By Kelly Hines
“You’ll never guess where I’m going to celebrate my 20th anniversary!,” I said over and over to friends. They’d guess a cruise, or New York, or even Asheville, and then look confused and dejected when I shouted, “Kinston!”
Kinston? North Carolina? Population 21,000ish?
But to some people, it elicited a more excited response – “Chef & the Farmer!”
Fans of the PBS show A Chef’s Life are familiar with the story of small town girl turned New York City chef, Vivian Howard and her husband, Ben Knight. Howard and Knight gave up the big city to return to Kinston and open Chef & the Farmer six years ago. They, along with the efforts of local businessman Stephen Hill, are slowly turning Kinston into a foodie destination. There is a little shopping, and a good amount of history (Civil War battlefields and the CSS Neuse Museum), but the real draw here are the restaurants. If you like to eat and drink, then Kinston is a fun, kid-free weekend away.
Here are my recommendations for food, drink, and accommodations.
Hotels: Kinston has several chain, budget motels, and one well-loved bed and breakfast. We stayed at the new kid on the block, The O’Neil Hotel. This place is funky! Built in 1924 as Farmers & Merchants Bank. The centerpiece of the hotel is the lobby, which integrates the 16-ton vault and repurposes teller windows as elevated sitting areas. The ornate plaster ceiling is a show stopper. The O’Neil has seven rooms, each uniquely decorated. The staff is fantastic, the lobby vault is stocked with complimentary water and beer from Mother Earth Brewery, and the price tag is special occasion ($189 Sunday-Friday, $229 Saturdays).
Breakfast: There may be posher places, but it’s hard to beat the eggs done right, country ham, grits, and biscuits at Christopher’s. A local favorite, the register is staffed by Christopher himself and the menu is largely unchanged since they moved to their current location in the 1969. The coffee is strong, the prices are fair, and the ambiance is totally old-school. Two orders – fried eggs, country ham, grits, toast, coffee, $12 plus tip.
Lunch: We passed the well-reviewed Queen Street Deli (which looked delicious) in favor of a recommendation to Olvera Street Taqueria. I have a hard time turning down a taco, but my husband was suspect of a place in eastern North Carolina appropriating the name of a Los Angeles institution. Knowing we had dinner at The Boiler Room in just a few hours, we opted to split an order of carne asada tacos on corn tortillas, which were pretty good. The real treat here is the grilled street corn, rubbed with chili powder and sprinkled with creamy queso anejo. One order of (3) tacos, 1 order street corn, 2 cokes – $15.
Drinks: I like beer. A LOT. So I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop in to Mother Earth Brewery, take a tour and a stop in the tasting room. They give tours on the hour, so after a quick beer in the tasting room, I got another one to have on hand and spent 30 minutes learning all about the brewing process. Mother Earth is also now producing gin and rum, with whiskey in the wings, so we talked about distilling as well. You don’t have to be super knowledgeable about either to enjoy the tour, or the end product!
One (free) tour, 2 large beers in the tasting room ($10, including tip), one giant bottle of not sold in stores Tripel Overhead ($20).
Dinner: Boiler Room Oyster Bar is Chef & the Farmer’s little sister restaurant, serving up oysters and burgers and beers in a casual atmosphere. This place starts jumping by 7:30, so we got in a little early and were seated right away. We shared two appetizers – Fried Popcorn Oysters with Tarragon Pickle Tartar and Oysters Boilerfeller. The fried oysters were great, and the tartar sauce was crazy good. The Boilerfellers were a riff on Oysters Rockerfeller, featuring colllards and tomato instead of the typical spinach. They were very good, but fell short of the original. Dinner was U Got Ranch burgers – thick burgers on fresh baked buns, perfectly cooked. As a side, we shared the “southern poutine fries”, shoestring fries topped with pulled pork, cheese curds, and brown gravy. As someone who could drink brown gravy from a cup, this was the highlight of my meal! Two appetizers, two burgers, one giant order poutine fries, one tasting flight of beers, $54, plus tip.
Dinner: Chef & the Farmer was our first meal of the trip, and it lived up to the expectation! The restaurant is smaller than I expected, and more casual. The open kitchen and close quarters make for a lively, intimate setting. Edison lights are slung over the bar and mason jars remind you that, even though the chef may be classically trained, her roots are all South. Our server was fantastic and knowledgable about the food, the drinks, and the area. We started with two appetizers, flash fried collards and pork belly skewers with blueberry BBQ sauce, pickled jalepeno and cilantro. The collards were fantastic (people, stop eating kale and start eating collards, right now!) and the pork belly skewers were easily one of the best small bites I’ve ever eaten. For dinner, I had wood roasted amberjack with a brown sugar and chili spiced rub, the heat of which was tempered by a salad of peas, cucumber, bacon and basil, served on a pea puree. My husband had the enormous double cut pork chop and smoked potatoes, served with charred fennel and beets. Here’s the thing about the food at Chef – everything is super fresh, locally sourced, and mindfully prepared. There is not an ingredient that doesn’t enhance the dish, or a piece that’s not prepared to highlight its attributes. As a result, it’s really, really, really good. For dessert, my husband chose the very chocolately brownie pudding, and I picked the Blueberry Do Funny (much like a cobbler) with Sweet Corn Ice Cream. I ate it very, very slowly because I didn’t want it to end! Absolutely divine, and well worth the drive to celebrate 20 years of marriage!
Two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts, one incredible Manhattan, one bottle of sparkling water, coffee, $125, plus tip.
Have you been? Tell us!