DG MARTIN COLUMN: Why no Poole’s in ‘Roadside Eateries’?

“I can’t find Poole’s in the revised edition of ‘North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners, and Barbecue Joints,’ What happened?”

D.G. Martin

It is the first complaint I have gotten about the new version of “Roadside Eateries “being published by UNC Press on April 1.

The book features locally owned restaurants on or near North Carolina’s interstate highways. Ideally, the eatery should have been in business for a long time and proved itself to be popular with nearby residents. The food offerings are usually “comfort food” style, prepared by cooks rather than chefs.

The main objective of “Roadside Eateries” was to give interstate travelers an option to eat good comfort food at a place where they could also get an experience of local life and people who live nearby.

We insisted on local ownership and avoided chains, believing that the best chances for the best kind of human connections happened when the people who were operating the eatery were also its owners.

The first edition of “Roadside Eateries” in 2016 was a great success.

Lots of people told me they kept a copy in their car’s glove compartment.

But there have been some disappointments. Some owners of our favorite eateries closed their businesses. They retired, died or sold their restaurant’s sites to others who could develop the prized land near the highway for more profitable use.

Some of the best restaurants could not survive the loss of business that came about because of Covid, which destroyed the customer bases of many restaurants. Even before Covid, the “take it home to eat” practices undercut the strength of “eat with us” traditions that supported some of the best places in “Roadside Eateries.”

Happily, we have found at least 30 favorite eateries to replace the ones that closed. But there were still problems. For instance, one of my favorite barbecue restaurants has always been Wilber’s in Goldsboro. It closed. Then it reopened successfully, but in the shuffle, we inexcusably did not include it in the new revision. It will be a long time before some of my friends in Goldsboro speak to me again.

Back to the question about Poole’s Diner, which is located at 426 S. McDowell St. in Raleigh. It is a creation of Ashley Christensen whose new cookbook describes her as “a champion of the new and evolving South. Her debut cookbook, ‘Poole’s,’ honors the traditions of this celebrated cuisine, while introducing a new vernacular—elevating simple sides with complex vinaigrettes, giving vegetables center stage, and layering flavor through a cadre of back-pocket recipes that will soon become indispensable in your kitchen.”

Earlier this month, Southern Living named Poole’s Diner the best diner in North Carolina and praised it as follows: “Diners often feel frozen in time, and while Poole’s has the retro chrome edging, and red artificial leather stools and booths, you won’t find anyone in old-school waitress uniforms.”

Maybe we made a mistake in leaving Poole’s out of the new “Roadside Eateries.” Certainly, I would recommend Poole’s to anybody, but it is in another category of fine dining than the more modest restaurants in “Roadside Eateries.”

Poole’s is in the league of fine dining restaurants that were recently honored by a top ranking in the Forbes Travel Guide along with Herons Restaurant in the Umstead Hotel in Cary, Fearrington House Restaurant in Pittsboro, Dining Room at Inn on Biltmore Estate in Asheville, Gallery Restaurant in Charlotte, Fairview Dining Room in Durham, and Madison’s Restaurant and Wine Garden in Highlands.

All these places are wonderful and should make North Carolinians proud. But when you are traveling on the road looking for a simple tasty meal, one of the places in the new “Roadside Eateries” will make you happier.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”