A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_138429" align="alignright" width="231"] Chef Mike Mills.[/caption] When your 15-year-old son — who’s never made so much as his own sandwich — walks into the living room one afternoon and

Madison County Championship Rodeo

[caption id="attachment_138429" align="alignright" width="231"] Chef Mike Mills.[/caption] When your 15-year-old son — who’s never made so much as his own sandwich — walks into the living room one afternoon and

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_138429" align="alignright" width="231"] Chef Mike Mills.[/caption] When your 15-year-old son — who’s never made so much as his own sandwich — walks into the living room one afternoon and

Chef Mike Mills. photograph by Chris Hannant

When your 15-year-old son — who’s never made so much as his own sandwich — walks into the living room one afternoon and announces that he wants to become a chef, you can laugh and order a pizza, or you can take him seriously, which is what Janne Mills did. She called a local Elizabeth City restaurateur friend and hired him to give her son, Mike, weekly private “cheffing lessons.”

Mike went on to attend Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, where his main takeaways were that he wasn’t cut out to be a pastry chef, and that cooking delicious, beautiful food is as much of an art form as sculpting or painting. The degree led to culinary gigs in Southern Shores, Duck, Concord, and Kansas City, Kansas.

When his wife’s job beckoned them back to Elizabeth City in 2018, Mike decided that he was ready to open his own tapas restaurant, The Mills Downtown Bistro. (Elizabeth City, however, may not have been ready for tapas: When word got around that a “topless” restaurant was opening in the charming, revitalized downtown, a pronunciation correction campaign, as well as a Facebook post defining tapas, was hurriedly launched.)

The Mills family also launched a full rehab of a late-1800s corner building that had housed a grocery store, a furniture store, and, most recently, a bar called “Thumpers,” decked out in purple, orange, and green. The neon decor was a far cry from Mike’s vision of a Roaring Twenties and speakeasy ’30s ambience. The exposed brick walls were cleaned and glazed, and an acoustic pressed-tin ceiling was installed. The bar boasts 130-year-old reclaimed brick, its top constructed of wooden planks from a Weeksville farm.

Every order is served on vintage china to remind you of bygone eras, meaning that the crostini platter might arrive on a clear glass “punch plate”: ovoid, with a small, circular indentation meant to hold your punch cup while you nibble. Though the trio of thick, diagonal slabs of baguette are hardly nibbles. Avocado, jumbo lump crabmeat, and jalapeño crown one; Parmesan, prosciutto, and grilled asparagus top another. “This one,” Janne solemnly advises of the goat cheese with roasted grapes and crushed candied walnuts, “you might have to have a moment after you bite into it. It’s that good.”

Historical photos of the restaurant’s building add to the throwback feel for diners enjoying Mike Mills’s dishes. photograph by Chris Hannant

Crepes and flatbreads have joined the tapas offerings, including a green onion Parmesan crepe filled with Fontina, spinach, bacon, and mushrooms, and an apple, bacon, and Fontina flatbread. Pork chops and burgers are available, too, but the restaurant’s best seller is shrimp and grits. Not that shrimp and grits, but a fried, cheesy grits patty the size of a crab cake, topped with grilled shrimp and a tomato-bacon sauce.

Of his kitchen, Mike says, “I call it the pirate ship, and I’m the captain. Everyone has ideas, and I don’t like to stifle anyone’s creativity. We tinker and play all the time. Embrace it, invent it, experiment.” Which explains the octopus he cooked with chorizo, beer, lemon, and herbs in a cast-iron skillet. The “experiment” sold out. His dream is molecular gastronomy — creating, say, balsamic caviar to “make the dishes pop, add an extra little element to the plate.”

Until the molecular machine comes along, though, you’ll surely be content with the bananas Foster crepe, or the sesame tuna with wilted spinach and blistered cherry tomatoes. And if a 33-year-old chef seems a mite young for so much accomplishment, remember this: Here’s a guy who knew what he was born to be before he had so much as a driver’s license.

The Mills Downtown Bistro
200 North Poindexter Street
Elizabeth City, NC 27909
(252) 621-1471
millsbistro.com

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This story was published on May 25, 2021

Susan Stafford Kelly

Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.