Situated on West Franklin Street, Crook’s Corner serves Southern classics with a modern twist. This Chapel Hill staple features flavorful dishes from acclaimed chef Bill Smith and has been named an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation.
Crook’s just so happens to be the birthplace of modern shrimp and grits, its most popular dish — originally a low-country breakfast that Crook’s first chef, Bill Neal, transformed into a dinner entree with bacon, mushrooms, garlic and Tabasco. Also popular are the pork chops, catfish and Hoppin’ John, or black-eyed peas and rice with bacon, cheese, tomato and scallions.
Avid Crook’s fan Emma Hayes praised the restaurant’s laidback, welcoming atmosphere and commitment to making the best food possible from fresh, local ingredients.
“I like Crook’s because I can get incredibly tasty, high-quality food but still feel right at home and be comfortable there as if it was just some little mom-and-pop restaurant,” Hayes said. “It’s not pretentious, but you get food that’s just as good — actually, probably better — as what you get in places with starched white tablecloths and chandeliers.”
Cam Hill opened Crook’s as a barbecue house in 1978. After four years, Gene Hamer and Bill Neal took over. Neal had experience with French culinary techniques and sought to blend them with Southern cooking, which has African, Native American and European roots.
When Neal passed away in the early 90s, Bill Smith became his successor. Like Neal, he has written several cookbooks and is dedicated to his culinary style — simple and delicious.
“The fact that I can see Bill, the head chef, ride his bike down the street collecting honeysuckle for the amazing honeysuckle sorbet is exactly why I love Crook’s,” Hayes said. “It’s just good people who love good food.”
The Crook’s staff is tight-knit. Hamer said every night, the restaurant has a staff dinner. This gives them the opportunity to taste menu options and bond — which is important, since the staff is like a family.
“There are a lot of people who have been here for over 15 years,” he said. “We’ve been working together for a long time. And, fortunately, the waits and bartenders like what they’re doing, they like the place, they like the food, and they’re proud.”
Crook Corner’s owners emphasize visual arts, with an art room showcasing local artists’ work and a bamboo-lined outdoor area featuring a special fountain sculpted by Bob Gaston.
Gaston also created the life-sized pig that sits atop Crook’s sign. The pig has been there since Hill first opened Crook’s and was originally a source of contention between him and the town of Chapel Hill, which said it violated their signage ordinances.
Hill argued that it was art, not signage. Chapel Hill agreed to let him keep it as long as it wasn’t lit from the outside and as long as it never came down — if it came down, they said, it could not go back up. Hill lit it from the inside, and that was that.
Hamer said it remained there until an incident in the mid-80s, when UNC seniors decided to play a prank.
“I got this phone call early in the morning from the police,” he said. “They said, ‘We’ve got your pig.’”
Hamer was perplexed. It turned out that UNC seniors had somehow climbed onto the roof unseen, taken the pig down and floated it out on University Lake, to be found later that night by people fishing nearby. The owner’s of Crooks retrieved and reinstated it, and it’s been there ever since.
Featured image via Kyle Yamakawa