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(CIRCA Magazine – A travel column from the Wake Forest Historical Museum)
Although my kids insist that eating two dinners and visiting a Civil War museum is not how normal people spend the afternoon, that’s what we did in quirky Kinston, North Carolina and it’s a Driveable Destination that can’t be topped! Located less than two hours away in Lenoir County, Kinston is the only place in the United States where you can see the shell of a Confederate gunboat and dine at an eatery that doubles as home base for an Emmy winning culinary program on UNC-TV!
If you’re alive on the planet you’ve probably heard about Chef Vivian Howard and her husband Ben Knight, who left New York City several years ago to open a pair of restaurants in Howard’s hometown of Kinston. Their very successful blend of sophistication and southern tradition is documented in the series A Chef’s Life, now entering its third season on PBS. The couple’s flagship restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, uses all local ingredients to put a new twist on old favorites. Their second eatery, Boiler Room Oyster Bar, is across the street and caters to the burger and beer crowd.
The original idea for this trip came from Kay Northcutt, a friend of the Wake Forest Historical Museum who suggested Kinston because of Chef & the Farmer. Fans of the PBS series love to watch Howard render mouthwatering versions of fine southern specialties such as: Charlotte’s Fried Chicken with Banana Sandwiches, Compound Ramp Butter for Steak and Baked Potato, Mom’s Run-Up Turnip Salad with Sausage, and Frogmore Stew. Kinston is also home to the CSS Neuse, an ironclad gunboat constructed by the Confederate Navy and pulled from the bottom of the Neuse River in the 1960s. The preserved hull is conveniently housed in an immense interpretive center at 100 N. Queen Street, right around the corner from our primary targets—those restaurants.
Reaching Kinston is easy in a breezy, rural way. We started heading east on US-64, switched to US-264, and then veered south on NC Highway 58. This takes you directly into downtown, turns into Queen Street, and actually passes the CSS Neuse Interpretive Center. This is a neighborhood in transition as Kinston is working hard to transform the district into a tourist destination. Businesses drawing crowds include the local Farmers Market, design and kitchen boutiques, and Mother Earth Brewing.
Our first stop upon arriving in downtown was the CSS Neuse, one of four ironclad gunboats built by the Confederates near the end of the Civil War in the hopes of driving Union forces out of New Bern. This particular ship, due to a series of mishaps and setbacks, never left Kinston. In March 1865, with the city under siege, the crew blew a hole in the gunboat’s side and sank it to the bottom of the river to keep it from enemy hands. That’s where it remained until the 1963 recovery effort that also raised approximately 15,000 shipboard artifacts. A number of these, with signs explaining their history and usage, are displayed in a series of new, professionally designed exhibits that opened in March. Featured items include tools for cooking and shipbuilding, an iron stove, and an empty bottle of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce that emerged perfectly preserved after a century underwater.
Stop number two was the Boiler Room Oyster Bar on West North Street—with one minor detour. We noticed a shop window with Lily Pulitzer dresses for girls and ended up discovering the H. Stadiem Department Store. Founded in 1903 by Hymen Stadiem, it’s a 26,000 square foot local landmark that’s still family owned and definitely worth checking out. Honestly, when is the last time you visited a non-chain department store? Whether window shopping or looking to buy, you’ll enjoy the experience and feel good about supporting Kinston’s local economy.
And now it’s time for full disclosure: We didn’t consume an entire dinner at the Oyster Bar. It was only our destination for drinks and appetizers, which included the house saltines with ranch, the wedge salad, and the smoked fish toast. It’s a fun atmosphere. We then headed to West Gordon Street for our dinner reservation at Chef and the Farmer for a wonderful dining experience. Whether it was the flash fried collards, asparagus pizza, smoked beef tartare, or boiled peanut risotto, the place more than lived up to its hype. We were positively blown away by the pork belly skewers doused in blueberry barbecue sauce. Each dish was outstanding and unique. Also nice, the friendly kitchen staff didn’t complain about the nuisance I made of myself by continuing to take pictures.
All together the Kinston adventure took a total of about eight hours. We pulled into our driveway not long after 10pm. It was a memorable, delicious, and extremely driveable adventure that we fully intend to do again!
Kinston is an easy drive. If you take US-64 and US-264 to NC Highway 58, it’s less than two hours from northern Wake County. Although reservations aren’t required at the Boiler Room Oyster Bar, those wishing to dine at Chef and the Farmer should definitely plan in advance. Please visit www.chefandthefarmer.com for more information. The CSS Neuse Interpretive Center is a North Carolina Historic Site; hours are posted online at www.nchistoricsites.org/neuse/neuse.htm. You’ll also find a number of other museums and historic attractions in downtown Kinston.