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Jun 29, 2010 04:16 AM

You got to be kidding me (Crooks Corner, Chapel Hill, NC)

We just got back from our first trip to North Carolina and for the most part we were very impressed with the restaurants. Lots of creativity, interesting flavors, and good service, but Crooks Corner was our biggest let down.
Highly recommended on this board, in guide books and by friends that have either lived in the area or have visited. We just did not get it, though the food was not bad, it certainly was far from exciting either.
We had reservations that got cancelled because of a utility pole was either struck by a vehicle or was down for some reason, so the restaurant had no power, That certainly was a shame for the restaurant losing a nights worth of business, so we rescheduled for our last night there. We made a point that we were disappointed of not being able to eat there our first night as it had been so highly recommended to us. When we arrived there was never any mention of being sorry for the mishap, but again it was not their fault but a simple comment would have been nice.
We had jalapeno hushpuppies, which were tasteless,, they needed more spice, or cheese or something they were just plain bland. We had hushpuppies at Allen and Sons that just sang to us, again a different style but I am getting hungry just thinking about those. The salad we had was the highlight of the night, very fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and beans, with a very simple sea salt and vinegar dressing.
Entrees were shrimp and grits and the tabasco chicken. The shrimp was ok but not what we felt was a signature dish, it again needed some pep or zing. The chicken was again ok but not great, the mashed potatoes were swimming in butter. We never got bread but every other table around us did, we really didn't need it but it would have been nice to offer it to us. We were going to have dessert but after our experience it was time to exit this place. Our server never checked back on our meals, never said thanks to us, never wiped down the table , all in all a place we would never go back to.
We spoke to the manager and told her our thoughts, we said we didn't want any thing but to let her know our feelings. I said for a James Beard nominee restaurant this restaurant was far below par, even though you may be popular locally we will never be back here again or tell any one about this place. Her comment "we are not only locally popular but we have an international reputation" Please we have eaten in some of the finest restaurants around and this place was a joke, but Pt Barnum stated it best!!

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  1. I live in Chapel Hill, and have to say that my feelings about this restaurant mirror yours. I keep hearing wonderful things and thinking "really, I need to give them another chance" but haven't managed to do so. Your post won't poke me in the ribs to hurry it along any faster. We've been twice and both times found indifferent service and just ok-ish food. Always surprised at the reputation the place has.

    6 Replies
    1. re: LulusMom

      Funny, my wife and I ate there this past weekend. It was my first time eating dinner there, even though we've lived in the Durham/Chapel Hill area for over 10 years. She had the pasta (green garlic & pasta wtih peas, parmesan, basil, scallions & quark ), I had the tobasco chicken. Both dishes were good and executed well, but neither of us thought either dish was particularly outstanding.

      But then again, let's keep things in perspective. This is a southern cooking place, not haute cuisine, and I don't think anyone who has ever eaten a southern Sunday dinner at Gradma's house should expect to be "blown away" by Crook's, James Beard nomination or not. At any rate, we enjoyed ourselves, aided by a few rounds of mojitos and Carolina Brewery Flagship IPAs, but don't intend to make Cook's a regular stop for dinner. Especially when we live in Durham.

      1. re: ToothTooth

        I completely agree, and lament that their shrimp & grits is constantly mentioned in don't-miss-in-NC lists. It's subpar, bland and inauthentic - you can do better in your own kitchen! The place is highly overrated in the (national) press; locals are substantially underwhelmed. So sorry you wasted time, money and enthusiasm. Next time in the area, you'll do far better at ACME, Elaine's, Lantern, Jujube, Neal's Deli...and that's just CH/Carrboro!

        1. re: BebeNC

          Tell me what is "inauthentic" about their shrimp and grits? I've had at least 4 different types of shrimp and grits in different locations across the state - all have been slightly different from one another. Some I like, some I don't. I like Crooks shrimp and grits but usually don't get them because I make them myself - a slightly spicier version of their shrimp and grits.

          Their soft shell crabs are wonderful! The best I've ever had at a restaurant.

        2. re: ToothTooth

          We were not expecting a five star dining experience, we knew that going in, but what we did expect was greatly executed food, and the same type of service. We received neither, the attitude was "we can do no wrong, we have a good reputation and we don't care what you think"

          Look the chef was one of only 5 nominated within I believe a 4 or 5 state area, you can't tell me that with all the options that this is the best chef around. Food does not have to be fancy to be good, it just needs to be prepared well and this was not by any stretch. No doubt that the national and local press loves this place, but they are resting on their past reputation from probably years gone by.

