Sweet & Salty Atlantic Beach Pie


Let’s just save the suspense on this one. This is the best lemon pie I’ve ever eaten.

Now that we’ve got that bite of bold honesty out of the way, let’s back it up with my qualifications for making the claim.

I’ve eaten a lot of lemon pie. My mom loves lemon pie. So did her dad. My wife Molly loves lemon pie, too. So does her dad. Infinite opportunities, by my count, have presented themselves to my mouth for lemon pie consumption.

We learned about Atlantic Beach Pie while visiting the fabulous small food city Chapel Hill, N.C. Locals tout the legendary and unique flavor of the Atlantic Beach Pie, made from a recipe always credited to Bill Smith, at local restaurant Crook’s Corner. (Why does he make it this way, and why is it called Atlantic Beach Pie? Here are your answers.)

No matter how much we tried, we couldn’t get the pie, and the opportunity to make our own at home, out of our heads. Then the recipe for Atlantic Beach Pie showed up in a copy of Carolina Country, a magazine we devour together each month it’s released by North Carolina’s energy cooperatives.

So we made it, just like Bill Smith does at Crook’s Corner. I don’t know if it stacks up to his or the pies served up in the restaurant, but the flavor and texture in ours were extraordinary. The filling was smooth, slightly tart and perfectly sweet. The crust was crackly, slightly salty and very buttery.

As if that wasn’t enough proof to support my argument that Atlantic Beach Pie is the best lemon pie, the popular Our State magazine included Atlantic Beach Pie in its February 2018 cover feature on The Legendary & Landmark Pies of North Carolina. And a slice of Bill Smith’s Crook’s Corner creation adorned the very cover of the edition.

Can you see by now that you must make this pie, no matter where you live but especially if you’re a North Carolinian? When you try it, let us know what you think! Is it the best lemon pie?

Here’s the recipe, with complete and praiseworthy credit to Bill Smith. (If you Google “Atlantic Beach Pie,” his name will be attached to most all of the search results anyways, and rightly so!)

Atlantic Beach Pie


1 ½ sleeves saltine crackers

1/3 to 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

3 tablespoons sugar

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup lemon or lime juice, or a mix of the two

Fresh whipped cream and coarse sea salt for garnish


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Crush the crackers finely, but not to dust. You can use a food processor or your hands.

3. Add the sugar, then knead in the butter until the crumbs hold together like dough.

4. Press into an 8-inch pie pan.

5. Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes or until the crust colors a little.

6. While the crust is cooling (it doesn’t need to be cold), beat the egg yolks into the milk, then beat in the citrus juice. It is important to completely combine these ingredients.

7. Pour into the pie crust and bake for 16 minutes, until the filling has set.

8. The pie needs to be completely cold to be sliced.

9. Serve with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.

Eating Through a Weekend in 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.