Crook’s Corner — which for decades has been on the vanguard of updating Southern cuisine while honoring its traditions — is undergoing changes while preserving its own traditions.
The eatery has been sold, and chef Bill Smith, who has overseen the cooking for much of that time, will be stepping aside, just as soon as he schools the new chef to make Crook’s favorites such as shrimp and grits and Atlantic Beach Pie.
Gary Crunkleton ’96, owner of The Crunkleton bourbon and cocktail bar just up West Franklin from Crook’s, teamed up with Shannon Healy, owner of the Alley Twenty Six cocktail bar and restaurant in Durham, and a silent financial partner to buy Crook’s Corner in October from Gene Hamer ’73, who’s retiring after owning the restaurant for 36 years.
The changes were prompted by the building going up for sale. Originally it housed a fish and produce market and was owned by Rachel Crook, who was killed in 1951 in a case that was never solved. Ownership of the building passed to her niece, Rachel McLain ’39 (’44 MA), and it housed a variety of businesses. After McClain died in 2017, ownership passed to relatives, who agreed to sell to the new partners.
Hamer said he was never worried that Crook’s would close: “I was worried about finding the right people, and I think I have. It’s a good team that’s taking over.”
Among the changes the new owners plan is adding 4 inches to the front edge of the bar so that diners’ knees fit underneath — no more needing to sit at an angle. They also hope to enclose the patio and equip it with heat and air conditioning to make it usable year-round, with a glass roof so the plants still can flourish.
But the real question for many of the regulars and those who make it a destination whenever they’re in town is, what about the food?
While Crook’s has been getting regular raves ever since Craig Claiborne of The New York Times wrote about it in the mid-1980s and put it on the culinary map, the restaurant wasn’t always an exalted mainstay of Southern cuisine. In 1982, Cam Hill owned a small barbecue and hamburger joint named Crook’s Corner — hence the pink pig statue that still adorns Crook’s roof.
Hill asked the late Bill Neal, then chef and owner of the Chapel Hill fine-dining restaurant La Residence, if he would take it over. Hamer had bartended at La Residence while attending Carolina and gone on to acquire substantial restaurant experience there, and Neal asked him to come in on the new venture. Smith was chef at La Residence when Hamer lured him to Crook’s in 1993.
Crook’s history is intertwined with elevating Southern dishes to a higher level, Neal’s mission until he died in 1991. In his hands, shrimp and grits — a smothered-in-gravy Lowcountry dish from his native South Carolina — became shrimp sautéed with bacon, mushrooms, scallions, garlic and Tabasco served over cheese grits.
Since succeeding Neal, Smith has written two cookbooks and is the only James Beard Foundation America’s Classic Restaurant chef to have been named twice as one of five finalists for the title of Best Chef in the Southeast. Smith said he will “quit being the boss in January” and in his remaining time overseeing the kitchen will be teaching new chef Justin Burdett the recipes that helped land Crook’s on the Beard Foundation’s list of America’s Classics in 2011.
Most recently chef at Asheville restaurants The Admiral and Local Provisions, Burdett has been named a chef on the rise by Food & Wine magazine. He’s been at Crook’s since August, learning its signature dishes, with plans to add creations of his own.
As for Hamer, his retirement package includes eating free at Crook’s whenever he likes.
610 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill || crookscorner.com
At first glance, a snail might seem an odd choice as the logo for an ice cream shop. But friends Andy Chen and Nick Ni thought the mollusk’s spiral design was just right to represent the curls of ice cream they serve at Ice Lab.
Known as “Thai fried ice cream” or rolled ice cream, the ice cream base is poured onto a cold metal surface that looks a little like a grill and stirred into rolls as it stiffens, then stood in containers where toppings are added. Among the many flavors: UNC Student (blueberry); Monkey Business (banana and Nutella); and Sunny Day (mango). Patrons also can mix and match bases and toppings to create their own flavors.
Chen and Ni were born and raised in China. They came to the U.S. in 2012 to join their parents. Chen, 24, said they chose the name Ice Lab because “all our stuff is based on ice.” They plan to add shaved ice and smoothies to their 15 signature ice cream dishes. “We use fresh fruit, so we can do a lot of flavors,” he said.
405 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
— Laura Toler ’76