I grew up in Pittsboro, and I spent my childhood there taking long drives down hilly back roads, canoeing down the Haw River, taking Saturday pilgrimages to Allen & Sons BBQ, going to church on Sundays, and having lunch at S&T’s Soda Shoppe after half-days at school. Located between the banks of the Haw and Rocky Rivers, the small town of my youth has become a day-trip destination for folks who love good food, scenic views, and North Carolina history.
Founded in 1771, Pittsboro takes its place in North Carolina history seriously. It was home to one of the first parochial schools for African Americans in the state which opened at St. James’ Episcopal Mission in 1787. Centuries later, the town nurtured a number of North Carolinian hippies in the 1960s. Today, evidence of an old place made anew exists in the iconic Court House, situated in the middle of the town’s traffic circle; the Chatham Mill that produced silk for nearly 70 years and now houses retail space; and the Bynum General Store, once a place were mill workers shopped, now a music hub where people unwind on Friday nights.
Steeped in decades of history, Pittsboro now comes to a crossroads. Over the next 30 years, developers project the town’s population will grow from 3,000 to 60,000 people as a result of Chatham Park, a 7,000-acre residential and commercial development. With growth comes change, and it’s a certainty that Pittsboro will become a very different town than the one I have known. With that in mind, here’s a guide to local favorites and long-term establishments that represent what Pittsboro, as I know it, is all about.
Start your day with a home-style full-course breakfast at Al’s Diner. Established in the 1980’s as Stacy’s Diner, original owner Stacy Plummer passed on the business to son Shannon and his wife Nikki in 1997. Today, it is still a place where town-folk congregate for fast, delicious home cooking. Old photos of downtown dot the walls of this local favorite, where regulars call waitresses by name. Dining in? Try the country fried steak with a side of crispy hash browns. Driving-thru? Go for the fluffy country ham biscuit.
After breakfast, make your way out to the Carolina Tiger Rescue. The 55-acre property, just seven minutes east of downtown, is home to 70+ animals of 10 different species including: tigers, lions, cougars, caracals, servals, ocelots, and kinkajous. The sanctuary began in the 1970’s, when UNC geneticist Michael Blayman sought to protect vital endangered species. The only one of its kind in North Carolina, CTR is one of 13 tiger rescues in the nation. Rescued from maltreatment, CTR’s tigers and lions, now live a life of leisure. Book a public or private tour to get close, (but not too close) to the rescue’s beautiful animals that originate from Africa, the Mediterranean and Siberia.
As you you make your way back into town, stop by French Connections, an eclectic and colorful boutique housed within the historic Thompson Home. Metal sculptures of rich blues, reds and greens fill its front yard. Inside antique sideboards and tables overflow with vibrant fabrics, beaded and metal jewelry, art, and sculptures from France, Mexico, and 20 African countries. Owners Wendy and Jacques Dufour source directly from independent artists and manufacturers. “My husband is from France and I am from North Carolina and we met in South Africa. We lived in France and Senegal after we were married and decided to move to Pittsboro because I wanted to be close to Chapel Hill for business,” says Wendy. “We bought the building thinking we would sell French antiques. We had French furniture and decorated our store with African masks, but we began to get requests from our customers to buy the masks, but they were our masks! So we began to get African masks, art, French and African fabric for our customers. The store just happened organically.”
Hop in your car to make a 10 minute drive to Allen & Son Bar-B-Que, one of the Piedmont's most famous BBQ establishments. Featured as one of Local East top 100 barbecue joints in the country in 2013, Allen & Son has been run by Jimmy Stubbs and his family for over 20 years. It’s my favorite BBQ spot because of the great food and the friendly, welcoming staff. My personal favorite is the perfectly crisp homemade hand-cut fries and sweet golden brown hushpuppies, however the perfectly breaded and fried okra and fried corn is also very tasty when served with pit cooked eastern North Carolina vinegar style pulled pork and an ice-cold sweet tea. Tar Heel fans will appreciate Carolina memorabilia that adorns the restaurant's interiors, but if you can’t get behind that, you can always order at the outdoor walk-up window.
After lunch, head north towards Fearrington, once a working farm, now one of North Carolina’s most esteemed inns and retail and event destinations. The Fearrington’s legendary manicured grounds abut a pastoral backdrop that showcases Pittsboro’s bucolic beauty. Take a walk around its immaculate gardens and watch the belted-galloway cows graze. In the mood for pampering and a post-barbeque treat? Visit the historic Relais & Chateaux Fearrington Inn and barn where people come from all over to stay at the first five-star inn in North Carolina. Grab a bottle of wine Belted Goat wine bar and some of the South’s best literature at McIntyre’s Books.
