photographs by Charles Harris

Population: 22,850 Median Age: 35 New Residents Each Day:You Might Know: Chris Archer, MLB pitcher

Years ago, when residents of Clayton wanted to host community events, stage live performances, put on pageants, or hold corporate meetings, they gathered in the auditorium of Clayton Elementary School. But the school closed in 1997, leaving the community without a central meeting place. “When it stopped operating as a school, nobody knew what was going to happen to the buildings,” says Lyn Austin, president of the Clayton Cultural Arts Foundation. “It was the hub of social activities, and we didn’t feel like we could lose that.” So Austin, a longtime downtown booster and then-president of the Woman’s Club of Clayton, agreed to chair a committee charged with transforming the building into a performing arts center, which opened in 2002. “It’s called The Clayton Center for a reason,” Austin says. “This facility is a commitment to the residents of this town. And because it’s here and it’s the center of activity for the community, it spurred interest in development in the downtown area. Now when we come downtown, especially on weekends, we can barely find a parking spot.”



Sculpture Trail. Sculptures made by artists from across the Southeast are scattered throughout downtown and rotate annually. “It’s such a fun way to showcase art,” Austin says. “There’s such a heart for the arts in the air here.”

Clayton Center for the Arts. The performing arts center in the former elementary school stages live music, theater productions, and film festivals. “We have a 600-seat auditorium, and many of our performances sell out,” Austin says. Rotating exhibits featuring the work of local visual artists are displayed in the lobby.

111 East 2nd Street
Clayton, NC 27520
(919) 553-3152

Main Street Community Garden. In 2012, the parking lot of an old hardware store was transformed into a multiuse space for the community. Now, anyone can help grow fresh veggies for those in need, walk the winding trail, relax on the meditation bench, or admire the public art.

439 East Main Street
Clayton, NC 27520
(919) 274-4486



The Market at Three Little Birds. Owner Christi Thompson has been refinishing vintage furniture for almost 12 years. In 2015, Thompson convinced other artists to join her and opened a shop downtown that now supports 100 North Carolina creators.

225 East Main Street
Clayton, NC 27520
(919) 585-4648

The Market at Three Little Birds features wares from 100 North Carolina creators.  photograph by Charles Harris



Jones Cafe. “It’s a landmark,” Austin says of the family-owned restaurant, which has been serving hamburgers and hot dogs since 1958. “We have two global pharmaceutical companies here, and they take visitors from all over the world to Jones for lunch.”

415 East Main Street
Clayton, NC 27520
(919) 553-7528


These hot dogs speak for themselves. Taste Jones Cafe’s legendary dogs the next time you’re in Clayton. photograph by Charles Harris

Manning’s Restaurant. Austin calls this downtown restaurant “a real success” for bringing Southern-inspired dishes like Carolina crab cakes, shrimp and grits, and chicken-and-sausage gumbo to downtown.

406 East Main Street
Clayton, NC 27520
(919) 585-7005


Dine on Southern-style cuisine at Manning’s Restaurant. photograph by Charles Harris

Patty Cake’s Littlest Cupcake Shop. Stop by the small shop tucked behind Main Street and order a box of colorful cupcakes to go. The chocolate cream cheese crunch, lemon buttercream, and chocolate cookie monster are local favorites.

318 East 2nd Street
Clayton, NC 27520
(919) 243-0011




Deep River Brewing Company. Johnston County’s first (legal) brewery opened in 2013. “In good weather, the whole parking lot is filled with people with their dogs, having a beer,” Austin says.

700 West Main Street #102
Clayton, NC 27520
(919) 585-2296

Boulevard West Coffee. Stop in for lattes and breakfast sandwiches during the day, and return in the evening for beer or wine and occasional live music. “No matter what time of day I go by there, it’s always full,” Austin says.

104 West Main Street
Clayton, NC 27520
(919) 243-1384


Embrace the local community at this coffee spot. photograph by Charles Harris

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North Carolina-based journalist Jodi Helmer writes about food, farming, and the environment.