The Best Food in Chapel Hill--Restaurants & Much More
Chapel Hill Food Culture
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is best-known as the home of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The flagship of the statewide UNC system, UNC-Chapel Hill is also the oldest public university in the United States, dating back to 1789. Not only is Chapel Hill regularly lauded as one of the most beautiful small towns in the U.S.--and well-worth exploring for its beautiful campus, Southern charm, and vibrant student scene-- but is also praised for its thriving foodie scene. Delicious food in Chapel Hill is everywhere, you just need to know where to look. There are dozens of fantastic and time-honored Chapel Hill restaurants, bars, and quick bites, serving up everything from James Beard Award-winning cuisine, late-night pub favorites, Southern fare, and international eats from all over the globe. There are options for every budget, palate, and time of day, and you’ll want to plan your trip around having at least two meals and a snack, in order to really get a sense of the fantastic food scene.
Chapel Hill food culture can be described as surprising, eclectic, and all-over-the-place-- and all are true. Visitors are often drawn to the area initially because of the campus. Perhaps they or their children are interested in attending UNC themselves, perhaps they are fans of Neoclassical academic architecture, or perhaps they were already in the Research Triangle area (of which Chapel Hill forms one point of the Triangle, with state capital Raleigh and nearby Durham forming the other two points) and figured they’d stop by for a quick visit. While visiting campus is an absolute must, the town has also built up a well-deserved reputation for being one of the premier “foodie destinations” in the South. Some even say it has the best food in North Carolina!
Visiting Chapel Hill
Depending on when you arrive, structure your day around what types of cuisine you’d like to sample. If you can, try to arrive in time for brunch! Afterwards, spend some time exploring campus. A few can’t-miss highlights on campus include: the Old Well, the symbol of campus and good luck charm for students; the two quads and their historic buildings, some of which date back to the late 1700s; the Pit, the beating heart of campus, where students meet up; the Dean Dome, where the frequent NCAA champion Tar Heel basketball team plays; and Franklin Street, the “Main Street” of Chapel Hill and the perfect place for a sweet or salty snack after you’re done walking around campus.
In the afternoon and early evening, consider visiting the Ackland Art Museum on campus, or perhaps seeing a show at the Morehead Planetarium, then enjoying a happy hour drink prior to dinner. If you’d rather have dinner first, go for a nightcap instead!
Chapel Hill is well-worth a day trip if you’re in the Triangle area or driving through on Interstate 40. It has a gorgeous campus, particularly when the leaves change in the fall and when the azaleas bloom in the spring, and the Chapel Hill restaurant scene can’t be missed. It’s located conveniently in the middle of the state, so consider pairing a visit to the mountains (2 hours’ drive west) or the beach (2 hours’ drive east.) The Outer Banks in particular are spectacular for ocean lovers, and there is fantastic skiing and hiking in Boone, Blowing Rock, and other parts of the Appalachian Mountains.
Read on for your foodie guide to all the best food in Chapel Hill--treats, quick bites, local favorites, and the best restaurants in Chapel Hill--from traditional brunch to Turkish to soul food and Southern fare, and everything in between.
The Best Chapel Hill Restaurants & So Much More
Best Breakfast in Chapel Hill
• If all you have time for is a quick drive-by, or you’re just driving through Chapel Hill on your way to another destination, consider sampling the biscuits at Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. Conveniently drive-through only, Sunrise is a Chapel Hill institution, and winner of the “Best Biscuit in the U.S.” award from Food and Wine. The secret? Grandma’s recipe, of course.
• For the full brunch experience, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve been to Crook’s Corner. A Chapel Hill establishment for over 30 years, Crook’s is “one of the most iconic restaurants in the American South” according to Food and Wine, and “sacred ground for Southern foodies,” according to the New York Times. A James Beard Foundation “America’s Classic” restaurant, it hits the spot between comfort food and high-brow cuisine flawlessly. For fans of “boozy brunch,” their frozen mint juleps are a specialty, and those seeking to indulge a sweet tooth can’t miss their banana pudding. While their menu rotates seasonally (they source food locally), certain items are always available, like their mouthwatering shrimp + grits. But any time of year, it’s the best brunch in Chapel Hill!
• If you’re more in the mood for a pastry and coffee and a big, traditional brunch seems a bit too much, check out Root Cellar. Formerly called Foster’s Market, they specialize in all sorts of delicious, to-go goodies (and lots of gluten free options, too.) You order at the counter, so it’s not a traditional sit-down restaurant, but they have inviting and cozy armchairs and tons of seating to tempt you to stay and take advantage of those free coffee refills for quite a while.
