A dive, a hidden gem, a good ol’ hole-in-the-wall. You know the type: a modest eatery where what and who you’ll see matters as much as the food you’ll eat. Its quirks make it easy to love, even when liking it can take a little work — at first, anyway. Once smitten, though, that love is for life.
These joints feel like they’re in the middle of nowhere even when they’re in the middle of town. Some remind us of where Main Street businesses once bustled before bypasses siphoned off the traffic. Those on the outskirts sit so close to the road, you just know that road wasn’t that wide before four-lanes moved the white line. In either case, finding these places is often a quest. Might as well turn off your GPS: Following aromas and your instincts is the best way to discover one.
When parking is scarce (as it often is at the best spots), there can be unspoken rules. At El’s Drive-In in Morehead City, for example, drivers learn to squeeze in close so as not to waste space, but not so close that people can’t swing their car doors open. You better like where you park, because that may be where you eat.
At the tiny Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham or South 21 in Charlotte, and other drive-ins with carhops or walk-up windows, when someone slides open that portal on a steamy summer day, you’ll not only get to order, you’ll also feel a blessed blast of cold air from their humming, dripping AC unit. Then, it’s back to the car, or picnic table, or, if you’re at Pulliam’s in Winston-Salem, there’s a bench near the door and some stumps in the yard for you.
“Everything we see reminds us that less-than-perfect ambience isn’t an imperfection.” photograph by May Van Millingen
When there is a dining room, there’s atmosphere galore, just not necessarily decor. Serviceable linoleum, vinyl, and Naugahyde are still state of the art here. The floors creak in all the right places and the tables wobble, but a properly folded sugar packet tucked under the short leg can fix that. Even when cluttered with memorabilia, these places are neat as a pin, wiped down and mopped ad infinitum. Everything we see reminds us that less-than-perfect ambience isn’t an imperfection.
Timing is everything at these joints. Don’t assume you’re in the know just because you Googled to find out when the place opens or closes. Changes to posted hours might be announced on the back of a to-go sack taped on the front door. It’s heartbreaking to walk up to that door, squint at the sign, and mournfully slink away, but at least they left a note, so you don’t feel stood up. You’ll be more grateful, too, the next time you show up to find the door wide open and an empty table waiting. All will be forgiven.
Because we love these places, we set a low bar for high expectations. We afford a dive latitude we’d never give to a high-dollar restaurant. We go to Johnson’s Drive-In in Siler City even though it drives the owner nuts if people fiddle around and don’t eat their burger while it’s hot. We squeeze into the Roast Grill in Raleigh because we’ve never had a better hot dog, and to see George come unglued if some yahoo asks for ketchup. We know we’ll get fussed at if we don’t quickly finish our chili dog and free up a booth at The Dog House in High Point, because the next patron is waiting as eagerly as we did. Don’t let the pace or temperament of a tried-and-true hole-in-the-wall get you rattled. Keep in mind: For every owner who gives you the stink eye, there’s one who’ll hug your neck — and usually, it’s the same person.
We’re expected to follow certain rules and customs because these places cook and serve with pride, and they want us to enjoy their food at its best. The food, that’s what matters to them, because it matters to us, and we all have our priorities straight in this arrangement. The gal at the counter might not know your name (then again, she might know your mama), but she knows your face and your order by heart. And she’ll make sure your tea gets topped off.
Holes-in-the-wall are bastions of home cooking away from home. Their signature recipes remind us that North Carolina families come from all over, and that what constitutes home cooking depends on who is stirring the pot. That’s why we frequent The Snack Bar in Hickory for a classic meat-and-three, but feast on Jamaican oxtails at Taste of Paradise in Rocky Mount or a bánh mì at Saigon Sandwiches and Bakery in Greensboro. They all remind us: Home is where you make it.
As distinctive and spirited as these places may be, they are, in their bones, deeply familiar: You know what to expect, even if you’ve never been there before. And that’s reassuring. Nothing about this kind of hole needs fixing.
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