          We did have dinner at Lantern and enjoyed it, and we ate twice at Neals Deli.

          1. re: rf24230

            I've heard that it is more of a tourist destination. Now I may stand corrected, but as far as I know the chef was nominated for the award.. not the restaurant itself. I think there are two different classifications, but again I may be wrong. It is also entirely possible that Smith wasn't even working the kitchen. You were right to bring the lack of service to the manager's attention though you're wasting your breath to say we won't be back. I don't think they really care especially if you are from out of town. They have their regulars I'm sure.

            1. re: burgeoningfoodie

              The restaurant itself was on nominated on the long-list for the James Beard award and the chef was a finalist for the second year in a row.

      2. I'm sorry to hear you had a bad experience. I've been to Crooks a dozen or so times and while we've had some uninspiring meals there we've also had meals and dishes that were jaw dropping. In all, dish by dish, we've had more good than bad.

        It is on our rotation of splurging restaurants and will likely stay there.

        Like most places, they have good nights and off nights and a few days after the power goes out (presumably taking the entire stock of refrigerated ingredients with it) seems odds on to be a bad night. That said, on balance, we've had more good dishes than poor dishes and a few (corned ham, soft-shell crabs) that are on our favorite ever.

        As with everything, individual mileage may vary and people patronize visit places they like.

        1. Interesting that a couple of people have made such positive comments about the soft shells. When I had them I found them overly breaded and stoggy with oil. Must have been an off night. As for the shrimp and grits, I asked if it was possible to do them without the pork and they said no. A disappointment for me, but I always think it is the restaurant's perogative to make decisions like that. Just meant I couldn't try them. Hominy Grill in Charleston was happy to do them pork-free and they were fantastic.

          Hominy Grill
          207 Rutledge Ave, Charleston, SC 29403

          19 Replies
          1. re: LulusMom

            I've been to Crooks Corner twice. I had the fried oysters both time which were fantastic, lightly breaded, tender and fresh. The Hoppin John delicious. corn bread so-so but that's me.
            This is a restaurant devoted to Southern food, so keep that in mind. It's not going to be spicy, nor should it be. The service was very good. The first time I arrived at 5:15 and they let me sit down and brought me a glass of wine. I appreciate that. I wanted to know if they'd be making oyster stew on another night as that was a big treat. The chef spoke to me and said to just ask. Now I really appreciate that.
            I like this place, I can't eat there often as it is too meaty for me; but that's me not them.

            1. re: Rory

              I'm sorry original poster had less-than-optimal experience with Crooks. We eat there regularly, by ourselves and with groups of friends, and we all love it. We always try different things on the menu, generally not going for the shrimp and grits but the more seasonal dishes.

              I don't think I've ever been to a restaurant, either here in the Triangle or anywhere in the US, where I've been 100% pleased with everything. I think all of us on this board have pretty high expectations about food and service - which I've always found to be really good at Crooks.

              Someone pointed out Crooks is not 5 star dining. That's correct. It's more of a neighborhood type place. I think some people are amazed at what it even looks like - I've been in line before with visitors from other states and they say "this is it?" - like they are expecting something bigger, fancier, better in some way. Like I said, it's more of a local neighborhood spot, which has gotten a lot of national press.

              One more thing - I'm always amazed that mid-range entrees are somewhere in the $15 range. You can't beat that.

              In all, it's one of our favorite places.

              1. re: Rory

                Southern food is spicy and it certainly should be. I could understand if that statement was applied to New England food or Midwestern food, but one of the hallmarks of Southern cuisine is aggressive seasoning. Carolina barbecue sauce, pepper vinegar on collards, cocktail sauce at oyster bars, country sausage and a host of other dishes feature peppery spice. Texas Pete's is a staple in many kitchens, as is crushed pepper, tabasco peppers, large quantities of black pepper and plenty other lesser known peppers.

