On Wednesday, Shannon Healy, an owner of Crook’s Corner, the Chapel Hill, NC, restaurant that helped launch a Southern cuisine renaissance in the 1980s, announced that the eatery had closed for good.
Because of the Covid pandemic that occurred in the spring of 2020, Mr. Healy said his company struggled to get back on its feet after reopening in the fall of 2018.
He described how the pandemic had “sort of crushed us.” In the past, we’d tried to restructure some of our debt, but we never succeeded.
When Gene Hammer and Bill Neal opened Crook’s Corner in 1982, it was housed in a former fish market. Mr. Neal and his wife, Moreton Neal, opened the French restaurant La Résidence in New York City, where he gained a reputation as a chef. His vision was for Crook’s to be a new kind of Southern restaurant: a place where the region’s food was treated with reverence.
According to Bill Smith, the restaurant’s longtime chef, this was unusual in the early 1980s. Instead of the food of the Beverly Hillbillies, “Crook’s treated Southern cuisine as delicious cuisine,” he said. Neal “insisted Southern cuisine belonged in the pantheon,” as the saying goes.
One of the New York Times’s food editors, Craig Claiborne, hails from the South and was impressed by the restaurant. “One of the finest young Southern chefs today,” Mr. Claiborne said of Mr. Neal in a 1985 article. He also praised the Outer Banks dish “muddle,” a fish stew, for its Hoppin’ John-style preparation.
According to Marcie Cohen Ferris, an emeritus professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Crook’s, as it is affectionately known by the locals, became part of a national movement of chefs and restaurants focusing on local cuisine and ingredients.
During the 1980s, “it was one of those sites—and there weren’t many around our country in the 1980s—where restaurateurs… farmers, food entrepreneurs, and local craftspeople began to come together,” Dr. Ferris said. As a result of the influx of young people, Crook’s transforms into an incubator for innovative Southern cuisine.
John Currence, of Oxford, Mississippi, and Robert Stehling, of Charleston, South Carolina, are two prominent Southern chefs who worked with Mr. Neal early on in their careers..
Mr. Neal died in 1991 at the age of 41 after contracting AIDS. At Crook’s, Mr. Smith, who had previously worked with Mr. Neal at La Résidence, continued to serve traditional Southern fare like fried oysters with garlic mayonnaise and Atlantic Beach pie, a lemon pie with saltine cracker crust.
The casual restaurant never relied on the trappings of European fine dining, which is why it has a fibreglass pig statue and a hubcap collection outside. In addition, the menu was always fresh. According to Mr. Smith, “getting soft-shell crabs and honeysuckle sorbet on the same night was cause for celebration.”
After Mr. Healy and Gary Crunkleton bought Crook’s from Mr. Hammer in 2018, Mr. Smith retired. When Justin Burdett, Mr. Smith’s successor, stepped down in April, Carrie Schleiffer, Mr. Smith’s chef, took over.
Before becoming a business owner, Mr. Healy worked as a bartender and manager at the restaurant. He cited the restaurant’s lack of pretence as a factor in his decision to dine there.
Rather than calling aioli by its proper name, they called it “garlic mayonnaise,” he explained, “instead of aioli”. ‘It was intentional for the tables to look old-school diner.’ Initially, the concept of excellent food being served in a non-white tablecloth setting was a novel one.”