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The flavors of North Carolina: Chapel Hill

People in Chapel Hill, North Carolina call it “the southern part of heaven.”  This vibrant university town with a wide range of educational, sports, and cultural resources also has has an abundance of restaurants, craft beverages and shops.

It’s surrounded by unique towns and wide open spaces with farm-fresh products. This adds to the quality the area’s cuisine, from simple picnics to the exceptional farm-to-table meals prepared by award-winning chefs.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Visit the University of North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill and you will see why it is is consistently rated one of the most beautiful in America. And it’s more than just a pretty place. 

Founded in 1792, it was America’s first public university. And its rich history is complemented today by a focus on cutting-edge technology.  Together with Duke in Durham and North Carolina State University in Raleigh, UNC is part of North Carolina’s innovative Research Triangle.

Visitors can enjoy the range of what UNC has to offer at little or low cost.

Reach for the stars at Morehead Planetarium & Science Center, one of the country’s oldest and largest planetariums.

Morehead’s stellar reputation led to it being the site of celestial navigation training for over 60 NASA astronauts between 1959 and 1975.

UNC’s illustrious Tar Heels basketball team has won dozens of NCAA championships. Learn more about it, free of charge, at the Carolina Basketball Museum.

Admission is also free to the university’s Ackland Art Museum, a treasure trove of European, Asian, 20th century and contemporary art. There’s no fee to walk the nature trails or to visit the themed gardens at UNC’s 1,000 acre North Carolina Botanical Garden, which includes carnivorous and aquatic plants.

Or catch a play or musical performance at Memorial Hall and PlayMakers Repertory Company.

The two-block historic district is right by the campus. The Horace Williams House, the only historic house open to the public, is open Thursday and Friday 12-4, and Sunday 2-5 pm.

For the ultimate in Southern hospitality and antebellum plantation style, book a stay at the Carolina Inn. It’s the only hotel right on campus and is ranked 4 Diamond by AAA.

It is on the former site of the Chapel on the Hill for which town named and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Alumnus John Sprunt Hill, Class of 1889, donated the property to the university, stipulating all profits go to its library. 

Food and drink

Friday evenings April through October folks head for the Carolina Inn’s Friday’s on the Porch, a time, as the sign says, to “sip, savor and socialize.”  Bands play, food trucks line up and food and drink is sold on the lawn.

The inn’s Crossroads Chapel Hill Restaurant, also rated 4 Diamonds by AAA, is highly regarded for the quality of its contemporary and classic Southern fare. It is a favorite spot for Sunday Brunch.

Walk to the restaurants, shops and bars of Historic Franklin Street, named for Benjamin Franklin. One of the latest area attractions is the Blue Dogwood Public Market—an indoor market and food hall where you can relax and enjoy local food. 

Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery, “TOPO,” uses locally sourced ingredients. It makes its own spirits —including spiced rum and TOPO Reserve Carolina Straight Wheat Whiskey — and is the only certified organic and fully-local distillery in the South. Beer is brewed onsite. Book in advance for the longer tour with an owner or take a shorter walk-in tour.

A few miles away, Southern Season, at 60,000 square feet, is one of America’s largest specialty food stores. It’s the place to find culinary gifts, edible souvenirs, food and wine for a picnic or a quick meal at the café.

Try a Weathervane Elderflower Cocktail or a Signature Old Fashioned, some traditional favorites like Chicken and Waffles, Fried Green Tomato BLT, or Shrimp and Grits with redeye gravy at Southern Season’s Weathervane Restaurant. Their cooking school features culinary experts and celebrity chefs.

For one of the best meals in town try Chef Teddy Diggs’ cuisine at Il Palio, rated AAA Four-Diamond by AAA. You might want to sit at the large communal chef’s table. Start your meal with the 500 day aged Prosciutto di Palma, with baby arugula, aged balsamic vinegar, with grissini (Italian breadsticks). Sink your teeth into a wood-grilled veal chop, cooked on the custom wood-fired grill, and complete your meal with a Sicilian Pistachio Semifreddo dessert. Pair it all with your favorite wine from the 20 regions of Italy.

For another exceptional meal try the fusion of Asian flavors and locally sourced ingredients at Lantern Restaurant.  Accolades include being named one of “America’s Top 50 Restaurants” and “best farm-to-table restaurants” by Gourmet Magazine. Food & Wine included it in “America’s 50 Most Amazing Wine Experiences.” 

Chef-owner Andrea Reusing is on the boards of the Center of Environmental Farming Systems and is the 2011 winner of the James Beard award for Best Chef. Try some pea shoot and scallion dumplings with some Bi Bim Bop, seared local grass-fed beef, chestnut sticky rice, marinated seasonal vegetables, slow-cooked farm egg, house made hot pepper sauce.

Carrboro

Head over to neighboring Carrboro, a hip former mill town where, they say, the uncommon is common. Once known as a railroad depot for UNC, it now attracts artists, farmers, musicians, writers, and performers.

Joan Baez and Nirvana are among the top performers at Cat’s Cradle, the area’s nationally recognized premier live music venue. You’ll find new and well-established performers here, under a mile from UNC.

