What is more important than politics and books?
These two are often the topics of my weekly column, but many things are more important — including food, and the human fellowship that accompanies it.
These two topics will be central to this column.
Earlier this year I wrote about my search for old-time, locally owned, restaurants that are community gathering places, ones that are close enough to the big highways for travelers to find them and, rather than loading up with franchise fast foods, have a meal with the locals.
These thoughts are connected to the new book I am writing for UNC Press about how to have a local experience while traveling in North Carolina at family-owned, home-cooking restaurants, where local people gather. When I try to explain that I am not a food critic, and the book will not be an epicurean’s evaluation of the dining experience, folks respond, “Then, what is it about?”
I tell them it is mostly about the experience at these eateries, one that can make a traveler, for a moment, a part of a different community. Maybe the best way to explain it is to share a draft of one of the entries, about the Haymont Grill and Steakhouse in Fayetteville.
From 1963 through early 1965, when I lived on Bragg Boulevard in Fayetteville with seven or eight other Army lieutenants, I became a regular visitor to Haymont Grill at suppertime. The food was good and the atmosphere was golden. It was a community gathering place, and we were welcome there. Ever since, I have looked for the Haymont Grills of whatever town I lived in.
Pete Skenteris, the long-time owner, took care of us back then, and he is still at it. In early 2015, he told Chick Jacobs of the Fayetteville Observer, “Once someone comes once, they keep coming back. They become our friends, not just customers. We use only fresh ingredients, fresh ground beef and seafood.” I think he told me the same thing in 1963.
Since the 60s, Skenteris has expanded into parts of the building once occupied by a popular barbershop. One of the barbers was George Richardson, father of Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers.
So what is it: Haymount or Haymont? Or looking up at the big sign on top to the restaurant, you will read Hamont. The original name was something else, Hay Mount, named for John Hay, an Irish-born lawyer who represented Fayetteville in the North Carolina legislature in 1790 and was a good friend of North Carolina’s U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Iredell. Hay’s home was on the corner of Hillside and Hay streets. That Hamont sign came about because a sign with six letters cost $5,000 less than one with seven letters. Skenteris is still passing on the savings to his customers.
Nearby Haymont Grill are a changing variety of shops with an array of antiques, crafts and jewelry. A couple of blocks away on Hay Street is the Cape Fear Regional Theater, which former director Bo Thorp (mother of former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp) helped the community build into an emerging professional theatre with a national reputation. A few more blocks away at 801 Arsenal Ave. is the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex, which bills itself as “Fayetteville’s premier historic facility that includes a museum with eye-popping exhibits of North Carolina’s rich history, the 1897 Poe House, a late-Victorian house museum, and historic Arsenal Park, the remains of an ordnance factory that served both the Federal and Confederate governments.”
“What is the book about?”
It is about Haymont Grill and more than a hundred others!
If you have a favorite restaurant like the Haymont Grill, I would love to hear about it. Email: [email protected]
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information, visit www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.