With rich farmland in its front yard and Atlantic fisheries along its coastline, Eastern Carolina is more than just BBQ and beer. Primed for fine dining experiences that meet -- or exceed -- any you’ll have in well-known North Carolina cities, these four restaurants have urban North Carolinians heading out into the country for unique meals.
On the Square (Tarboro, NC)
Impeccable yet unfussy food, superb wine pairings, and warm Southern service make On the Square the place that locals bring friends to. Owners Inez and Stephen Ribustello met while working at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. After September 11, the couple moved to North Carolina and chose Tarboro, Inez’s hometown, to open their dream restaurant: a comfortable dining destination serving top-notch seasonal and fresh food paired with inspired cocktails. On any given night, Inez can be found on the floor making wine recommendations and greeting guests old and new. There’s also a small wine store attached to the restaurant that lets you purchase a bottle from their carefully curated selection.
Pro Tip: Locals come out in full force on Thursday, so be sure to mix and mingle to find out what those in-the-know do around town.
Catch (Wilmington, NC)
At the helm of Catch is Chef Keith Rhodes, a former Top Chef contestant, a North Carolina James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast, and Wilmington native. The restaurant is an old storefront that's quickly become a seafood mecca, serving modern seafood cuisine with “Tar Heel State” flair. Rhodes’ strict standards on wild-caught and sustainably raised seafood deliver meals that show off the full spectrum of flavors from the region -- from cast-iron blackened catfish with cheese grits to Cajun-fried oysters. Even non-seafood dishes, like his NC sweet potato salad, score rave reviews.
Pro Tip: Looks can be deceiving. Catch is in a strip mall, but as the sign in the window reassures you, “Yes, you’re in the right place!” Walk inside and the warm glow of the elegant décor will confirm it.
Dickinson Avenue Pub (Greenville, NC)
Sometimes when you’re in the middle of the country, you need that bite of urban flavor to serve as a reminder of big city living -- and Dickinson Avenue Pub is just that place. The restaurant may be on the more casual side of fine dining (with a higher noise level and energy, to boot) but Dickinson Avenue Pub delivers with panache, as proven by its instant popularity after opening this past fall. The menu is Southern food at its urbane finest: dark meat fried chicken with mac n’ cheese, Texas-style baby back ribs with beef fat fries, and shrimp ceviche nachos with queso and lime crema are all on tap. Don’t miss the extensive bar offerings, which include a variety of North Carolina and craft beers. The pub’s converted 4,000-square-foot space with exposed brick, soaring ceiling, and dark wood bar add to the experience.
Pro Tip: Greenville is home to Eastern Carolina University. The town’s variety of restaurants and lodging, plus its central location, offer convenient options for a home base when adventuring around this part of the state.
Chef and the Farmer (Kinston, NC)
Chef and the Farmer is the restaurant at the heart of the PBS series A Chef’s Life, following Chef Vivian Howard into North Carolina fields and back into the restaurant’s kitchen. Confirming that food is a family affair in this part of the state, Howard’s husband Ben joins her in the dining room, where locals and visitors alike book reservations weeks in advance to indulge in her modern takes on Southern classics. Enjoy outstanding service from a well-trained staff who will happily tell you about the farms and farmers who grew each item on the menu, as you feast on favorites like flash fried collards, pork shoulder, shrimp and grits, and fried chicken livers.
Pro Tip: The venue’s popularity may mean having to book a late dinner reservation. Come into town early and start your night down the road at the Mother Earth Brewing Company taproom, where local craft beers are served in a sleek modern setting that includes a central bar counter, modular couches, and blue and silver lighting and décor.