Crook’s Corner, the restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina that helped spark a Southern cooking revival from the 1980s, has closed its doors for good, owner Shannon Healy said Wednesday.
Mr Healy said the company, which closed in the spring of 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic, was struggling to regain a foothold after it reopened last fall. He served his last meals on Sunday evening.
“The pandemic has kind of crushed us,” he said. “We were trying to reorganize some debt, and we just couldn’t do it.”
Crook’s Corner was opened in 1982 by Gene Hammer and Bill Neal in a former fish market. Mr. Neal had made a name for himself locally as the chef of the French restaurant La Résidence, which he had opened with his wife, Moreton Neal. He saw Crook’s as a new kind of restaurant from the South: a place where local food was treated with respect.
This was unusual in the early 1980s, said Bill Smith, a longtime chef at the restaurant. “Crook treated Southern food like it was delicious food instead of Beverly Hillbillies food,” he said. Mr. Neal “insisted that southern cuisine belonged to the pantheon”.
The restaurant caught the attention of Craig Claiborne, the food editor of The New York Times, himself from the South. In a 1985 article, Mr. Claiborne called Mr. Neal “one of the best young chefs in the South today” and praised Crook’s versions of John Hops, Shrimp and Oatmeal. and porridge, a fish stew from the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Crook’s, as the locals called it, became part of a national movement of chefs and restaurants focused on local cuisine and ingredients, said Marcie Cohen Ferris, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Carolina. North, Chapel Hill.
“It was one of those sites – and there weren’t many in our country in the 1980s – where restaurateurs, farmers, food entrepreneurs and local artisans were starting to come together,” said Dr. Ferris. “Then Crook’s becomes this incubator for new southern cuisine, because there are so many young people going there. “
James Beard Award recipients John Currence of Oxford, Mississippi and Robert Stehling of Charleston, SC, are among the distinguished chefs from the South who worked with Mr. Neal early in their careers.
Mr. Neal died of AIDS at the age of 41 in 1991. Mr. Smith, who worked with Mr. Neal at La Residence, took over the kitchen at Crook’s and continued to introduce typical southern dishes, such as fried oysters with garlic mayonnaise and Atlantic. Beach pie, a lemon pie with a savory cracker crust.
The casual restaurant, known for its fiberglass pig statue and collection of outdoor hubcaps, has never relied on the attributes of European gastronomy. And the menu was always in season. “If you could get soft-shell crabs and honeysuckle sorbet on the same night, that was cause for celebration,” Smith said.
Mr Smith retired shortly after Mr Healy and his business partner Gary Crunkleton bought Crook’s from Mr Hammer in 2018. Carrie Schleiffer succeeded Justin Burdett, Mr Smith’s successor, in April .
Mr. Healy was a bartender and restaurant manager for years before becoming the owner. He said he was drawn to the restaurant in part by its unpretentiousness.
“Instead of making simple things look fancy, they did the opposite,” he said, such as using the words “garlic mayonnaise” on the menu instead of aioli. “The tables looked like an old restaurant on purpose. When it opened, the idea that you were cooking great in an environment without a white tablecloth was very different.