Family) and Raleigh (Pam's Farmhouse).

                                      2. Fearington House is simply fantastic.

                                        1. Crook's Corner has really great food, a little pricey, but a great place to take a date. We sat outside, under a beautiful sky, and it was very romantic, with awesome ambiance.

                                          Sandwhich is good food, a little pricey for a sandwich but the combinations of flavors are hard to beat - spicy guacamole on a BLT!

                                          Sutton's Drugstore has the best hamburgers in the downtown area and a little diner called The 501 Diner (over behind Trader Joes) also has awesome burgers and breakfast food.

                                          Spice Street has great drinks with a wonderful bartender and great sushi, and appetizers.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: sweetpeachesalways

                                            I can't speak for Sutton's but what do you think of Bun's Burgers? What about R&R Grill?