This will be the first in a series of cool things about my new hometown, Hillsborough, NC. After Laura died, I started searching for a new place to live. I wanted to stay within a half hour commute of RTP, which meant my choices ranged from downtown Raleigh, all of Chapel Hill, all of Durham, Cary, Apex, and, on the far fringe of that half hour drive, the small town of Hillsborough.
If you had asked me when the search started where I'd wind up, I'd have probably told you Durham. Durham was close to where I work, has some of my favorite restaurants in the area, and some other shopping destinations I like to frequent. And, the selection of housing in Durham in my price range was almost overwhelming. If you do an MLS search for houses under 80 thousand in the Triangle, you can get fifty or more hits out of Durham, and you might be lucky to see even five hits from Raleigh, and maybe one or two in Chapel Hill, almost always from the same awful condo communities. Durham has a reputation as a city with a lot of crime, but I figured that, with dozens of places to choose from, I'd eventually find one that wasn't too bad. I mean, the murder rate is high in Durham, yes, but it was also high in Richmond where I used to live, and I never had any real trouble in Richmond except for a once having my car broken into. (They stole the box in the backseat that held the dice I played D&D with... it was at that moment I converted to believing in the death penalty.) Alas, once I actually started looking at houses in Durham, my optimism soon faded. I kept going to houses that were obvious crime scenes. I looked at a house in a neighborhood in Durham called Bragtown that was a lovely brick house with hardwood floors and a fenced in back yard. Alas, every window on the ground level had been smashed in and was boarded over. Also, the kitchen door had obviously been kicked off its hinges a time or two. And this was a house I actually considered buying. It seemed much, much nicer than another house I looked at in Hillsborough where the door had been kicked in and nobody had bothered to replace it. The house was sitting open to the elements, and inside the place had been stripped of everything including light fixtures and the kitchen sink. Honestly, how much money can you make selling a second hand kitchen sink?
Eventually, I had to give up on Durham. Besides, by that point, I'd started falling in love with Hillsborough. I didn't know much about Hillsborough at this time last year. I'd come here infrequently to go to the Walmart which was newer and nicer than the one in Durham. But, it also would usually have a couple of houses in my price range, and they were usually nicer than what I was seeing in Durham. This isn't to say they were without flaws. Hillsborough is an old town, dating back to colonial times, and there are houses on the market here that were built long before such modern niceties as electricity or plumbing. I looked at one place over a century old heated only by fireplaces... I actually was giving it serious consideration, but the fact that you could stand in the middle room and look up and see sky through the holes in the roof discouraged me. Also, there was the four foot long snake we saw crawling into the house....
Eventually, I discovered my current abode, which was ugly, but solidly built (really solid--it's a cinderblock house), and, to my delight, was only a half mile from...
GOOD REASON TO MOVE TO HILLSBOROUGH #1: The Village Diner
When I moved to Chapel Hill, I was disappointed by the restaurants. I found most of the good places overpriced and crowded. But when I started househunting in Hillsborough, I started sampling the restaurants and felt like I'd stumbled into some marvelous alternate dimension where all the restaurants had character, great food, and good prices. My top 10 reasons to move to Hillsborough will contain a lot of restaurants on the list, but the restaurant deserving the top spot is, hands down, the Village Diner.
The Village Diner is on King St, which is runs right into the heart of the historic district. Go to the end of King Street that intersects with Churton, and you are at the very heart of Hillsborough. But, if you travel down King Street one mile, you leave behind the huge colonial and victorian houses and enter an area where all the houses are small and have tin roofs. Here you will find the Village Diner. It would be easy to ignore when you drive past it. It's in an unassuming brick building I'm guessing dates from the sixties. There's nothing particularly funky or eyecatching about it, except for the word "buffet" on the sign. I'm a sucker for buffets, so I thought I'd give it a shot.
When I walked in, I didn't have high hopes. The tables and booths look like they've probably been there since the place was built. They are clean, but slightly battered. The buffet bar itself isn't very big, and is curiously short, with a brown sneeze guard that makes it tough for a person of my height to see the food without hunching over. Everyone I've taken there to eat has commented on how hard it is to see the food.
My first good vibe about the place came when the waitress came to my table. When I told her I wanted tea, she didn't ask if I meant sweet tea. It was simply a given. Then, when she left the pitcher at the table, I knew I was in the company of people who truly understood my tastes.
And then, the food: the small buffet proved size doesn't matter. At a larger buffet, I might get ten choices of entrees, but only two or three are going to appeal to me. Here, the normally have four entrees, and I usually eat some of all four. They always have chopped pork barbeque and fried chicken. Both are terrific, especially the barbeque. The first time I ate there they also had beef ribs and saurkraut and sausage. You can't go wrong with saurkraut in my opinion, and the beef ribs were something I would willingly go into a restaurant and pay fifteen bucks for a plate of them. The meat was cooked till it was falling off the bones and the sause was perfect, spicy and savory without being the least bit sugary. And, it was all I could eat! For $6.99!
The side dishes are sort of a home cooking greatest hits, with mashed potatoes, green beans, lima beans, squash, corn on the cob, and various other items that rotate through. All are good, but the real stars are the main dishes. If you show up on a night with the beef ribs, you've definitely hit the star of the show. But, there are other dishes to look for that are terrific: Fried fish, chicken pot pie, brunswick stew, and country fried steak in gravy all stand out. There really is nothing among the main dishes they will have on any given night that has disappointed me, with one caveat: get there early. Because, after six, when some of the dishes run out, they just run out. I've been there plenty of times and seen the tray that once held beef ribs now holding nothing but sauce and a few meatless bones and felt the bittersweet twinge of opportunity lost.
And, as long as we are on the subject of disappointments, let me tell you the one item on the bar that is so consistently awful that it's worth sampling for the comedy value: the rolls. With all this homestyle, killer southern cooking, you'd think this would be the sort of place you'd find killer buiscuits. Instead, they always have rolls on the bar that have obviously been dumped out of a bag sometime around lunch, and by dinner time these rolls have turned into dryed out, crumbly lumps that taste like dried out, crumbly lumps. They aren't even useful for sopping up gravy. Yet, somehow, even these bad breads lend to the charm of the place; unlike some higher priced restaurants, you didn't come here to fill up on the bread. The Village Diner is one of a kind and it's only here, in Hillsborough, folks. Check it out.