Fried chicken, barbecue, flounder — it’s all good at Eddie’s in Newton Grove.
A dinner plate only holds so much food. You know this before you look down at the plastic plate in your hands and then up at the buffet inside Eddie’s Cafe in Newton Grove.
Standing in the line of lunch-crowd customers, you try to figure out a solution. You try to come up with something that’s reasonable, agreeable, and that somehow feels right. With each step forward, you weigh your options.
You could pick up a chicken breast, but that would take up a full quarter of your plate. And yet it’s fried chicken, and that’s almost always good. You could mound chopped barbecue on your plate and use the serving spoon to press it down and make it compact. That way you’d have more room for the chitlins, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, and candied yams. You could get a little bit of everything, including all five meats offered today: baby flounder, fried chicken, barbecue, pot roast, and trout. But a sign on the buffet warns, “Take what you want but eat what you take,” and you don’t know if you can stomach it all.
The possibilities are plenty, but when it comes your turn, you work quickly to reach, grip, and dip the black-handled spoons. You make your choice, and you keep moving.
The same route
Depending on where you come from, Eddie’s Cafe is a different exit off the traffic circle that is the heart of this small Sampson County town. Six roads lead into the circle — officially Weeks Circle — so, once inside, you choose to go one of five different places or to head back where you came from.
Ronnie and Janet Hobbs own Eddie’s, and each morning, they arrive at the restaurant by the same route. They drive four miles north on U.S. Highway 701 up Clinton Street to the circle, travel half its circumference — past N.C. Highway 55 to Mount Olive and U.S. Highway 13 to Goldsboro — take the third exit onto Main Street, head north a quarter of a mile, and pull into the restaurant’s gravel parking lot.
The couple bought Eddie’s nine years ago from a man named Eddie, who was the son of a man named Henry, who was the first man to open a restaurant in the building. Henry named it Henry’s, and the name stuck. People still remember it even after a handful of other names appeared on the building. None of those stayed long, until Eddie bought the restaurant more than 20 years ago.
Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of others, Ronnie and Janet kept the name and the big, wooden sign out front that declares “EDDIE’S” in deep red letters. They also kept the food, including the secret recipe for fried chicken that’s been passed down. And the seafood buffet that people look forward to on Friday and Saturday nights.
Ronnie monitors the food on the buffet, shuttling between the kitchen and dining room to keep the pans full for the next customer in line. Janet works the register, answers the telephone, and makes sure every table has pitchers of sweet tea and water. They sit down to eat their own lunch around 2:30 p.m. They stay busy.
If you’re like many people who yield at the circle in Newton Grove, you’re just passing through. You’re on your way to somewhere else, but chances are, you’ve been here before. And if you’ve been here before, you remember Eddie’s.
Susan Hudson and Janie Matthews are on their way back to Goldsboro, where Hudson lives, after welcoming Matthews’s grandson home from Afghanistan at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville. The sisters grew up in Sampson County near Clinton and remember going to a restaurant off Main Street with a sign with big red letters, a red front door, and four stone columns supporting the front. Matthews, who lives in California now, wondered if it was still there.
Sitting at the edge of the circle on Fayetteville Street, they both wonder what exit it is. They wait their turn, pull forward, and move with the flow of traffic. They pass U.S. Highway 701 to Clinton, N.C. Highway 55 to Mount Olive, U.S. Highway 13 to Goldsboro; take the fourth exit to Main Street; head north a quarter of a mile; and pull into Eddie’s gravel parking lot. They stand in line, scoop up their food — fried chicken, barbecue, and Eddie’s signature made-from-scratch banana pudding — and slide into a booth near a window along the whitewashed front wall. A shelf above Hudson holds small pig figurines and other assorted knickknacks. On the table, a squeeze bottle of Texas Pete and two square, glass cruets — one filled with apple-cider vinegar, the other with vinegar and red pepper flakes — sit ready to flavor the barbecue, turnip greens, and black-eyed peas. A roll of paper towels is within reach. Outside, the traffic rumbles by.
Pudding and pound cake
Two locals dine at the booth behind Matthews and Hudson. Angelo and Peggy San Fratello live about 10 miles northeast of Eddie’s along a stretch of back roads sandwiched between Newton Grove and Mount Olive.
Husband and wife, they work together as hunting guides. They have a lodge called the Polecat Hall of Horns and a recipe for venison stew. They own enough property to live off their land, but they come to Eddie’s because not many places in town offer a buffet, salad bar, dessert, and drink for $8.
Mostly, they come for the banana pudding. Warm from the kitchen, it’s spooned into a Styrofoam bowl. The meringue weeps because the pudding hasn’t cooled. Angelo smiles because it satisfies his sweet tooth.
For Angelo’s 50th birthday, Peggy ordered a pound cake — a Crisco pound cake — from Eddie’s. It’s one of the best-known cakes that Janet prepares at the restaurant. The fat in the shortening makes the cake moist and tasty.
Peggy sent Angelo and his twin brother to pick up the cake. They drove east on N.C. Highway 55 to Newton Grove, turned right into the traffic circle, passed U.S. Highway 13 to Goldsboro, took the second exit onto Main Street, headed north a quarter of a mile, and pulled into Eddie’s gravel parking lot.
The brothers picked up the cake, paid for it, and noticed it was still warm from the oven and smelled of margarine and sugar. Then they realized that, at 50, they’d lived at least half their lives. That from here on out life’s possibilities get fewer and that others will start making decisions for them. So they reached into the cake box and ate their birthday cake.
Peggy laughs as she tells the story, and her metal fork scrapes the bottom of her plate to punctuate the end. She and Angelo slide out of their booth along the whitewashed front wall near a window and walk over to pay Janet at the register. Then, they walk out the red front door, past the big sign with red letters, and drive to the circle. They’re happy with their choice to eat at Eddie’s today, and they head back where they came from.
502 Main Street
Newton Grove, N.C. 28366
Jeffrey Turner is the assistant editor at Our State magazine. His most recent story was “Second Helping” (May 2012).