                Generalizing Southern cuisine is tricky, but if you take a look at some classic categories (barbecue of any style, Low Country, Cajun, soul food) there is plenty of spice. I've eaten at Crook's three times, and found the food to be bland all three times and the service indifferent two out of the three time. Like many posters, I was excited to try the shrimp and grits on my first visit. Very simply, the dish sucked. The shrimp tasted farm raised and were simply sauteed with sliced mushrooms and green onions with no discernable sauce and some bacon crumbled over the top. Grits were unmemorable and nothing in three visits struck me enough to be memorable. Tell me what I'm missing about this place?

                1. re: veganhater

                  Amen. I've always liked Mexican food because it feels like a brother from another mother in a lot of ways.

                  1. re: veganhater

                    Sorry, but I'm Southern and I grew up on Southern food. The only spice we had was black pepper.

                    1. re: cackalackie

                      I'm southern also, and everything spicy that veganhater listed is spot on.

                      "Carolina barbecue sauce, pepper vinegar on collards, cocktail sauce at oyster bars, country sausage and a host of other dishes feature peppery spice."

                      While black pepper is important, we use many other peppers and hot sauces...not to mention horseradish in cocktail sauce.

                2. re: LulusMom

                  You must be mistaken because I order the Shrimp and Grits at Crooks all the time without the pork and they are amazing.

                  1. re: SEllis

                    Or one or both servers were mistaken.

                    I think (but don't know) that there are 2 pork steps in the preparation they use. There is bacon crumbled on top but I believe the shrimp, scallions, etc. are also cooked in a mix of fats that include renderings from bacon or sidemeat.

                    1. re: brokegradstudent

                      I can assure you that the porkless S&G's are, in fact, 100% swine free. They sautee the shrimp in butter. I know several of the servers there are vegetarians and trust their counsel.

                      1. re: SEllis

                        This is very good to know. But for certain I was given a very stong "NO" when I asked about it. Again, I understand how restaurants feel about this, it was just a disappointment.

                        And I know that brokegradstudent is right on a LOT of places - they'll call something pork free or veg. while cooking with lard. Some people just don't really think it through.

                        1. re: LulusMom

                          I had the same experience regarding the shrimp and grits. Our server was rather rude in his refusal to accomodate. His perogative, sure - but there was certainly a better way to say no.

                          We've been - we likely won't go back. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it either. I think there are too many truly exceptional restaurants in the area to waste time or money on something that I found to be sub par.

                        2. re: SEllis

                          SEllis is right - the shrimp are cooked in butter.

                        3. re: brokegradstudent

                          You are correct on the 2-step pork prep theory. The reason I know this is that I have the original Crooks Corner Shrimp & Grits recipe that was reprinted in the November 1992 Bon Appetit.

                          The reason this sticks out in my mind is that I have every copy of the November Bon Appetit going back to 1990, not trying to age myself but 1990 was my first year out of college and I found myself with the monumental task of mastering my first Thanksgiving dinner all on my own. A very daunting task, or at least it seemed so at the time!

                          To make a long story longer <grin>, I moved to NC in 1992 and in the RSVP section of the Nov 1992 BA, the Crooks Corner Shrimp & Grits recipe appeared.

                          For me, it is still the baseline for all other shrimp & grits recipes. Being raised in Western PA - this seemed the most exotic thing I had ever heard of! I barely knew what a grit was, polenta - sure...but a grit? Who would eat something called "grit"?!?

                          I figured that if BA would endorse such a thing as a grit - I ought to check it, especially since this place was only 20 minutes from my house. Crooks was the first NC "fine dining" experience I indulged in about a week after Thanksgiving that year. The 2nd was Nana's in January of 1993. Hard to believe that both of them are still landmark locations after all this time.

                          If anyone is interested in the recipe, let me know, not sure if it would show up on the BA recipe archive. The Nov '92 was FILLED with Southern Thanksgiving specialties as it was titled "A Southern Thanksgiving". It's still probably my favorite edition, but mostly for nostalgic reasons.

                          1. re: chicaraleigh

                            chica; I'd love to have the recipe!

                            1. re: Rory

                              I've made this Crook's Corner shrimp and grits recipe about four or five times so far this year and its been EXCELLENT each time (from Southern Living, April 2004):


                              I've also seen this similar version of the same recipe, but I've never made this one (from Duke Magazine, March-April 2005):


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

                              1. re: Rory

                                Rory - sorry for the delay I have been traveling quite a bit and haven't had much time for anything besides packing and unpacking. I looked at the recipes that others have provided but none of them seem to be the one I have from the 1992 version of BA. I tried to find a link but it doesn't seem to be listed in their archives. Amazing that anyone ever cooked or shared recipes before the internet!! Any way - here's the recipe exactly as it was printed in BA. I will also post over on the recipe board just in case I'm breaking the rules by posting it here....

