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Chapel Hill

Old Well, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

This is it, my final post from our trip to North Carolina. I’ve written about our Tuesday outing to Durham, our Wednesday outing to Greensboro, and our Thursday outing to Raleigh. But what of our base itself, Chapel Hill? All I’ve mentioned so far are our dinners at Lantern and Crook’s Corner. Surely we did more.

Well, not much more, what with setting out after breakfast each morning for another city. Here are a few notes on what I left out.

1. Tuesday, we came back from Durham in mid-afternoon, after our visits to the Duke Homestead and the Nasher Museum of Art. This was our chance to wander around town and campus. On crossing over toward the heart of campus from the Carolina Inn, we came immediately upon the building housing the UNC School of Education. I couldn’t resist dropping in, since the dean is an old friend whom I used to work with here at the university. Fortunately, he was in and had a moment, so we chatted a bit. A day later, I would have missed him, as he was heading here to Seattle.

Next we walked up to Franklin Street to the Carolina Coffee Shop for Gail, but they only had table service. They recommended Jack Sprat Café across the street, which met her needs. From there, we could walk south through the main axis of campus, leading to the Old Well. I suppose you’d have to have UNC in your veins to appreciate the well’s importance. It was once the school’s lone water source.

Today, passers-by can drink from a marble water fountain supplying city water that sits in the center of the Old Well. Campus tradition dictates that a drink from the Old Well on the first day of classes will bring good luck (or straight A’s).

The Old Well is recognized as a National Landmark for Outstanding Landscape Architecture by the American Society of Landscape Architects. The Old Well is also used on the official stamp of all apparel licensed by the university.

There was a crowd around it, with people taking turns drinking while friends or parents photographed them. I couldn’t resist taking my own turn, and Gail couldn’t resist taking the photo, which I’ll omit. More interesting is the layout of adjacent buildings, Old East Hall, Old West Hall, and South Hall. Old East is the original campus building, with construction begun in 1793 when the university (the oldest state university in the country) was established. It has since been expanded, and of course renovated, and continues to function as a dorm.

Later in our walk south, we would arrive at the university’s main library, the Wilson Library, which contains The North Carolina Collection Gallery. Joel had suggested the day before that we may find this of interest, so we took his advice and found it. There we learned of the Masonic history of the university, and in particular, the Masonic tradition that dictated the layout of the well and the three buildings. This was part of a special exhibit on the history of the campus, with some wonderful old photos.

Also in the collection are the Sir Walter Raleigh Rooms; an exhibit about the original Siamese twins Eng and Chang, who lived the final decades of their lives in North Carolina; Audobon prints; some rooms from early Carolina houses; and much more. It was a good detour.

South of the library, across a street, is the bell tower, and below that, the football stadium — Kenan Stadium. The campus drops down a hill at this point, with the stadium following this drop, so that on the north side it fits quite nicely into the surroundings. A gate was open on the north, so we wandered in and looked down on the playing field, well below us. Ringing the outside are exhibits of famous Tarheel players, such as the greatest of them all, below:

Kenan Stadium, UNC

It was approaching dinner time, so we concluded our campus tour at this point and returned to the inn.

2. Dinner with Joel that night was at Mint, a surprisingly good Indian restaurant on Franklin Street a few blocks west of campus, out towards Carrboro. Gail and Joel had eaten there in July. I’m glad they thought to return, because dinner was excellent.

3. Thursday was our Raleigh day. When we got back to Chapel Hill, we conferred with Joel and discovered that we were too late to get in to a restaurant in Durham he thought worth trying. Instead, we headed over to Provence, a small restaurant in Carrboro not far from Joel. As it name suggests, it bills itself as serving regional French and Mediterranean cuisine.

Provence

Joel started with the escargots, Gail the lobster bisque, and me, well, gosh, I don’t remember what I had. Nothing that I see on the online menu. I must have had their soup of the day, some cream of something. I should have taken notes. I remember my main course, the lemon sole almandine. Gail had Beef Wellington and Joel some sort of noodle dish that again isn’t listed online. In any case, I was quite happy with my meal. But Gail’s beef was horribly burned on one side. She kept wondering what flavoring was used, until she turned it over and caught on to what had happened. We should have sent it back. It was really a disaster. Other than that, the restaurant was most pleasant.

4. You may recall that two months ago, when I first started thinking about what we might do in North Carolina, I wrote a post about an imagined day trip to Greensboro and Saxapahaw. Wednesday was our Greensboro day. Saxapahaw is a few miles off the main highway between Chapel Hill and Graham, the town where one gets on I-40 to head straight west to Greensboro. And the attraction of Saxapahaw is the Saxapahaw General Store, which had been written up in a short note in the Sunday NYT travel section in January. To quote from that article again, as I did in February:

I was polishing off a steaming bowl of coconut curry soup when a server appeared bearing a plate of plump pan-seared diver scallops atop creamy applewood-bacon succotash and braised asparagus. The food was befitting a candlelit restaurant, but I had a view of gas pumps outside and, a few steps from my table, fluorescent-lighted aisles packed with workaday necessities — toilet paper, motor oil, sauerkraut juice (aids digestion, according to the label).

This jarring contrast of farm-fresh food and service-station atmosphere is part of the appeal of the place where I was dining: the Saxapahaw General Store (1735 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road; 336-376-5332; saxgenstore.com), a no-frills convenience store and restaurant that has sparked a revival in the former mill town of Saxapahaw in central North Carolina.

On our way up to Greensboro, we didn’t want to detour, but we did on our return. The road to Saxapahaw was narrow and winding, perhaps our only drive in our time in North Carolina on which we got off main roads and got a glimpse of what backcountry North Carolina might look like. Not that this was so backcountry, just 10 miles out from Chapel Hill. We arrived at a small strip mall, with the gas pumps and store as described. As we walked in, there was a counter to the left running from the doorway to the back, with the cashier immediately to the left, then food cases, and behind was the cooking area. Running from straight ahead to the right were the store aisles, and far to the right, beyond them, were a few tables for dining. Pretty basic. But it was fun to work our way around the aisles and see what was for sale.

There was a small wine section up front by the windows, with shelves marked for French, Italian, California etc. Just to the right of that, on the top of a counter, was an array of North Carolina wines. We chose one to bring home.

I hadn’t mentioned, but over by that main counter to the left of the store is a big blackboard. Oh, you can see it in the article that headed the NYT article. Here it is, below:

Saxapahaw General Store

[David P. Williams, NYT, January 22, 2012 edition]

When we walked in, a young woman had just begun to fill the board with the list of dinner specials. It took a while for us to figure out what was going on as far as menu offerings. The deal is that there’s an all-day menu, with menus available on the counter, but I had missed them initially. One can order sandwiches, salads, and so on. In addition, there are lunch and dinner hours, something like 11 to 2 and 5:30 to 8:00, during which one can also order the specials listed on the board. We had arrived at 4:45. Waiting for dinner wasn’t an option, since our plan was to get back to Chapel Hill for dinner with Joel. It would have been different if we were in Chapel Hill already and could have headed out with him.

We arrived as the woman was writing the first special, pan-seared diver scallops with applewood-bacon succotash — the very one featured in the NYT. She would proceed to write each main dish, then turn to the scruffy looking guy behind the cash register, announcing what she had just written. He would look upwards for a moment for inspiration, then tell her what the accompaniments would be. It became apparent that he wasn’t merely the cashier. Indeed, he was probably the chef. As the listings got added, staying became more and more tempting. We’ll have to come back next time we visit, now that we know the schedule.

That’s it for North Carolina. We had a great trip.

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