In the mid-1980s, Selma native J.A. Creech Jr. and his golfing buddies sat on the front porch of an overflowing restaurant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and waited for a table.
A group of tourists started talking with the golfers and asked where they were from.
“We’re from Smithfield, North Carolina,” one of Creech’s friends said. He then gestured toward Creech with mock derisiveness, “But he’s from Selma.”
“Oh, we know where Selma is,” the tourists said, reversing the jab. “We’ve eaten at The French Country Inn.”
Creech scored a small victory that night in the ongoing friendly rivalry between Smithfield and Selma, neighboring Johnston County towns located 30 minutes southeast of Raleigh. Selma’s brief but widely known venture into fine dining saved its reputation that night.
The French Country Inn opened in March 1975 in a two-story, neo-Classical-style house at 309 Railroad Street in Selma, where chef and owner Phil Forman served authentic French food. His declining health forced him to close the restaurant in April 1986.
But in those 11 years, The French Country Inn became a must-visit destination for informed epicures.
Adorned with four large, Ionic columns in the front, and high ceilings and arched doorways inside, The French Country Inn was the kind of place suitors took first dates or future spouses. Marriage proposals and milestone celebrations dot the restaurant’s history, evidence of the romantic setting that Forman and his wife, Cree, cultivated.
The menu at The French Country Inn changed every two weeks to highlight the authentic foods and cooking styles of different French provinces. Forman carefully composed the complex, five-course meals to ensure that the courses complemented each other. Diners reserved their tables for the whole evening, enjoying intimate, candlelit feasts that lasted two to three hours.
“You were not rushed; you were catered to,” says Selma resident Luby Tyner Jr. “The service was outstanding, and when you got up and left, you felt like you had been … taken care of.”
Forman’s cooking expertise came from his culinary curiosity. During his 22-year career in pharmaceutical sales for Pfizer Laboratories in Raleigh, Forman traveled the country, visiting and learning from its finest restaurants. Forman opened his own restaurant after taking an early retirement.
About every other year, Forman closed the restaurant and visited France for four to six weeks in search of new ideas and trends. He always returned to regular customers eager to have him back.
After Forman died of cancer in 1992, his wife, Cree, moved back to her native South Carolina, where she still lives at age 87. The Selma home where The French Country Inn operated is now a private, historic residence.
David Hall covers sports for the Kinston Free Press and Freedom ENC newspapers.