                                6 cups or more water
                                1/2 tsp salt
                                2 cups quick cooking grits
                                1 cup grated sharp cheddar
                                Pinch of ground nutmeg
                                Hot pepper sauce (such as Tabasco) ***I personally prefer Crystal or Louisiana****

                                12 bacon slices, coarsely chopped
                                2 pounds large shrimp - peeled and deveined
                                1/2 pound mushrooms - sliced
                                2 cups sliced green onions
                                2 large garlic cloves minced
                                2 1/2 tbl fresh lemon juice

                                1/4 cup parsley

                                Bring water and salt to boil in saucepan. Whisk in grits. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until mixture is thick and grits are tender, stirring occasionally about 10 minutes. Whisk in 1 cup cheese and nutmeg. Season to taste with hot pepper sauce. Cover and set aside.

                                Cook bacon in heavy large skillet over medium heat until brown but not crisp. Transfer bacon to small bowl, using slotted spoon. Pour off half of drippings from skillet. Add shrimp to same skillet and cook until just pink, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer shrimp to plate, using slotted spook. Add mushrooms to same skillet and saute until tender, about 4 minutes. Add green onions and garlic and saute 3 minutes. Return shrimp and bacon to skillet. Mix in lemon juice. Season with salt, pepper and hot sauce.

                                Bring grits to simmer, adding water by tablespoons if too thick. Spoon grits onto plates. Spoon shrimp mixture over. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

                        4. re: LulusMom

                          I'm surprised to hear you say that you couldn't get the shrimp and grits without pork at Crook's. I often get that dish there (well, as often as I go which is once or twice a year) and I always get it without pork. Maybe you just had a server who didn't want to ask the chef?

                          I like their shrimp and grits and have loved some of their specials - honeysuckle sorbet and local tomato salad come to mind...

                          1. re: Carolina Girl

                            I'm going to assume, based on what others have said above, that it was the server making the decision that I couldn't have the dish without pork. Servers can really screw over a place without anyone in the kitchen knowing it (i say this as a former server). However, as much as I was disappointed in not being able to try that dish, I still didn't like the food that much either time I went. Poor service, so-so food usually means I don't give them another chance. I did with this place and found the same again. I live walking distance and would love to have another local place to rely on, but this won't be it.

                            1. re: LulusMom

                              I'm in exactly the same boat. I certainly believe the posters that say it can be done - I'm just not inclined to go back. Too many restaurants that I really love that are closer to me.

                        5. I lived in the area for eight years during the nineties, and we ate at CC once that entire time, shortly after we moved to Chapel Hill. We were underwhelmed, too. My ex had the shrimp and grits, and thought I made them better, which well, he may have been biased. I found Magnolia Grill in Durham to do a much better job at a similar style of regional cooking. It was hard to get reservations, but they did a seating around the bar for mostly locals just when they opened, at 6 pm. Don't know that they still do that, but if you ever travel that way again, it's worth the drive up 15-501.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: amyzan

                            Sounds like a reasonable version, too bad the versions we've encountered held very little seasoning. Yet another in a series of off nights = just not worth it anymore. Plus, it seems to need a good cleaning/sweeping. Always with the food on the floor!

                            1. re: BebeNC

                              And I thought the floor was part of the Old South ambience....

                              Locals say the service stinks at CC unless you're a white guy in the local literary circle. It's very much a place to see and be seen, especially in summer outside on the patio.

                          2. I've never eaten at the restaurant, but I make their Shrimp and Grits recipe regularly, and there is no better, IMO.

                            13 Replies
                            1. re: pikawicca

                              thanks for the recipe! Is the bacon fat left in the pan for the shrimp? I'm asking as at home I cook grits with olive oil...and I'd use the same for shrimp.

                              1. re: Rory

                                No - saute the shrimp in butter not bacon fat.

                                1. re: Jeanne

                                  I'm not questioning what the servers say is practice in the restaurant kitchen but almost all the versions of the CC recipe I've seen say to use the bacon drippings to cook the shrimp.

