Criminal’s Nook, a Landmark North Carolina Restaurant, Has Closed

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Crook’s Corner, the Chapel Hill, NC restaurant that started a renaissance in Southern cuisine in the 1980s, is permanently closed, Shannon Healy, an owner, said Wednesday.

Mr Healy said the store, which closed in spring 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic, is struggling to regain a foothold after reopening last fall. It served its last meals on Sunday evening.

“The pandemic kind of crushed us,” he said. “We tried to reorganize some debt and we just couldn’t do it.”

Crook’s Corner was opened in 1982 by Gene Hammer and Bill Neal in a former fish market. Mr Neal had made a name for himself locally as a chef with the French restaurant La Résidence, which he opened with his wife Moreton Neal. He envisioned Crook’s as a new breed of southern restaurant: a place where local food would be treated with awe.

This was unusual in the early 1980s, said Bill Smith, a longtime chef at the restaurant. “Crook treated southern cuisine like it was delicious, not like the Beverly Hillbillies,” he said. Mr. Neal “insisted that the cuisine of the south belongs in the pantheon.”

The restaurant caught the attention of Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor and a southerner himself. In a 1985 article, Mr. Claiborne named Mr. Neal “one of today’s finest young Southern chefs,” and praised Crook’s versions of hoppin ‘John, shrimps and grits and muddle, a fish stew from North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Crook’s, as the locals called it, became part of a national movement of chefs and restaurants focused on local cuisine and ingredients, said Marcie Cohen Ferris, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“It was one of those places – and there weren’t many in our country in the 1980s – where restaurateurs, farmers, food business owners and local artisans came together,” said Dr. Ferris. “Then Crook’s will become this incubator for the new southern kitchen because so many young people come through there.”

James Beard Awardees John Currence of Oxford, Miss., And Robert Stehling of Charleston, SC, are among the prominent Southern chefs who worked with Mr. Neal early in their careers.

Mr. Neal died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 41. Mr Smith, who worked with Mr Neal at La Résidence, took over the kitchen at Crook’s and continued to introduce typical southern dishes such as fried oysters with garlic mayonnaise and Atlantic Beach Pie, a lemon pie with a salty cracker crust.

Known for its fiberglass pig statue and outdoor hubcap collection, the casual restaurant has never relied on the trappings of European gourmet cuisine. And the menu was always seasonal. “If you could have soft-shell crab and honeysuckle sorbet that same night, that was a cause for celebration,” said Mr Smith.

Mr Smith retired after Mr Healy and business partner Gary Crunkleton bought Crook’s from Mr Hammer in 2018. Carrie Schleiffer took over the helm from Justin Burdett, replacing Mr Smith in April.

Mr. Healy was the bartender and manager of the restaurant for years before becoming the owner. He said he was drawn to the restaurant in part because of his lack of pretension.

“Instead of making simple things sound fancy, they did the opposite,” he said, using, for example, the words “garlic mayonnaise” on the menu instead of aioli. “The tables purposely looked like an old diner. When it first opened, the idea that you would prepare excellent food in a non-white tablecloth setting was very different. “