Crook’s Corner, a Landmark North Carolina Restaurant, Has Closed
It led the modern revival of Southern cuisine nearly 40 years ago, and remained a seedbed for talented chefs and new ideas.,
Crook’s Corner, the restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., that helped spark a renaissance in Southern cuisine starting in the 1980s, has permanently closed, Shannon Healy, an owner, said Wednesday.
Mr. Healy said the business, which shut down in the spring of 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic, struggled to regain its footing after reopening last fall. It served its final meals on Sunday night.
“The pandemic kind of crushed us,” he said. “We were trying to reorganize some debt, and we just couldn’t get it done.”
Crook’s Corner was opened in 1982 by Gene Hammer and Bill Neal inside a former fish market. Mr. Neal had made his name locally as a chef with the French restaurant La Residence, which he opened with his wife, Moreton Neal. He envisioned Crook’s as a new kind of Southern restaurant: a place where the region’s food would be treated with reverence.
This was unusual in the early 1980s, said Bill Smith, a longtime chef at the restaurant. “Crook’s treated Southern cuisine like it was delicious cuisine instead of the food of the Beverly Hillbillies,” he said. Mr. Neal “insisted Southern cuisine belonged in the pantheon.”
The restaurant caught the attention of Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor, who was himself a Southerner. In a 1985 article, Mr. Claiborne called Mr. Neal “one of today’s finest young Southern chefs,” and praised Crook’s versions of hoppin’ John, shrimp and grits and muddle, a fish stew from the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Crook’s, as locals referred to it, became part of a national movement of chefs and restaurants focusing on local cuisine and ingredients, said Marcie Cohen Ferris, an emeritus professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“It was one of those sites — and there weren’t many around our country in 1980s — where restaurateurs, farmers, food entrepreneurs and local craftspeople were starting to come together,” Dr. Ferris said. “Then Crook’s becomes this incubator of new Southern cuisine, because so many young people come through there.”
The James Beard award winners John Currence, of Oxford, Miss., and Robert Stehling, of Charleston, S.C., are among the prominent Southern chefs who worked with Mr. Neal early in their careers.
Mr. Neal died of AIDS at age 41, in 1991. Mr. Smith, who worked with Mr. Neal at La Residence, took over the kitchen at Crook’s, and continued to introduce signature Southern dishes, like fried oysters with garlic mayonnaise and Atlantic Beach pie, a lemon pie with a saltine cracker crust.
The casual restaurant, known for its fiberglass pig statue and hubcap collection outside, never relied on the trappings of European fine dining. And the menu was always seasonal. “If you could get soft-shell crabs and honeysuckle sorbet on the same night, that was reason for celebration,” Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Smith retired soon after Mr. Healy and his business partner, Gary Crunkleton, bought Crook’s from Mr. Hammer in 2018. Carrie Schleiffer took over as chef from Justin Burdett, Mr. Smith’s successor, in April.
Mr. Healy was a bartender and manager at the restaurant for years before he became an owner. He said he was drawn to the restaurant in part by its lack of pretension.
“Instead of making simple things sound fancy, they did the opposite,” he said, like using the words “garlic mayonnaise” on the menu instead of aioli. “The tables looked like an old diner on purpose. When it opened, the idea that you were doing excellent food in a non-white-tablecloth environment was very different.”