(Part 2 in my Hometown Tourist Summer Blog Series)
Nestled in the corner of the tumbled-brick, rain-dotted streets that encircle the train-track epicenter of Carrboro, North Carolina, is a slice of heaven served with a side of fries. Though i dream of the days when the dust is unsettled and the nooks and crannies of yet-uncovered places are the itineraries of my soul, there is nothing akin to coming home. The warmth of familiarity, the comfort taken in the known, and the want for the expected are the irreplaceable gifts when all i want is certainty. Coming to this corner of the world is the certainty and warmth and things known i need when i, however long at last, come home.
This is why, forever and amen, Elmo’s diner will forever be my most favorite restaurant in this wide and wonderous world.
Elmo’s is entrenched in history by virtue of its very walls. Its occupation of the corner of Carr Mill Mall stands within the same foundation as when the building was hewn from redclay bricks in 1898. Though the mall now houses small boutiques and the best cole slaw this side of the Mississippi, it was first built as a cotton mill not too far from the American Tobacco District of Durham, NC, where Bull McCabes is tucked away.
However, though Elmo’s tangible history paints a portrait of compelling hole-in-the-wall splendor and quirk, the real magic of Elmo’s – for me – is in the sense of personal history. The ambience of a place dripping with local color and the milieu of a community with roots is inseparable from this sense of home-ness, to be sure, but the persistence of memory permeates and seeps far deeper than the creaking floorboards might, at first, seem.
But what i first see when tracing my fingers along with crumbly, imperfect brick walls, is how much my fingers have grown – and how unchanging and constant those walls have been. I’ve been perching on the edge of Elmo’s green booths and counter-top seats since i was six years old – young enough to be unquestioningly given a kid’s menu and cup of crayons. Elmo’s kids menus have always, at least for the last decade, garnished with a friendly duck with an “E” emblazoned on the front of a polka-dotted tea. More of my works of Elmo’s-duck-art have (shall we say) adorned the walls of the host stand area than there are sculptures by Michelangelo. My family has been dining within the confines of the fairy-lit patio since they first strung up plastic bags filled with water to stave off the ever-omnipresent North Carolina flies. I don’t bother to open the menu anymore; even after they modified the font and prices, i know precisely what i’m going to order every single time.
It helps, certainly, that Elmo’s comfort is manifested most deliciously and directly in its phenomenal diner-style food. They are most famous for their breakfast foods which are, delightfully, served all day long (i recommend a stack of two chocolate chip pancakes with, if you’re feeling ambitious, a side of grits or fruit), but anything you order will assuredly be rife with flavor and fullness. The chocolate milkshakes are nectar of angels, the biscuits are made from dough i swear to be kneaded by holy hands, and, though i don’t eat beef anymore, the burgers are known to the be the best for blocks.
Most of all, however, i can heartily endorse the one thing on the menu that i have unfailingly ordered for every lunch and dinner meal spent in the crevices of tumbled red bricks and formica counters. I can back this recommendation with, firstly, my soul, and secondly, over ten years of consistent perfection on the part of the people in the kitchen.
I give you: The Greek Grilled Cheese with Chicken.
This Magnificat is composed of: grilled chicken (perfectly seasons) atop a bed of fresh lettuce, tomato, onions, feta cheese, cucumbers, and more feta inside a pita smothered in cheddar cheese. I like to drizzle some of the (what i presume to be) cucumber-esque sauce that comes as a garnish on top, but save half the ramekin for dipping my fries. It’s a monster of a sandwich to consume which, therefore, requires you to look a bit like a monster while eating it. Luckily, Elmo’s is a homeplace for me which, therefore, makes it a judging-free zone when it comes to inhaling creation’s best meal. (It also helps that i try to bring people along who will love me regardless of inability to eat like a dainty lady).
So whether i’m indulging in a breakfast before dashing off to work (in yet another restaurant) or sharing a slice of my hometown’s history with friends, Elmo’s is an unmistakable landmark in the Triangle area of North Carolina. The service is impeccable and hospitable, the food is supreme, and the salience of memory makes any meal a new kind of remembrance.
And when i’m feeling particularly wistful, well, the waitstaff doesn’t really mind if i color another duck to hang on the wall.
Price: 1.0 – 1.5 (0 being fast food, 5 being somewhere super-fancy and of multiple courses (this menu is also contingent on size of portion & time of day)) Atmosphere: 5 (0 being fast food boring, 5 being the full experience of delicious things for eyes and mouth and ears!) Delectability of Food: OVER NINE THOUSAND (0 being fast food, 5 being mouth-explosion crazed-good)
current jam: ‘roll away your stone’ mumford & sons
best thing: elmo’s, when shared.