Where else can you learn to dance artistically using a hoop? Carrboro is home to some of the originators of the modern hooping movement.

Carrboro is also known for its unique art galleries and live music scene, specialty shops, colorful farmers’ market and diverse food and drink. The Weaver Street Market is a co-op natural foods store and café in the historic Carr Mill Mall, a former textile mill listed In the National Register of Historic Places. 

Saturdays and Wednesdays meet local farmers and artisans at Carrboro’s Farmers’ Market, where the sign reads “Locally grown – nationally known.” Enjoy farm-fresh favorites and find locally produced gifts and souvenirs here.

Pair some wine with the Mediterranean-inspired seasonal-American fare at Glasshalfull. Try COCA, a crisp Spanish flatbread with caramelized onions, goat cheese, preserved figs, shallots, garlic, shiitake mushrooms, and arugula. Finish with a Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Budino with black tea creme Anglaise, chocolate syrup, and toasted hazelnuts. Ingredients are locally sourced and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays 10% of sales donated to local charities.

Across the street, sip award-winning gourmet coffee at “Carrboro’s Living Room,”  the Open Eye Café. It’s adjacent to Carrboro Coffee Roaster, where coffee beans from the world’s best coffee growing areas are expertly roasted in small batches. Owner and coffee expert Scott Conary consults worldwide, is a certified coffee competition judge, and has been awarded with top finishes in several barista competitions.

Historic Hillsborough

This small town with a big history is called “a museum without walls” and is on the National Historic Register of Historic Places. William Hooper, who signed the Declaration of Independence, is buried in the Old Town Cemetery. The Visitors Center was Civil War General General Johnston’s headquarters when he surrendered to General Sherman.

The downtown district features signs naming prominent past residents and about 100 late-18th century and early-19th century buildings.  As one of the oldest communities in North Carolina, it was a trade center, and, briefly, the state capital during the American Revolution.

CNN named Hillsborough “One of the Coolest Small Towns in America.”  Browse the Churn Street shops for unique gifts. Take a stroll along the Eno River on the1.8 mile Riverwalk. Stop to see Patrick Dougherty’s stickwork sculpture “A Sight to Behold”, built of Hillsborough brush. It was inspired by the pleasure dome in “Kubla Khan,” a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Hillsborough is also home to so many authors, like Frances Mayes who wrote “Under the Tuscan Sun,”  that the Wall Street Journal called it “America’s Little Literary Town”

Don’t be misled by the plain exterior of of the Federal-era plantation house known as Ayr Mount. The interior makes it one of the area’s grandest homes. This historic house museum is on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was built of brick in 1815, at the end of the War of 1812, when others used wood, by William Kirkland, who named it for his birthplace, Ayr, Scotland. Guided public tours include family stories and area history.

The Burwell School Historic Site is a a two-acre property that includes minister Robert Burwell and his wife Margaret’s home and the Academy for Young Ladies. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly, their harshly-treated slave and Robert’s half sister, bought her freedom with the help of patrons and made her way to Washington D.C.. She wrote a book on how her sewing skills led to her being Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker. Free docent-led tours are offered.

Bon Appetite Magazine named Hillsborough “America’s Foodiest Small Town.” Aaron Vandemark, Executive Chef-Proprietor at the Italian-influenced locally-sourced farm-to-table Pancuito has been a James Beard Foundation Semifinalist: Best Chef, Southeast 2011-2016.

Agritourism

Maple View Farm

Chapel Hill is surrounded by beautiful countryside. Somehow the ice cream tastes even better with a view of the black and white dairy Holsteins grazing on the green pastures. Food and Wine named Maple View Farm #4 in the Best Ice Cream Spots in the U.S. And it’s just about ten miles from the UNC campus.

Sit on their front porch with a cone of some freshly churned premium Carolina Crunch, hand-crafted in small batches and made from hormone and antibiotic free cream. Local ingredients, like fresh berries, North Carolina pecans, and Orange County honey are used to create the freshest seasonal flavors.

Don’t miss the award-winning fresh and aged cheese from Chapel Hill Creamery, a small farmstead facility where cheese is made in small batches from the creamy milk of their own herd of 30 Jersey cows.

Owners Portia McKnight & Flo Hawley say  “Cows are mothers. Treat them with respect.” Heritage-breed whey-fed pigs are part of the cycle of sustainable farming practices. Attend the the annual Piedmont Farm Tour and you might meet Fryer the ox.

For some herbal therapy in a tranquil countryside sanctuary head to Honeysuckle Tea House. It’s built of of repurposed materials and looks like a treehouse. Berries and beehives flourish in this pollinator-friendly habitat about 8 miles west of downtown. Relax inside or in the shady hammock garden with their farm-to-beverage products that include teas, berry-based smoothies, and mead, all made from naturally grown berries and herbs. Pick up some herbal remedies and therapeutic products to enjoy back home. 

For more information on guided or self-guided tours of the area, check the VisitChapel Hill website https://www.visitchapelhill.org/things-to-do/guided-tours/

On a road trip? Pick up a copy of D. G.Martin’s “Roadside Eateries” and taste your way thorough North Carolina’s food and history.

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