Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Place Unchanged After 50 Years

As soon as I entered through the door, I knew that I had arrived at a place that many people would call their favorite restaurant. “Sit anywhere you want,” says the nearest server as someone comes in. I picked the closest table to the checkout counter, which is in front of the kitchen, and watched families and other groups amble to their regular places.

A moon, hanging in fog, watches over Stephenson's late in the evening before it closes.

Although most of its business today is with local residents, Stephenson’s does attract out-of-towners as the guest register at the front entrance indicates. Its inclusion on the North Carolina Barbecue Trail keeps new faces arriving. Travelers from Kentucky, New Jersey, and Virginia had signed recently.

A guest register is prominently displayed at the entrance.

Located on NC Highway 50 about 20 miles south of Raleigh in a community known as McGee’s Crossroads, Stephenson’s would have been a regular stop for families traveling to the North Carolina coast. Highway 50 begins in Granville County (adjacent to the Virginia border) and travels south to Topsail Beach in Pender County. Traversing only 164 miles, it once would have been the primary road for summer destinations for many residents in central North Carolina before the days of Interstate travel. Now that Highway 50 has been supplanted by I-40 for fast travel, Stephenson’s is almost forgotten by the beach traffic (except for those in the know), although it is less than three miles from the nearest interchange with I-40.

The parking lot lined with cars indicates Stephenson's popularity, although it's no longer on the primary road to the beach.

Stephenson’s was opened because William Paul Stephenson, Jr., a farmer, decided he could make more money by operating a barbecue business and selling sandwiches than by selling the hogs that he was raising. The building, in the shape of a barn, looks vintage 1958, the year that Stephenson opened his restaurant. A Pepsi sign near the entrance simply stating “Bar-b-que” also has a 1950s look. With only “Stephenson’s Bar-B-Q” in white letters above the entrance, a fast traveler might not even notice the building because it is set back from the road and no sign by the road marks the place.

The sign by the front door looks like it hasn't changed since the 1950s.

The classic red-and-white checkered tablecloths provide an easy, at-home feel. Soon after I had sat down and ordered, my server brought a tall pitcher of tea with a small pan of crushed ice -- more than adequate for a single customer and more ice that I would expect in February. I appreciate the service that patrons have plenty of tea -- with lots of ice.

Tea comes with all the ice that you need.

The barbecue is pit-cooked daily, hand-chopped, and seasoned lightly with a pepper-vinegar sauce in the finest traditions of eastern North Carolina, although Stephenson’s cooks only pork shoulders, not whole hog. For someone who needs more sauce, only two kinds – a pepper-vinegar sauce and the commercial Texas Pete – are on a table.

Although the menu lists chicken, barbecue brings in the customers.

The sandwiches are reasonably priced -- $3.65 for barbecue pork with slaw. For plates, the BBQ choices are simple: only two sizes -- small pig and large pig. On weekends, ribs are also available. The sides are typical for a barbecue restaurant in eastern North Carolina (except no baked beans): coleslaw, collards (in season), cabbage, applesauce, spiced apples, green beans, corn, and potatoes (boiled or french fries). Other sides include gizzards and livers! As a traditional barbecue house, Stephenson’s does offer dessert but only one: banana pudding.

The counter is always busy with customers placing takeout orders.

For large groups, Stephenson’s serves an all-you-can-eat, family style meal of pig, barbecue chicken, and Brunswick stew with boiled potatoes, coleslaw, and hushpuppies. (The menu warns, “Please don’t ask to take leftovers home.”)

Stephenson's pit is at the back of the building -- no wood pile here, Stephenson's cooks with hardwood coals.

Because I couldn’t miss on trying Brunswick stew, I ordered it as a plate with chopped barbecue that comes with two sides (for me, collards and coleslaw) and hushpuppies (that are excellent) or rolls. Everything more than met my expectations, and having a full glass of iced tea without having to ask for service was a nice touch for the family-operated business, now run by Stephenson’s son Andy.

On my plate of chopped barbecue and Brunswick, I ordered coleslaw and collards.

Stephenson’s deserves its place in the legends of pit-cooked barbecue, and it will continue to earn this respect for a long time as the second generation honors its traditions begun in 1958.

The founder, who died in 2008, opened the restaurant in 1958.