Foodie Travels: Eating Through Chapel Hill, N.C.

Regardless of your college sports allegiance, the central North Carolina city of Chapel Hill offers plenty of reasons to visit. From its tree-lined driveways and iconic main street named for Benjamin Franklin to its incredible culinary and arts scenes, there’s plenty to see and do without having to think about sports and mainstream entertainment.

On a recent visit, Molly and I had a chance to enjoy some of the best in vintage local fare. There are plenty of upscale, chic restaurants to try in Chapel Hill, but on this trip we stuck with some of the specialty joints known for their history and/or their simplicity. Here’s what we discovered and recommend if you find yourself in Orange County’s iconic city. And as a special tip, unless you have a friendly local place to park, check out the parking garage on East Rosemary Street, if you’re staying a while and walking around. It might eliminate any search for a metered spot on the streets.



Open since 1978, this place is exactly what you’d expect of a 24-7 joint in a heavily populated and heavily hungry college town in the South. As if the hours didn’t already tell you this joint caters to the up-all-night youth culture, just glance at the menu. You’ll find a collection of Southern barbecue, chicken, biscuits, casseroles and pies. The most notable menu item: the “Man vs. Food Special,” named for the restaurant’s appearance on the Travel Channel show several years back. The special offers a gigantic (seriously) biscuit with a piece of boneless fried chicken topped with a slide of cheddar cheese, along with a generous side helping of macaroni and cheese and a drink. Come late. Come hungry.


201 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C.



Sutton’s Drug Store

When you Google this restaurant, the information that first appears under the name says, “A Destination.” That’s been true since way back in 1923. This place is special. You can get burgers, hot dogs, breakfast, or you can sit at the counter and enjoy a vintage soda or shake. And if you’re in a hurry, stop just inside the door and select from a shelf of dozens of vintage sodas in the bottle. If you’re a regular or a celebrity, chances are your photo is on the wall. If you’re a visitor and have time to sit down and eat, take in those photos and breathe in the atmosphere.

Sutton’s Drug Store

159 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C.



Al’s Burger Shack

If you like fresh, hip, boutique burger spots, you’ve got to make a pilgrimage to Al’s Burger Shack, which is on the west side of Chapel Hill headed toward neighboring Carrboro. Al’s was the exception to our “longtime fixture” rule on this trip to town, as it’s only been open since 2013. But this place – which we saw in a New York Times travel piece on Chapel Hill – has a special burger selection every day the doors open, and the regular menu includes options for burgers with a wide variety of toppings, from guacamole to Cheerwine BBQ sauce, from spicy pimento cheese to onion jam to a roasted garlic aioli. And you can get any burger in two sizes: the Al size which is large, or the “buddy bite size,” which allows a hungry eater like me to try two burgers for a good price in one visit. Molly particularly enjoyed how this place folds its buns around its burgers to keep everything in your sandwich from sliding around. And don’t turn your nose at the idea of crinkle-cut fries: these are topped with a delightful rosemary seasoning that will please your tastebuds. Expect to sit outside at Al’s as indoor space is limited, but there’s a canopy covering the patio seating.

Al’s Burger Shack

516 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C.



Merritt’s Store & Grill

Since 1929, Merritt’s has served the local community, and today you get a very specialized back-in-the-day, regular-kinda-place feel when you walk in the door. In other words, this is not your average restaurant, and they don’t serve your average sandwich. Nope, this place is known for its BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato), and with good reason. You get a generous helping of bacon, fresh vegetables and your choice of fresh bread. There are even topping options like guacamole. Your sandwich comes neatly wrapped in thick, plain wrapping paper, held together with a piece of masking tape. Those are your signals this place is unique for its time now. You can expect a short line to order and a long line to receive your food and find a seat (limited inside, more out front, don’t miss the seating out back) at Merritt’s. But it’s completely worth it. You also have your choices of chips and drinks to accompany your sandwich, but let’s be honest: This place is about getting a superior BLT.

Merritt’s Store & Grill

1009 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill, N.C.


  1. […] a twist borrowed by the famed Mama Dip’s restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (By the way, Chapel Hill is one of the South’s great foodie towns, if you’ve never been.) “Mama Dip” boils her sweet potatoes, instead of baking them, prior to mashing. We couldn’t […]


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