Good restaurants beget good restaurants. One positive experience leads to another, drawing in talented cooks and servers who then go on to open their own restaurants, spreading outward like the roots of a tree, until a region becomes known for culinary excellence and distinctive cuisine that can stand on its own.

In the Triangle, Crook’s Corner is at the center of those roots. The iconic restaurant was opened in 1982 by Bill Neal and Gene Hamer. Earlier this summer, the new ownership—who bought the restaurant from Hamer in 2018—announced that the restaurant would close. (In a recent interview with the INDY, Hamer did add this: “I am hopeful that it will reopen. And there’s a possibility that it will.”)

In its nearly 40 years of business, Crook’s, and the people who worked in it, left an indelible legacy on North Carolina, one that continues to deeply influence the way we eat across the American South.

“In the beginning of the local food movement, the South is a really important location, and Crook’s is central to that,” says Marcie Cohen Ferris, professor emeritus of American Studies professor at UNC Chapel Hill and a longtime regular at Crook’s. “What Crook’s did was to celebrate—not elevate—the ordinary and the everyday of Southern cuisine.”

If you ever ate at Crook’s, sliding into the wide booths or bellying up to the Lucite bar, you probably had an order of the shrimp and grits. First introduced to the menu by Neal in the mid 80s, it became Crook’s most famed and revelatory dish. While shrimp and grits is, by now, almost a cliché of Southern menus, Neal was one of the first chefs to present the dish as more than what it had previously been—a common breakfast dish for fishermen in the low country of South Carolina, where Neal had grown up.

The dish, as Neal served it, was made famous in 1985 when Craig Claiborne, then The New York Times food critic and a Southerner himself, visited Chapel Hill, ate at Crook’s Corner, and wrote several articles about Neal’s food. These pieces brought Southern food and the North Carolina restaurant scene into the national spotlight for the first time in a serious way.

Neal quickly became known for his academic approach to cooking, spending hours in the UNC libraries reading about Southern food, as well as for his commitment to cooking with the seasons. He was among the first American chefs to present an ever-changing menu that was written daily based on what was available to him from local farmers. In 1985, he authored the influential UNC Press cookbook, Southern Cooking.

In many ways, Neal’s rise to fame mirrored that of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, who are often acknowledged as the birthplace of the American farm-to-table movement. In 1991, Neal died at the age of 41, a victim of AIDS. The disease cut his life and blossoming career cruelly short.

Many Southern chefs equate his influence on American cuisine to that of Waters’.

When Ben and Karen Barker—who opened (and in 2012, closed) the legendary Magnolia Grill in Durham—were fresh out of culinary school in 1982, they considered only two locations: they would either move to Northern California, where they hoped to catch the influence of Waters’ local, seasonal cooking, or North Carolina, where they hoped to work for Bill Neal. At that time, Neal was a young Southern chef who was just making his way at La Residence, which he ran with his then-wife Moreton Neal, cooking Southern-inflected, locally driven French food.

The story goes that, although Neal wouldn’t hire the Barkers due to their cooking school backgrounds (Neal preferred to train cooks from scratch), they found jobs in the kitchen of La Residence as Neal left to open Crook’s Corner. Even from a distance—about a half-mile between the restaurants, to be precise—his influence on their cooking was significant.

“Karen and I were mentored in absentia by Bill,” says Ben Barker. “Because everyone who worked [at La Residence] had learned from him, they were all acolytes and they did things the way that he had taught them.”

The Barkers’ Magnolia Grill wasn’t the only famed Southern restaurant to be influenced by Crook’s Corner. John Currence, owner of several Oxford, Mississippi, restaurants, including City Grocery and Bouré, among others, got his start at Crook’s Corner, as did Robert Stehling, who ran Charleston icon Hominy Grill, which closed in 2019 after 23 years. Both restaurants had seasonal menus of Southern classics, and both served shrimp and grits.

“Crook’s helped Southern cooks be so thoroughly proud of the food of where we come from that we were never ashamed to cook our legacy cuisine,” Barker said. “It’s enabled us to be proud and powerful interpreters of the food that our grandparents and great grandparents cooked. Neal helped us all realize that our food was as refined and elegant in its own special way as the greatest French cuisine.”

After Claiborne’s visit for the Times in 1985, the lines to get into Crook’s Corner stretched longer and longer until Hamer and Neal introduced reservations in the interest of preserving space for their regulars. They swapped paper napkins for linen ones, but they never introduced tablecloths, and they never stopped wanting the restaurant to be friendly, casual, and affordable. Unlike some of the other Southern restaurants of the era, the desire for Crook’s to be accessible to all kinds of people was baked into the vision from the very beginning.

“I remember that once [the architect] Buckminster Fuller was giving a talk or something on campus,” Hamer says. “The department brought him to Crook’s to eat and he was sitting there, and the construction guys were sitting right next to him, and Bill [Neal] comes up to me and he said ‘Look at that Gene. We’ve got Buckminster Fuller, and then the people that make his dreams happen.’ He was really proud of that.”

After Neal passed away in 1991, Hamer brought on Bill Smith, who had worked under Neal at La Residence, to run the kitchen. Smith ran Crook’s for 25 years, steering the restaurant into the 21st century and retaining the spirit of the restaurant with a seasonal menu based on locally available ingredients and a casual, welcoming setting, all while evolving it. He was nominated twice for a James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast, and wrote several cookbooks. He also became known for his immigration advocacy, working to support his largely-immigrant kitchen staff, many who were close friends to Smith.

“Crook’s reflects the changing story of labor and immigration in North Carolina,” Ferris says. “It’s a place where we can see the changing demographics and the powerful impact of Latinx immigration upon our region and the food here.”

Smith encouraged that influence, recognizing and celebrating the culinary connections between the South and Mexico and adding dishes like pozole, a Mexican stew made with pork and hominy, both common ingredients in Southern cooking, to the menu.

The closure of Crook’s Corner, announced on June 9, 2021, is hardly shocking to anyone who has been paying attention to the devastation that COVID-19 wrought on the restaurant industry. But it’s still painful.

“I want Crook’s to be as old as Antoine’s,” Hamer said recently, referencing the New Orleans restaurant that has been open since 1840. “I’m very proud of what we built at Crook’s. Of course I’m proud of the food. But I’m more proud of everything else that we built. It took the food to bring people in, but really it was what we all did to keep them coming back.”

Crook’s lives on at Neal’s Deli, where Neal’s son Matt bakes some of the best biscuits in the state of North Carolina. It lives on in the recipes published in Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking and in Bill Smith’s Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and Home and Crabs and Oysters: A Savor the South Cookbook. And it lives further on, of course, in the plates of shrimp and grits served in restaurants and at kitchen tables all across the country.  

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Crook’s Corner had been open nearly 30 years. It has been open nearly 40.

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