                                  It is also worth pointing out that the shrimp and grits is a hold-over from the Bill Neal days. I've found in many other restaurants that over time the signature dish drifts away from the original, particularly as the generations of staff cycle through. The shrimp and grits is also odd as a dish on a decidedly seasonal menu that is constant across seasons (and shrimp, in NC, are a seasonal product).

                                  This is why, at Crooks and most other places, I try to order things that are newly added. At Crooks this is fairly easy since if one goes twice in a month, a good portion of the menu will have turned over. Whenever I eat there, I try to order something I saw at the Carrboro market that week.

                                  Dishes I've particularly enjoyed over the years:
                                  Cheese pork, though the rutabaga mash was as big a hit as the meat
                                  corned ham (probably the best thing I ate last year)
                                  soft-shell crabs with 2 slaws
                                  headin' south (duck 2 ways)
                                  some bleedingly fresh sugar snaps with a hanger steak
                                  parsnip pie in winter
                                  brussel sprout and blue cheese salad
                                  persimmon pudding
                                  the sorbets

                                  1. re: brokegradstudent

                                    brokegradstudent - I'm with you on this. I never, ever order the shrimp and grits. I know it will always be on the menu and I get excited to try the seasonal specials. I think those who are judging Crooks on one dish (granted, their specialty dish) should try some other items on the menu.

                                    I agree about the corned ham and cheese pork - terrific. I love all the steak preparations. I'm not a fan of the persimmon pudding, but love the sorbets and ice creams. I love the picnic plate! Gumbo is great. Chicken and dumplings, chicken livers - well, you get the idea. We like the other dishes!

                                    1. re: wintersummer

                                      Lots of discussion, some of it not even in relationship to what the orginal post was about. The facts were about the food being bland, the service being poor, the attitude of managment, and just the dullness of the place.
                                      It was not meant to debate that we ordered the wrong items, or the recipes were not authentic according to some, that we should not have expected a five star meal, or as someone said that they have never had a perfect meal anywhere(I have had plenty of perfect meals from whole in the wall, to white tablecloth establishments)
                                      This board is devoted to the apprecation of food, wine, service, recipes, and dining out.
                                      Crooks corner was a let down no matter what , AMEN. I just want to warn any potential customers not to waste their money, there are much better choices out there and if we could save one person from going there, then that's a good thing.

                                      1. re: rf24230

                                        Ah well - next time you visit you'll have to take the leap and come over to big, bad Durham. We have some amazing food over here. Magnolia Grill and Watts Grocery are just two of the places which take Southern cuisine to new levels.

                                        Watts Grocery
                                        1116 Broad Street, Durham, NC 27705

                                        1. re: suse

                                          Comparing Magnolia Grill and Crooks is like comparing an opera to a rock concert. A bad opera to a Springsteen show. Magnolia is the height of pretension and elaborate, elegant, "fine dining", while Crooks rarely has an entree for twenty bucks. Watts and Crook are more comparable. And if you think Watts is better than Crooks, I'm happy for you, but strongly disagree.

                                          1. re: blweis

                                            I can't say as I've never eaten at Crooks, but I do like Watts an awful lot as that go to for a nice (if sometimes noisy) dinner without the air of sophistication that maybe a Magnolia has. I must say that I think the soon to be departed Bonn Soiree though was much more elegant and fine dining like than Magnolia.

                                        2. re: rf24230

                                          rf24230 --- You have had one experience with this restaurant. You felt it was sub-par. WE GET IT. You don't have to go back and Crook's will continue to prosper.

                                          But when you state "if we could save one person from going there, then that's a good thing", I think that's a strong overreaction based on the experience you described and one that reeks with malace due to over-inflated expectations.

                                          1. re: rf24230

                                            "Crooks corner was a let down no matter what , AMEN." That is YOUR opinion. Obviously there are many people who disagree.

                                            1. re: Jeanne

                                              Lets just try to remember that this is a site that is exactly for people's opinions. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't.

                                              1. re: LulusMom

                                                Exactly LulusMom - so therefore no one person is right in their opinion. Everyone has an opinion - as everyone has their own tastes.

                                                And to address another issue of the original poster's complaint - I've never had server problems at Crooks - my experience is that they have been trained and friendly. Maybe others have had negative experiences - not me.

                                    2. re: Rory

                                      The recipe that I have says to use 1 T. of the drippings to saute, so that's what I do.