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Fall is in the air in Chapel Hill. This means that everywhere, locals are readying themselves for Festifall, college football, and, of course, the annual return of 30,000 hungry UNC students.
It's true that my tastes have changed a bit since I was a youngster here, but one thing remains very much the same: Franklin Street is still the go-to spot for UNC students looking for a quick bite between classes, a quiet place to study, or a loud place to thrown down on the weekends. I've accumulated a few Franklin Street favorites of my own over the years, but I've also learned that sometimes you've got to travel a little further—west along Franklin Street to a little place called Carrboro—to find truly amazing eats.
Best Dive Bar
If Franklin Street has a specialty, it's the dive bar. Students flock to He's Not Here for the extra-large patio and, most importantly, the enormous (and cheap) beers served in legendary blue plastic cups. Like the bar itself, which is located at the end of a small alley between Caribou Coffee and I Love NY Pizza, elbow room at He's Not can be hard to find.
Goodfellows is another crowd favorite, and you're sure to find a crowd here on a weekend night. Or any night when classes are in, really. Cheap drinks and an unassuming atmosphere are the main draws here, so head on downstairs and grab yourself a well drink.
If I had to pick just one, though, Linda's would be my dive bar of choice. Linda's executes a few dive classics—cheese fries, beer, and trivia night—with solid consistency, compelling locals to love it.
On the Carrboro side, Speakeasy is a dark and cozy spot to play pool, break out the board games, or take in a bit of skulking with friends.
Sandwhich is the place to go for a well-executed, quote-unquote fancy sandwich on Franklin Street. Their sandwich selection is impressively eclectic, with Middle Eastern- and Asian-inspired offerings like their Keema Naan and Lamb Tagine sandwiches, and the occasional banh mi special. Of course, if you're a traditionalist like me, you'll probably go for the Outrageous BLT (avocado and jalapenos on a BLT ARE pretty outrageous). And you'll love it.
It should be noted, however, that Merritt's Store & Grill is really THE place to go for a BLT. Juicy tomatoes seasoned with salt and pepper are what make this sandwich great, but if you asked me what makes this BLT better than all others, I'm not sure I could put it into words. You'll just have to try it.
Neal's Deli in Carrboro may just make the best sandwiches around. The sandwiches at Neal's are deli classics that stand out because of awesome execution. The turkey, bacon, and avocado is perfectly balanced for deliciousness, and the Manhattan (house-made pastrami, Swiss cheese, slaw, and Russian dressing on rye bread) made me fall in love with sandwiches all over again.
Although I didn't realize it until I moved away from North Carolina and then returned, the South is not known for its pizza. If you came from New York or Chicago or even Detroit to enroll at UNC, I'm really sorry. Please don't judge us by our pizza.
That said, UNC students are lucky to have some of the best pizza in town right at their doorsteps. Peppers is an institution, and even though it left a tiny piece of its soul at its old location, they still serve up some of the most creative and delicious slices in town. Their Chicken Soup pizza really does taste like chicken soup, and as for The Joint? Well, as their menu says, "If you don't like this pie, you need to get put in the joint." And in the joint, you won't get any pork BBQ pizza.
I'm also a big fan of Panzanella's Italian Sausage pizza (housemade sausage, caramelized onions, and fontina on an airy, Panzanella-made crust—yum!), but considering that Panzanella is more of a sit-down establishment, I feel like the staff might look at me funny if I asked to take one to go.
Where to Impress a Date
Although in my day, the place to impress a date was probably 411 West (which still serves solid, Italian fare), I think that title has long since been usurped by Lantern. Lantern's gorgeous, red bar and clever cocktails are sure to impress. Their provocatively named cocktails currently include the Cunning Kimono (jasmine flower, vodka, a little honey, and a lemon twist) and the Milk of Human Kindness (gin, elderflower, sake, crémant, and egg white). As far as the menu goes, it's hard to imagine a tastier combination than NC-Asian fusion, but as a North Carolinian, I may be biased.
If you're not looking to break the bank, Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe serves up tasty and accessible Indian dishes in a lively atmosphere. They usually have live music on their patio from Thursday to Saturday.
Acme Food & Beverage Co. in Carrboro is another must-mention. Their crowd-pleasing and creative Southern-inspired menu never disappoints. The burgers at Acme, with special emphasis on the Grilled Acme Burger Deluxe, are also out of this world.
Best Coffee Shop
It's a bit of a walk to Caffe Driade from campus, but it's well worth the trip. Not only is the atmosphere at Driade soothing and serene—sitting at a table under the trees, you feel like you've entered the world of the woodland creatures—but the coffee is amazing. Driade sells coffee roasted at the Carrboro Coffee Company, located on the premises of Open Eye Cafe.
Not surprisingly, Open Eye Cafe is another place to find great coffee. It's such a popular study spot that it can be hard to find a table, so come early to snag a seat (and bring your headphones, it can get noisy).
If you're looking for a place to get your caffeine fix between classes, Jack Sprat Cafe on Franklin Street also serves Carrboro Coffee Company coffee.
I was really excited when Bread & Butter opened up a year ago and began baking fresh bread right in downtown Chapel Hill. For me, few things are more satisfying than a slice of fresh-baked bread spread with butter, and I feel like Bread & Butter understands me. But that might just be because the people who work here are some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. I've been munching on slices of their country loaf since I visited the cafe this week, and this bread has so much delicious character, it doesn't even need the butter.
