Crook’s Corner, the restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC that helped trigger a renaissance in Southern cuisine beginning in the 1980s, is closed permanently, Shannon Healy, an owner, said Wednesday.
Sir. Healy said the company, which shut down in the spring of 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic, struggled to regain its footing after reopening last fall. It served its last meals on Sunday night.
“The pandemic shattered us,” he said. “We were trying to reorganize some debt and we just could not get it done.”
Crook’s Corner was opened in 1
This was unusual in the early 1980s, said Bill Smith, a longtime chef at the restaurant. “Crooks treated Southern cuisine as if it were delicious cuisine instead of Beverly Hillbillie’s food,” he said. Mr. Neal “insisted that southern cuisine belonged in the pantheon.”
The restaurant captured Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor, who was himself southern. In a 1985 article, Mr. Mr. Claiborne Neal “one of today’s finest young southern chefs” and praised Crook’s versions of hoppin ‘John, shrimp and groats and muddle, a fish stew from the outer shores of North Carolina.
Crooks, to whom locals referred, became part of a national movement of chefs and restaurants focusing on local cuisine and ingredients, said Marcie Cohen Ferris, an emeritus professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“It was one of those places – and there weren’t many around our country in the 1980s – where restaurateurs, farmers, food companies and local artisans started coming together,” said Dr. Ferris. “Then Crooks will be this incubator for the new southern kitchen because so many young people come there.”
Winners of the James Beard Prize John Currence of Oxford, Miss. And Robert Stehling, from Charleston, SC, is among the prominent Southern chefs who worked with Mr. Neal early in their careers.
Mr. Neal died of AIDS at the age of 41, in 1991. Smith, who worked with Mr. Neal in La Résidence, took over the kitchen in Crooks and went on to introduce Southern signature dishes like fried oysters with garlic mayonnaise and Atlantic Strandkage, a lemon pie with a salty cracker crust.
The casual restaurant, known for its fiberglass statue and hub capsule collection outside, never relied on the decoration of European delicious food. And the menu was always seasonal. “If you could get soft-shell crabs and honeysuckle sorbet that night, that was reason to party,” Smith said.
Smith retired shortly after Healy and his business partner, Gary Crunkleton, bought Crooks from Mr. Smith. Hammer in 2018. Carrie Schleiffer took over as chef from Justin Burdett, Mr. Smith’s successor, in April.
Mr. Healy was the bartender and manager of the restaurant for years before becoming the owner. He said he was attracted to the restaurant in part because of his lack of pretension.
“Instead of making simple things sound smart, they did the opposite,” he said, like using the words “garlic mayonnaise” on the menu instead of aioli. “The tables deliberately looked like an old dining room. When it opened, the idea that you were cooking great food in an environment that was not white was very different. ”