Best Lunch + Casual Dinner Restaurants in Chapel Hill
• If you absolutely must choose one place to eat and one only while you’re in town, it would be Mediterranean Deli. Usually referred to as “Med Deli,” this place is quite a phenomenon-- for good reason. Their fresh-baked pitas, wide array of options, huge portion sizes, and delicious (free) pickle and tzatziki bar are all fantastic, but the food tastes just like what you would find traveling in the Middle East. It’s fresh, it’s healthy, and it’s decidedly no-frills. To order, you grab a tray and utensils and proceed through the line, forming a “platter” by pointing at what you’d like to add to your tray, from salads to different hummus and baba ghanoush flavors, to meat and fish filets. Another great option here is their pidehs, which are sort of like a flatbread. These take a bit to bake, since they’re made to order, but it’s worth it. At the pickle bar, be sure to try the pickled beets and radishes-- delicious, and don’t leave without a few pieces of sticky, sweet, and delicious baklava.
• Urban legend has it that, many years ago, People Magazine undertook a quest to find “the perfect sandwich,” and that their search ended with the BLT at Merritt’s Grill. To get the full experience, be sure to add their homemade pimento cheese! If BLTs aren’t for you, there are all sorts of sandwiches and burgers here, all made using delicious bread.
• If soul food is what you’re after, look no further than Mama Dip’s. This is truly a family affair, with owner Mildred Cotton Council running the restaurant alongside her children and grandchildren since 1976. Fun fact: the name comes from her childhood nickname. While everything on the menu is delicious, pay special attention to the sides-- from mac ‘n’ cheese to collards to cornbread, black-eyed peas, and steamy baked apples-- it’s worth sampling a few in addition to your meal. For entrees, you can’t go wrong with the family’s original fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, or gumbos and country-style stews.
• Transport yourself to a locals’-only, family-style Neapolitan pizza joint at Italian Pizzeria III, or IP3. There’s always shouting, laughter, and ice-cold pitchers of beer, with famously friendly owners-- two brothers and Napoli natives named Angelo and Vincenzo, who opened the shop in 1980. The ambiance is especially inviting if there’s any kind of sports on-- the brothers are soccer fanatics, so World Cup games are particularly fun, but they are also true-blue Tar Heels fans, and the atmosphere for game night is always almost as fun as being at the game yourself. The pizza is even better than the atmosphere though-- absolutely melt-in-your-mouth, cheesy, steamy goodness.
• Another Chapel Hill institution, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe doubles as a “farm to fork” Indian eatery and a hub of social justice and community resilience-building. Chef Vimala, for whom the restaurant is named, got her start cooking free meals for the community, advocating for a living wage. However, her food was so popular that she eventually opened the cafe, still focused on world peace and community-building. If you’re able, consider adding a donation to the “Food for All” fund, which she keeps for those who can’t afford the cost of their meal. The food is all so, so good-- definitely try some samosas or the mixed vegetable pakoras as a starter, but save plenty of room for the huge portion sizes of the entrees.
Upscale, Celebration + Date Night Restaurants in Chapel Hill
• Arguably the best Italian restaurant in the entirety of the Triangle, Il Palio is definitely not a budget destination, but is worth the splurge. Primarily specializing in Tuscan fare, Il Palio is a “AAA Four Diamond” restaurant and known for its imported meats and delicious seafood-- octopus in particular!
• Fans of Turkish food should make a beeline to Talullas, a funky and colorful restaurant with mouth-watering options for vegetarians and meat-lovers alike. The eggplant dishes, such as patlıcan oturtması (layers of eggplant, tomato sauce, and feta cheese, baked in their in-house stone oven) are a definite favorite, but non-eggplant fans should try güveç, sautéed veggies in a tomato-based herb and wine sauce, or their wide variety of shish-kabobs. The ambiance at Talullas is wonderful, very private and comfortable.
• For Asian fusion-meets-seasonal local eats, Lantern is a culinary experience. Alums of Chef Andrea Reusing (winner of Beard Award Best Chef, Southeast)’s kitchen are scattered all over the U.S., and the innovative and ever-changing menu is a great splurge while you’re in the area. Tip: be sure to call ahead if you have your heart set on something on the menu-- since everything is locally-sourced, the menu is always changing depending on what’s available.
