Friday, February 4, 2011

Durham A Day: Finally, Saxapahaw

In the last of my week of postings about a one-day swing through Durham last week, I'm going to cheat. This one isn't exactly Durham, and it wasn't on that one-day trip. It was where the trip started the night before.

But the Saxapahaw General Store project is so cool, I can't resist. If you know North Carolina history, you know the state is dotted with old mills, mostly near rivers. And mostly, they were massive brick buildings that were the hearts of their little towns.

The town of Saxapahaw in Alamance County on the Haw River was like that, a mill town until 1995, when the mill closed. But the son of the family that owned the big brick building wasn't ready to just abandon the place. Instead, a new vision: Apartments and condominiums overlooking the river. It's 45 minutes from downtown Raleigh and a good drive even from Chapel Hill, but it's attracted a thriving community of commuters who want to live closer to the country with the amenities of a city.

And the big mill building has also become a home for all the local-food producers that dot that part of the state. With the help of visionary chef Jeff Barney, it contains what has to be the most interesting restaurant in the state, the Saxapahaw General Store. It's still the town general store, with BC Powders, motor oil and Vienna sausage cans. But at the front, in a tiny kitchen space where you'd usually get a livermush biscuit or a hot dog, they're turning out plates of amazing, all-local, gourmet-level food. Serious food, like duck fat fries, free-range chicken, Cane Creek farm pork chops and wild-caught striped bass. At reasonable prices, even -- most plates hang in the $15 to $20 range, which isn't out of the ordinary for food on that level.

Tables are tucked in the aisles among the crackers and general merchandise, and you can get a craft beer or whatever you want from the coolers. When I headed to Raleigh, my food-writing colleague Andrea Weigl offered to take me anywhere I wanted to go. Saxahapaw was where I wanted to go.

We got there at the right time, too. The project expanded just a few weeks ago with the opening of The Eddy on one end of the building. The Eddy is a bar with pub food, most of it a trimmed-back version of the plates you get at the store, and a long list of in-state beers and specialty cocktails. It's a beautiful, warm space, all copper and natural woods, with a new deck overlooking the river. We were there on a Thursday night and a whole table of local-food stars, including Eliza MacLean of Cane Creek, came in for their own dinners.

Graham isn't on the way to pretty much anywhere. It's way out in the country, sort of between Graham and Carrboro. You have to make an effort to make the drive. But from what I saw and tasted, it's worth the trip for anyone who is interested in local food, new ideas, vision and what you can do with an old brick building.

Get the details here: Saxapahaw General .