After enjoying a walk around the gardens at Fearrington, head back into downtown to The Woodwright’s Shop. Some of y’all may be familiar this shop via Roy Underhill’s PBS special The Woodwright’s Shop, now in its 35th season, known for crafting early-American style furniture using only hand tools from that time period. The Woodwright’s School teachers, Roy Underhill and Bill Anderson, have been perfecting their craft since the 1970s and emphasize the importance of working with your hands. The Woodwright’s School offers classes in the shop that you must sign up for in advance, but if you don’t it is still worth taking a peek through the window.
Right next door to The Woodwright’s school is S&T’s Soda Shoppe. Opened in 1997, Gene and Vicky Oldham named the late 1800s inspired soda shoppe after their sons, T.J. and Steve, who you’ll find working behind the counter. “When someone walks into S&T’s I want them to be happy,” says Vicky. “I want them to feel like they can leave all their troubles at the door and just relax and have a sundae or ice cream and just forget about all the things on their mind.”
Vicky and Gene know about troubles. Gene’s battle and ultimate victory over non-Hodgkins lymphoma inspired the couple to open S&T’s. The Oldhams wanted to create a family friendly restaurant that served some of their childhood favorites, like fresh squeezed orangeades and black cherry Buttercup ice cream. The Oldham’s recreated their soda shoppe with a careful eye to detail — metal tile ceilings, antique furniture, old jukebox, black and white marble floor and glass covered countertop. Don’t pass on the ice cream or overlook the classic Coke floats, milkshakes, banana splits, and egg creams.
From there, just around the corner, take a load off at City Tap, S&T’s, contemporary neighbor. City Tap is a great place to get a drink. The bar serves wine, liquor and, as its name suggests, beer. Impressively, all drafts are from North Carolina and include Fullsteam from Durham, Natty Greene’s from Greensboro, and Foothills from Winston-Salem. Sip a cold brew and play darts on the covered patio or just kick back and relax.
EVENING & HITTING THE ROAD
Your next stop is inside the historic Chatham Mill. Opened in 1920, Chatham Mill was once the largest silk label in the world. Now restored and repurposed, the Mill is home to Chatham Marketplace, a co-op; Starlight Mead, a honey meadery; Jenny Garrett McLaurin, a goldsmith shop; Pittsboro Bicycles; and Oakleaf, a farm to table restaurant. Oakleaf’s chef, Brendan Cox, who owns the restaurant with his wife Leslie, uses all local ingredients, including vegetables from his own garden, to create a seasonal dishes. “Oakleaf is not a New York restaurant in Pittsboro, it's a Pittsboro restaurant in Pittsboro,” says Brendan. “Any chef will tell you, when you have better ingredients you have better food. Being close to farms, I am able to see farmers two or three times a week. I am able to built relationships with them, which is what makes a difference compared to working with box venders.” From Chatham rabbit with mustard greens doused in dijon with a fried guinea egg from his own farm to North Carolina rainbow trout served along glazed filet beans with lemon-brown butter, Cox is not afraid to have fun with his menu.
Close out your night with live music in Bynum. This small unincorporated community five miles north of Pittsboro was once home to many cotton mill workers who labored in a water powered mill, which no longer stands, on the banks of the Haw River. Up until 2006, Bynum’s General Store was consistently a home for locals since 1936. Locals raised money to reopen the store by hosting live music every Friday night from May to August. On any given summer Friday night, you may find some of the area’s most talented musicians, like Tommy Edwards and The Bluegrass Experience. Behind the store’s screen door sits a world overflowing with evidence of the store’s past — faded gasoline memorabilia hangs on the walls and worn paperbacks line the shelves.
Give yourself some time to wander through the streets of Bynum and notice the historic mill-village houses painted vibrant colors, an old jail, and an overgrown movie theater. As you wander, you won’t be able to miss the work of world renowned local artist, Clyde Jones. Clyde’s “critters,” nailed together chainsawed logs and stumps, have been exhibited all over the world, including the Great Wall of China and the Smithsonian Institute. Jones’ critters are scattered throughout the community and his murals cover the walls of old out-buildings. If you want one more glimpse of the Haw, stroll down to the old bridge and walk down to canoe put-in at the bank and dip your feet in or stretch out a blanket on the old pedestrian bridge and enjoy the sunset over the river.