Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Chapel Hill: Historic college, good beer and great food

Chapel Hill seen from the deck of Top of the Hill.
If cuisine is your thing, Chapel Hill, NC, is your place, Levelers. It's flat and full of mouth-watering options.

Situated as the southwestern base of the isosceles triangle that is completed by Durham and Raleigh, Chapel Hill is home to the University of North Carolina, one of the America's three oldest public universities, and Southern Season, one of the country's best gourmet markets and cooking schools.

Add primo hostelries likethe beloved The Carolina Inn and The Siena Hotel, a Marriott boutique property, both with restaurants to write home about, and you have a delicious destination.

Begin with a bit of history and education. UNC at Chapel Hill is full of both. The downtown campus is beautiful, dotted with huge trees and mature plantings, plus a few must-see sites.

The Davie poplar, battered but still standing.
The Davie poplar, for example. Versions of who other than Revolutionary War general William Richardson Davie the 350-year-old 100-foot-plus-tall tree should be named for, but legend says if the poplar falls, so will the university. Southern legends are nothing to trifle with so after several lightening strikes and numerous storms, on March 16, 1918, a grafting, Davie Jr., was planted.  As part of the university's bicentennial celebration, Davie III was planted Oct. 12, 1993. A more recent legend says that if a couple sitting on the stone bench beneath the tree kisses, they will marry.

Want good grades? Legend says drinking from the Old Well on the first day of class is the pathway to A's. It's easy to spot, covered by a replica of Versailles' Temple of Love. You might also catch a marriage proposal being made there.

No legend, the popular journalist and UNC alum Charles Kuralt is buried at the School of Media and Journalism which also houses his former New York office.

Appetite whetted? On to restaurants.

There are many reasons to catch lunch at Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery. It is as casual as its entrance isn't, an elevator in a tall office-type building. The food and beer, which is brewed there, are good and the upstairs deck provides a great spot from which to watch downtown Chapel Hill. You might try a  USDA certified organic vodka, gin or the only fully organic NC grown 100 percent wheat whiskey. They make those in the Top of the Hill Distillery nearby.

Crook's Corner Cafe and Bar has been a hot, literally and figuratively, spot for years and was named an American Classic Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation  in 2011. Chef Bill Smith, semi-finalist for the Beard "Best Chef in the Southeast" in 2010, cooks up an impressive array of choices with a distinct palate and personality. Inside, surroundings are cafe casual; outside is a tropically decorated covered patio. The spicy Shrimp and Grits talks and sometimes shouts to your mouth, the cornbread is tastefully sugar free and ice tea is sweetened with simple syrup. Each Wednesday barbecue from a different North Carolina restaurant is brought in.

Bad photo but to-die-for banana pudding.
Don't miss dessert. If you luck into honeysuckle season, the honeysuckle sorbet is as heavenly as the scent of its flavoring flowers. In any season, the banana pudding is a religious experience.

Il Palio is an Italian experience of the most delicious kind. Described as a fine restaurant with a luxury hotel (Siena) above it by by Chef Teddy Diggs, the kitchen lives up to the dining room's elegant decor. His philosophy, "We take the best ingredients and treat them as gently as we can."

Dessert tasted as good as it looked.
The result is entrees with flavors as distinct as their primary ingredient; salads dressed with intriguing but not overpowering flavors; seafood presented with sauce that enhances its inherent flavor, desserts that add a sweet and lingering satisfaction rather than cloying excess.

Shrimp and grits.
My dinner at the four-diamond, four-star Crossroads Chapel Hill Restaurant in The Carolina Inn was an extravaganza of Carolina Cuisine. Between us, our group of travel writers shared all of the starters, ordered our own entree and then tasted all of the desserts.

Crispy NC oysters.
My faves: the crispy NC oysters for starters followed by the grilled asparagus and fried green tomatoes. The shrimp and grits here were milder than at Crook's Corner but more to my palate. The desserts? All were worth the calories.

Leave half a day at least for Southern Season. We began with breakfast at its restaurant, Weathervane, in University Mall. Suffice to say what a way to start the day. Would love to return for lunch or dinner; the space has a good feel to it from bar to patio to mezzanine.

A small part of the candy section.
Filled to the gills, we then began tasting our way through Southern Season next door. Walking in there was entering the adult version of a candy shop, including the candy.

Want a frying pan? Freshly baked croissants? The latest tea pot? A fine wine? Place mats? A new sauce? Exotic cheese? Flowers for the hostess? Mixing bowls? Table settings of china, silver, stainless, napkins, crystal? The most esoteric kitchen gadget? They have it.

Southern Season cooking school.
Can't cook? They can take care of that, too, with a cooking school. I didn't want to leave.

Felt the same way about Chapel Hill. #SATWchapelhill #satwraleigh

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