CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — As a native of the Triangle, a place I still visit at least twice a year, you’d think I’d have a working knowledge of the best restaurants in the area. But my parents are amazing cooks, and instead of dinners at Fearrington House in Pittsboro or Poole’s in downtown Raleigh I usually eat on the patio off my their backyard. But just a few weeks back when Edible Communities won our James Beard Foundation award for publication of the year, I met Andrea Reusing, who’d just won Best Chef in the Southeast for her hard work at the nine-year-old Chapel Hill restaurant called The Lantern. So I decided when I next went back, her place was where I wanted to eat.
It was an incredible meal — The Lantern is southeast Asian done with all hyper-local seasonal ingredients — and the six of us at our table (three New Yorkers, one Chicagoan and two North Carolinians) were all impressed. Not just with The Lantern’s fried local soft shell crab with black bean and pepper sauce or the grass-fed beef sashimi, served just barely warm with luscious sauce of a chile oil and pureed sea urchin, but with the fact that we weren’t eating some gussied up version of Southern food, which is akin to somebody from Atlanta expecting bagels and pizza on every menu in Manhattan. In other words, a totally wrong impression. These days, chefs from the region are blowing minds in every corner and cross-section of cuisine.
Not that I have any problem with Southern food, gussied up or otherwise. Some of the incredible meals I have eaten out recently in my old home state have been rooted in the region’s cuisine, at places like Watts Grocery. And, I have to admit, mere hours before heading into The Lantern, the tourists in our dining party decided to stop in at the famous restaurant started by Mildred Council in 1976 for $64 for fried chicken, hush puppies, biscuits, field peas, lima beans, greens, macaroni and cheese, chicken fried steak and chicken and dumplings, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. Called Mama Dip’s, it sits in a big house with a wide porch less than a quarter-mile from Reusing’s place.
If you were wondering why Chapel Hill always ranks so high in those great places to live lists, the proximity of these two places are probably why.