There's no billboard on Interstate 40 East hawking the Meadow Restaurant. You won't find a website for the restaurant. And most people in Raleigh I tell about it don't know of it, much less of the community of Meadow. And yet this jewel in the rural landscape of eastern North Carolina is an important stop between Raleigh and Wilmington or the beaches of the southeast part of the state. Slow down or you'll miss it.
During the last 25 years I've travelled the road between Raleigh and Wilmington hundreds if not thousands of times. At one time, there was no Interstate 40 east of Raleigh. I took a two lane road, NC 50, through Garner and Benson, with a short jog on NC 242 over to US 421, which took me into Wilmington. I tried to time it right for lunch or dinner at a corner restaurant in Benson, name now lost to me, that had great home cooking. Unfortunately, it was bought by Hardees and demolished. That's the fate of most such local restaurants. I'm always looking for the kind of food I ate growing up, and it's hard to come by. That's why I'm glad for Meadow.
Meadow is the first exit off I-40 East after its intersection with I-95. That makes it about 45 minutes east of Raleigh. From the highway, it's about ½ mile to the community, which consists of a crossroads with a gas station, volunteer fire department, and the Meadow Restaurant, a one story, non-descript concrete block building with minimal signage. A feed building is located immediately behind the restaurant, gaping doors open to traffic.
Yesterday I pulled my car in right between two pick-up trucks (two of several in the lot) and felt immediately at home. For whatever reason I have the sense that a parking lot full of pick-ups means that ordinary people, people who know the taste of good home-cooked food, country people, must eat here, and they continue to eat here because it's at least as good as it is at home.
"You want the buffet, sweetie?
I'm sold. They even know how to address a man here.
"It's $7.25, all you can eat."
Heck, that's less than the fare at Café Carolina in Raleigh, and the spread here makes the yuppie food of the Café look paltry.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm having the buffet."
"Is there any other kind?"
Sherilee smiles and pours my glass full and leaves a two quart pitcher of tea on the table. I realize I have definitely made a good stop today.
Mike, an associate now retired, told me about Meadow 20 years ago. Usually, however, I'm in a hurry, whizzing by the rural farms and towns of eastern North Carolina, not thinking much about Meadow. But that's going to change.
I walk over to the buffet and have the overwhelming sense that my grandmother might walk out of the kitchen. There's every kind of home-cooked garden vegetable: limas, corn, collard greens, string beans, pintos, squash, yams. There are three or four meats as well, including fried shrimp (which was fresh and tasty), trout, pork barbecue, and fried chicken. They even had pork rind!I loaded up my plate, set down, and started in. Looking around, there were a lot of middle to elderly men, with John Deere hats on, some couples, and two elderly ladies sitting alone at their lunch.
"It' better than OK," I say. "It's great. How long has this place been open?"
"I don't think I've been in here for several years or so."
"Well, we changed some."
"Not much. It's like I remembered."
"Well, enjoy it."
Finishing the main course, I walked over to the dessert buffet. My goodness. I should have started here. There's nowhere in the city you can see a spread like this. I reach for the pitiably small dessert plate about the same time as another man. We look at each other and at the plate. We both say, at about the same time, "That ain't gonna do," and we walk over and get a dinner plate.
There is a four foot square tray of homemade banana pudding, the meringue two to three inches in height. I take a generous portion. I fill the rest of the plate with chocolate pie --- not icebox pie, mind you, but the real stuff, with a meringue covering that looks like the topography of the Rocky Mountains. I had no more room on the plate, so I had to leave the six different homemade cakes untouched. But I'm only one man. There's only so much I can handle.
I understand what they mean when they say this is "comfort food." I feel amazingly comforted that a place like this exists, that people like I grew up around are still around, rural people who go to small country churches of less than 100 people, waitresses that are still "waitresses" and not "servers" and who unabashedly call you "sweetie" and "honey," establishments where the focus is on the food and not the ambience. Meadow is a good restaurant because I could take my Mom here, and she'd be happy. In fact, listening to the waitresses here talk to the older customers, I realize that they are being honored.
The Meadow Restaurant is still with us because some people still remember the taste of a home cooked meal. On our way between cities, we urbanites just need to slow down and get off the interstate long enough to see what the rest of the world is like. If you do that, you might discover a hidden gem. You might just realize how much poorer we'd be without such places. Next time I may even skip the interstate and drive the rural back roads for a while and get a good look at what we might lose.
[The Meadow Restaurant is located 11 miles east of Benson, just off I-40 at the Meadow exit, #334. Take a right at the stop sign at the end of the exit ramp and go about a half mile to the stop sign at the crossroads. Take a left and then turn right into the restaurant parking lot. The lunch buffet is $7.25, dinner $9.50. I recommend lunch, both for price and freshness of food, and coming no later than 11:30. The banana pudding is still warm!]