Each of these little North Carolina restaurants has a story, and a ton of goodwill in their community.
Most everyone has their hometown go-to spots for a favorite meal. A beloved diner or dive, usually family-run with little to no social media presence, and you can’t remember a time when it wasn’t around.
Stumble upon one of these restaurants while traveling in North Carolina and you’re promised a good meal. Let a local recommend something on the menu while they tell you about the history of the area.
Look for daily specials – Vietnamese and Chinese dishes – written on the whiteboard. Wednesday and Saturday menus feature an extensive Vietnamese menu. Customers rave about the spicy chicken wings, sesame tofu and vegetarian plate.
Nearby: See the Durham Bulls play.
This family-owned restaurant recently moved down the street from a tiny space to one that will hold up to 125 guests. Order the cheeseburger and hush puppies.
Nearby: Combine a trip to Seagrove, “The Handmade Pottery Capital of the United States,” with a meal at Cagle’s.
Of course, this locally-owned restaurant serves fried chicken, but the menu also includes burgers, hot dogs, milkshakes, pizza, sandwiches, subs, soft-serve ice cream and homemade ice cream sandwiches.
Nearby: Hike Bear Creek Trails for more than 14 miles of trails.
Cherry Pop’s Soda Shop
In 1915, Rexall Drugs opened as a pharmacy and soda shop. Today, it’s a restored soda shop, keeping the original vibe alive. Enjoy hand-dipped ice cream, malts, shakes and more than 50 fountain soda flavors.
Nearby: Visit Murray’s Mill Historic Site, 3 miles from Cherry Pop’s.
In the late 1930s, Eugene Hoke started cooking sandwiches on a hot plate at a pool hall. When the health department told him he needed a license, he opened a grill. This town staple has been family owned and operated at the same location since then. Bring cash because it’s all they take.
Nearby: Bunker Hill Covered Bridge, one of two original remaining covered bridges in North Carolina, was built in 1895 by Andy L. Ramsour.
Before Dish, the yellow building in the heart of Charlotte’s Plaza Midwood neighborhood served as the Ho Toy restaurant and Chinese laundry. The menu boasts Southern comfort food such as meatloaf and fried green tomatoes.
Nearby: Spend an evening walking around the neighborhood – historic homes, brewery, consignment shops and a few parks are in the area.
The Dive Food & Spirits
A walk along Carolina Beach Boardwalk will take you to The Dive, voted Best Wings on the Island and included on the seasonal Tasting History Tours. Order the daily special or burgers, fish and shrimp baskets, handmade potato chips, fried pickles, fish or shrimp tacos.
Nearby: Paddle, hike or bike at Carolina Beach State Park.
From buses to cars and taxi cabs, the building Elmo’s occupies has a long history of housing companies in the business of providing transportation to Durham residents. Now, it nourishes the community in classic American diner style. Pro tip: The shrimp and grits are only served on Sundays.
Nearby: Drop by the Sarah P. Duke Gardens for a view of flowers, plants, trees and sculptures.
Although the history dates back to 1938 when it was a pharmacy, Andrea and Cliff Priddy have been operating the Franklinville Diner since 2018. The diner serves as a community meet-up spot. Try the pimento cheese burger and the grilled vanilla pound cake.
For 60 years, Glenn’s Restaurant has been a drive-in, serving the Big Glenn Burger, beef tips, hot dogs and malted milkshakes. Seating in a small dining room is available too.
Nearby: Head down the Yadkin River before or after eating.
The Hen & Egg
If you’re craving chip beef gravy, country fried steak, livermush with a side of pancakes, country ham and a biscuit, The Hen & Egg is your place for breakfast and lunch.
Nearby: The History Museum of Catawba County is open during the week to see collections including agricultural tools, military uniforms, reconstructed antebellum parlors and more.
The Hickory Café & Arcade
In downtown Hickory, head to this family-friendly diner, known for its burgers and pancakes. The arcade portion is closed.
Hot Dog World
Since the mid-1980s, Hot Dog World’s dogs with chili, sauerkraut and slaw have been feeding the western part of the state. If you dare go against the grain, burgers, salads and sandwiches also grace the menu. My father-in-law, a Hendersonville native, has Hot Dog World on speed dial.
Nearby: The Appalachian Pinball Machine, 80 games to play with a bit of history thrown in, is in downtown Hendersonville.
Igloo Ice Cream Sandwich Shop
If you see an igloo-shaped building in the Carolinas, you must stop. Try a bacon and egg breakfast sandwich.
Nearby: Birdwatch at Rendezvous Mountain State Park. Eleven species of warblers, along with other birds, inhabit the area.
Jeff’s Burgers Dogs & Shakes
Restaurant owner and Navy veteran Jeff Bender honors a popular Jacksonville DJ with the Paul Parker Sandwich, a pork tenderloin sandwich. Burgers are patted by hand and the fries are hand cut.
Nearby: Antique 2 Chic Vendor Market carries antiques, and new and vintage items.
Ken Pomliano, New Jersey-native, has been running the restaurant for 38 years. You’re sure to meet him and hear a story. Meat arrives daily from a local butcher.
Nearby: Walk along the 1.5 mile gravel trail at Aberdeen Lake Park.
The Kettle Diner
Daily specials, meat ‘n threes and breakfast served all days makes this a definite stop while in Jacksonville. Leave room for cake.
Nearby: Take a self-guided tour through Lejeune Memorial Gardens.
The building was a carhop at one time and locals admit to hiding behind the block wall on their first date so their parents couldn’t see them. Many of the employees have worked together for more than 20 years – making it a family friendly place to eat.
Nearby: Carthage Digital Mural Trail, the first in North Carolina, connects five murals which tell the history of the area.
Four years ago, Napkins opened as a veteran-owned restaurant inside Dirtbag Ales, a local brewery. Napkins is well-known for dishes based on local and seasonal ingredients. The smashburgers and brussels sprouts are fan-favorites.
Nearby: Visit the Airborne & Special Operations Museum Foundation.
Located on a horse track (also known as a harness track), The Track, as it’s known locally, is known for its blueberry pancakes.
Nearby: Play golf; I think you have to.
Since opening in 1916, the same family has been operating Shorty’s in the same location in downtown Wake Forest. Share the Jesse Jones Red Chili Dog, “Big One” Burger and two Arnold Palmers with friends.
Nearby: E. Carroll Joyner Park includes three miles of paved walking trails, fishing and restored farm buildings.
The Soda Shop
Although it’s changed names, this cafe has been in operation for 117 years. The Soda Shop opened in 1951, and the original wooden bar and booths are still in use. Its first cash register sits above the door. The recipe for the homemade egg salad is 100 years old, but we promise it’s freshly made.
Nearby: Wander through the Davidson College campus to view outdoor sculptures and gardens.
Thigs BBQ House and Catering
Danny Alphin and his daughter Amy Orr run this local joint. Ask for BBQ pork and fried chicken.
Nearby: Get tickets to a race at Coastal Plains Dragway.
For an elevated dining experience with an extensive brunch menu, give True Flavor Diners a try. Expect a wait or try during off-peak hours.
Nearby: Boxyard RTP offers indoor and outdoor entertainment in an area made of upcycled shipping containers.
Downtown Swansboro is home to Yana’s Restaurant, started by Evelyn Moore in 1983 and now operated by her grandson, John-John Sloan. Try the chili, clam soup and fruit fritters.
Nearby: Spend the day at Hammocks Beach State Park.