Weaver Street Market in Carrboro uses only organic flours to make their breads, rolls, croissants, and cakes. The big, green lawn full of picnic tables is a great place to spend a morning with a book and a cup of organic coffee, or an evening with a bottle of sulfite-free wine and some bread and cheese from the Market. Better yet, why not do both?
Buns Burgers and Fries is the place everyone is talking about these days when it comes to getting your burger fix. With seven cheeses, seven sauces, and nine free toppings to choose from, ordering at Buns is pretty fun.
If you're in the mood for a classic, griddle-cooked burger, then you can't beat the burgers at Sutton's Drug Store. The mom and pop, soda fountain feel of this Chapel Hill institution somehow makes the burgers taste even better.
Personally, I'm partial to the grilled beef burger at Kitchen, which comes with a heaping pile of delicious, crispy, seasoned fries. The cheese choices are solid (cheddar, blue, goat, or gruyère) and they cook your burger to order, so if you're like me and don't feel like it's a real burger unless it's medium-rare, you'll be happy.
With so many bars and music venues (Cat's Cradle, the Cave, Local 506, Nightlight) on or near Franklin Street, UNC students have plenty of reasons to stay out late when they should be home studying.
In fact, it has been scientifically proven* that fried chicken, biscuits, and mac 'n' cheese taste better at 3 a.m. Lucky for you, there's Time-Out. Whatever time it is, Time-Out is open and waiting to serve you. What time is it right now? Why, it's time for some chicken and biscuits.
Although it's not a 24-hour establishment like Time-Out, Cosmic Cantina also stays open pretty late. If you're in the mood for a cheap burrito or some late-night nachos, and it's before 4 a.m., Cosmic has you covered.
If you're closer to the Carrboro side of things, you may try to track down Captain Poncho's Taco Truck in the parking lot of Al's Garage, which I hear has the best authentic-style tacos in town and often appears late at night.
Best Cheap Eats
Mmm-Mediterranean Deli! Falafel, gryo, hummus, aand shawarma. Med Deli's got all the classics at reasonable prices. The best part is that they make their own breads, so their pita sandwiches and fatayers (Middle Eastern stuffed doughs) are extra delicious.
You'll have to walk west for your burrito fix, because Carrboro has cornered the market on delicious Mexican-inspired eats. I've loved the soft tacos at Armadillo Grill since I was a kid (I think this has something to do with the way their housemade tortillas almost melt in your mouth) and their queso dip is a guilty pleasure.
Carrburritos, however, is the place to go for a truly gourmet burrito, which you can get here without breaking the bank. I stopped by the other day for a burrito with carnitas (they slow-cook their pork with tomatillos AND beer), though it was a difficult choice between that and the pure de papas (mashed sweet potatoes with caramelized onions). The housemade chips are the perfect compliment to any one of their delicious salsas (the chipotle is my personal favorite).
Hands down, the ultimate winner in the cheap eats category has got to be Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. The biscuits at this take-out-only biscuit hut are large, buttery, and soft, with enough crispiness to hold up under the weight of a perfectly seasoned fried chicken breast. The chicken biscuits are where it's at (I usually add cheddar, but that's a personal preference), although I'm told that their sprout sandwich is also good. Seriously. Sunrise closes in the early afternoon as business begins to slow, so don't sleep too late!
*I'm pretty sure, at least.
Best Ice Cream
Maple View Farm used to have little ice cream shop across from Weaver Street, which brought scoops of locally made, hormone- and antibiotic-free ice cream within easy reach of the UNC population. The ice cream shop in that spot now still sells Maple View ice cream, although it is no longer owned by the Farm. For the full experience, find a car and head out past Calavander to the Maple View Country Store, where you can rock in a chair on their big front porch, watch the cows, and think about where your ice cream came from while you're enjoying it.
Where to Take the Parents in Town
Taking the parents to Crook's Corner (or weaseling them into taking you) is always the right move. Newcomers to Southern food and those who've been eating it all their lives will be equally impressed by the execution of classic Southern dishes at this local favorite. Their shrimp and grits are some of the best in the state.
For something a little different, I'm a fan of the Asian-inspired food at Jujube. The lemongrass hanger steak is always a good pick.
Elaine's is another good pick for special occasions. Their menu changes seasonally, but some favorites are the she crab soup, prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese, and duck leg confit. They also do flights of wine.
A lot of the places already mentioned (Acme, Crook's Corner, Panzanella) do fantastic brunch, and you'll probably want to try out all of them. For a more low-key breakfast, Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and Breadmen's serve solid, greasy spoon fare. Elmo's Diner in Carrboro is a small step up from both of these, but if you're looking for a real, country breakfast, head to Mama Dip's for a sweet potato biscuit or some chicken and gravy. Be warned, on a Saturday or Sunday morning, all of the above will have a line out the door.
Places to Go When You Have a Car
As an undergrad, you'll have four years to make it to Allen & Son Bar-B-Que. I strongly suggest you do. Eating at Allen & Son is what you might call a real Southern dining experience. The dining room, with its checkered tablecloths and knick-knack decorations, can only described as quaint, and I think I would drop dead of shock if any of the servers was ever anything less than exceedingly friendly. The barbecue and hushpuppies are done right and will not disappoint, and for heaven's sake, make sure you order some pie!
So, fellow Chapel Hillians and Carrboroites, what are your favorite places to eat near UNC?