Chapel Hill Happy Hour, Snacks, + Quick Bites
• For a restaurant, brewery, and distillery all in one, with prime views of Franklin Street, Top of the Hill is a great place for visitors to get a great vibe of Chapel Hill. In the summertime, they brew a really popular blueberry beer (complete with blueberries floating on top!) and there’s a lovely roof deck where you can check out those views. While they do have good food, there are so many fantastic places to eat in Chapel Hill that we would recommend grabbing a drink or two here and making dinner reservations somewhere else. One last thing... no one calls this place “Top of the Hill”-- to sound like a true local, call it “Topo!”
• For a distinctly “student pub” vibe like the kind you would find in Europe, Goodfellows’ is a fun spot. They have trivia and karaoke many evenings, as well as inexpensive and reliably good drinks. If you’re feeling adventurous, ask for a “pickleback”-- a shot of whiskey chased with a shot of pickle juice. It’s surprisingly pretty good!
• For quick, fresh, and casual Mexican, Carrburritos is the place to be. Their various taco options are delicious, and their chipotle salsa is so popular they sell it by the jar. Their horchata is definitely the best in the area, to pair with your taco or burrito choice.
• For “dive bar Americana” at its finest and comfort food par excellence, a visit to Linda’s Bar + Grill is a must. Linda’s is a beloved local Chapel Hill Bar and home to the best cheese fries and tater tots in town, truly the quintessential “late night” locale and a very special place to Chapel Hill residents and visitors alike.
• Named “best burger in the U.S.” by TripAdvisor, Al’s Burger Shack is the place to go for a “burger with fixin’s” and delicious fries. TripAdvisor specifically loved their chili burger, but you can’t go wrong with any of their options. The Mookie in particular is a fan favorite, with bacon and onion jam and blue cheese. All their burgers come from local, North Carolina cows and you can really tell how fresh and high-quality the meat is.
Chapel Hill Food Markets, + Special Food Finds
• If you didn’t have a chance to have a full meal at Med Deli, never fear-- it also has an attached food market filled to the brim with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern goodies. You can purchase their pitas to-go, as well as all sorts of spices, treats, and fresh produce.
• Sutton’s Drug Store is a “blast-from-the-past”, still-operating drug store, complete with an old-school sundry bar dating back to the 1950s. It’s one of the last independent pharmacies of its kind, and has hand-spun milkshakes, sandwiches, old-fashioned candies, and sodas, perfect for a quick stop in. This is also a well-known hangout for UNC basketball players, if you’re interested in meeting some local celebrities while you’re in town.
• Located just over the town line in Carrboro, Weaver Street Market is a community-owned food co-op that has a full grocery store, hot and cold bars for breakfast and lunch, and an assortment of pastries and other goodies, as well as excellent coffee and tea options. This is a great place to visit if you’re with a group that wants to eat different things, or if you’d like to eat outside. There’s a large picnic table area in front of the market to enjoy.
Chapel Hill Bakeries, Desserts, + Ice Cream
• To truly blend in with the locals, spend some time at the Yogurt Pump, or YoPo, a frozen yogurt establishment dating back to the early 1980s and definitely the most popular place to get a sweet treat in town. YoPo has regularly rotating flavors and a wealth of toppings, all at reasonable prices. They were cash-only for a very long time, but have recently started accepting credit cards. Definitely the most “Instagrammable” place in Chapel Hill, YoPo is synonymous with Franklin Street and campus.
• Guglhupf Bakery specializes in fresh-baked, southern German delights baked in the traditional way. Their various scones, breads, danishes, and other treats range from classic Viennoiserie to mousse and buttercream cakes and custards. They even foray out of traditional German (with excellent results) into Italian, with a superb panna cotta and tiramisu.
• While technically not located in Chapel Hill, it’s worth driving a little outside of town to the neighboring small town of Hillsborough, to sample delicious Maple View Farms ice cream. Their ice cream storefront is reminiscent of an old-fashioned country store, and they also sell fresh milk, sold in returnable glass bottles. Of course, all of their ice creams are home-made, and their simple flavors are arguably their best. Be sure to “sit a spell” in their rocking chairs, that have beautiful views of rolling farmland.
About the Authors
Tegan and Alex McKenzie are travel, hiking, and biking enthusiasts currently based in Boston, USA, looking forward to moving to The Netherlands in 2021. There is nothing they love more than exploring new places by walking, and they have visited over 30 countries together since they met in 2015. Their love for “walking the world” led them to found Why Not Walk, a travel guides site. Follow them on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, or Pinterest to start planning your next adventure.