Teresa Van Staalduinen has fielded the question before, from English majors and Jeopardy! players, Trivial Pursuit competitors and curiosity seekers: Why the name Spoon River for a restaurant? Because steps
Teresa Van Staalduinen has fielded the question before, from English majors and Jeopardy! players, Trivial Pursuit competitors and curiosity seekers: Why the name Spoon River for a restaurant? Because steps away from its downtown Belhaven location, the Pungo River is on its way to the massive Pamlico Sound, and “spoon” is an eating utensil? “Nope,” Teresa says, “and not because I’m fixated on dead people either,” referring to Edgar Lee Masters’s 1915 Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems based on the epitaphs of a small town’s deceased residents. Give credit instead to music created for a radio adaptation of the literary work, which was playing on the station that Teresa happened to tune into the day she was on her hands and knees, painting the floor of a Belhaven building that she and her husband, Mark, had purchased to open a restaurant. The music stayed in her head. So did the name. This year, Spoon River celebrates its 10th anniversary. And Teresa keeps a stash of Trivial Pursuit cards to hand out along with menus.
With a population of only 1,600, Belhaven is a tiny town. Here’s an even tinier number: The town sits at 0 feet above sea level. Even Bath, 15 miles away, is 13 feet above sea level. No matter, because as a dining experience, the restaurant making Belhaven famous ranks a 10.
Simply strolling through the door of Spoon River lets you know you’ve arrived somewhere special. The large room, which once housed millinery and textile and hardware shops, has 12-foot-high ceilings of pressed tin painted the pale cream of magnolia blooms, from which an assortment of softly lit paper globes, filament lights, and barrel shades dangle. Interspersed with the light fixtures are fluttering ribbons and pages of books that have been folded, accordioned, and snipped into spheres and helixes and triangles. The color scheme, which manages to be both cozy on a winter evening and refreshing on a summer day, is all khaki, sage, gray, and that gentle cream, reflected in everything from the hand-painted designs on the glossy tabletops to that floor that Teresa has painted and repainted in a Mondrian-meets-Frank Lloyd Wright style more times than she can remember.
Yet that’s all a mere backdrop — a stage if you will — for Spoon River’s ever-changing decor. Thanks to her background experience as an artist and designer, Teresa changes what she terms “vignettes” around the space almost as frequently as the menu offerings. You might be seated beside an enormous bookshelf that spans an entire wall, filled with texts, tomes, and interesting objects, from a vintage Saks Fifth Avenue hatbox to a miniature Rolls-Royce to a collection of porcelain cachepots. Or beside a huge, marled wood piece, a cross between a sideboard and a breakfront, flanked by columns of dried flower arrangements — as tall as a toddler — sprouting pods, cotton bolls, grasses, and sheet music scrunched for textural interest. Or beneath a smoky scrolled mirror reflecting a swan created with overlapping bay leaves — there’s that sage hue again — or by a fountain featuring cavorting seahorses rescued from some mansion’s garden. “Everything changes,” Teresa says. “If my husband would let me, I’d rip it down every week.” They own four buildings in downtown Belhaven, and two of them store her “props.” All told, trying to attach a descriptive catchphrase to Spoon River’s cheeky-chic style is nearly impossible. It’s a blend of quirk and charm, sophistication and madcap, and wholly unique.
You’re here to dine, though, and within the hand-drawn menu covers, there’s plenty to choose from without being overwhelmed. Begin with the pear-and-elderflower martini, perhaps, a pretty, citrusy concoction of gin, pear and lemon juices, elderflower liqueur, and simple syrup. The Old Fashioned is named for Mark himself, and the smoked fish appetizer topped with fried capers and served with crisp, flaky homemade chips is the latest creation from his own fish smoker. Like a mound of garnet gemstones, tuna poke arrives in one champagne glass beside another filled with emerald seaweed salad. Thick, rich tomato bisque studded with Parmesan shavings is served for two in connecting carved wooden bowls alongside a stack of buttery, palm-size croutons — why bother with a spoon when you can scoop?
“As much as possible, we try to source all of our proteins locally,” Teresa says of the pork chop, lamb, and beef entrées. And “local protein” when you’re in Belhaven means offerings from the ocean, like a flounder special or The Pamlico Pinwheel: fresh catch stuffed with scallops, crab, and shrimp. Portions are plenty generous for sharing, but before you lift your fork, pause. At Spoon River, delicious flavors aren’t just about the preparation, but also the presentation. “I believe not just in fine dining, but in artful dining,” Teresa says. Every plate is more than merely food; it’s a visual, aesthetic creation. Garnishes of julienned carrots, slivers of cucumber and tomato, sprigs of rosemary and thyme, and sprinklings of delicate microgreens that make you feel healthier just by gazing at them are culinary flourishes raised to the level of artistry.
Instead of a wine list, Spoon River offers a wine room just off the dining area for browsing and choosing a bottle. Remember, though: Libations extend beyond entrées. Teresa, who describes herself as “the keeper of everybody’s grandmother’s things,” has spent years collecting vintage crystal. Meaning that tawny port is served in a petite snifter, or that small, etched glasses — which, back before super-size-me days, held custard or fruit compote — are perfect for sipping Kahlúa and Chambord with desserts made in-house. And what desserts: hefty wedges of dark chocolate cheesecake; a moist, dense, divine slice of Oreo cake; and a carrot cake whose recipe came from the kitchen of Teresa’s sister-in-law’s grandmother. Needless to say, in a restaurant where presentation is paramount, each dessert is tufted decadently, not delicately, with whipped cream or ice cream.
Belhaven is a coastal community, surrounded by water and farms, so you can wear your blue jeans or your boat shoes. On any given evening, Town Manager Lynn Davis might drop in and mingle with longtime residents. Perennial boat folks, for whom Spoon River is a regular must, might walk over from the marina. But the restaurant is a dining destination in itself, attracting points-west gourmands from Washington, Greenville, and Raleigh. By car, by boat, by foot, they come. For the calm of an anniversary dinner beside a fireplace curtained in burlap; for a celebratory meal beside a wire mannequin sporting a Buddha head. They come for food as inventive as barbecue egg rolls with spiced coleslaw and Texas Pete aioli, as familiar as tenderloin with baked blue cheese and risotto. With its small-town setting and big-city approach, a Spoon River experience — or merely a brunch Bloody Mary, crowned with pickled okra and shrimp — isn’t simply a meal. It’s a memory.
263 Pamlico Street
Belhaven, NC 27810