Rocky Mount: Home of Thelonious Monk & Restaurants with Great Food and Music
Chef Ed Wiley III pays homage to his late father every time he enters the kitchen of his Rocky Mount restaurant. The dishes he creates at Prime Smokehouse were inspired by his father, who was known as the “honking Texas tenor,” a blues and jazz saxophonist.
The elder Wiley earned a top 10 hit in 1950 with Cry, Cry Baby. His 60-year career began as a sideman behind such blues vocalists as Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and he learned to cook as he played gigs on the Chitlin’ circuit.
The circuit was a network of nightclubs, hotels and restaurants throughout the United States that were safe for African American entertainers during segregation. “Out of necessity, he learned how to turn a half bag of groceries into a King’s feast for him and his bandmates,” Wiley says of his dad.
Prime Smokehouse is known for its Texas‐style barbecue brisket, ribs and pulled pork. Like his father before him, Wiley cooks his meat low and slow for hours in a smoker fired by hickory and cherry wood. “My ribs fall off the bones when you eat them,” he says. “We take a lot of pride in that brisket, no less than 16 hours on the smoker.”
His sun-soaked restaurant is quickly gaining a reputation for some of the finest food in the country. In September 2013, Travel and Leisure magazine named Prime Smokehouse’s mac and cheese one of the best in America.
Wiley believes in the freshest ingredients. His mornings are spent cleaning and chopping collards. “Everything is fresh and people know it,” he says. “I use fresh jumbo lump crabmeat to make meaty crab cakes the way my father made it. My salmon is fresh and beautiful.”
Chef Wiley ain’t bragging. He’s just telling it like it is. For this meticulous man, every plate looks like a piece of art.
Prime Smokehouse is also known for his entertainment, mostly jazz, scheduled once a month for a Friday and Saturday dinner show. Rocky Mount, one of the cities on the African American Music Trails and also the home to internationally renowned jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.
He praises North Carolina Central University’s jazz professor and Kinston native Ira Wiggins, featured in the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina guidebook, for producing some of the best showmen available. “They play like seasoned veterans performing at the height of the bebop era in New York during the 1950s.”
Nearby, in the historic area is Four Seasons, perfect for a quick bite. General Manager Tony Vaughan describes the food as American cuisine with a Southern Flair.
The Four Seasons is known for Chef Barbara Alston’s juicy and crunchy fried chicken and the marinated grilled pork chops. She also makes what she calls “punch bowl cake,” a trifle with strawberries or pineapple layered with cake and whipped cream.
Server Darice Elks says many train passengers waiting for a layover like to walk to the restaurant and eat lunch or dinner. The railroad, an important link in the development of the blues – now brings patrons to enjoy these regional favorites.
The weekday lunch buffet, which includes a salad bar, is a good deal and regulars know Wednesday is pork chop day on the buffet. The chops are tangy with a spicy kick, according to Vaughan.
Both Wiley and Vaughan are located in Rocky Mount’s revitalized downtown area called Douglas Block, a collection of six historically significant buildings that once comprised the African American business district of downtown in the early to mid-1900s.
If You Go
207 E. Thomas Street, Rocky Mount, N.C. 27802
215 North Church Street, Rocky Mount N.C.
Tarboro, Edgecombe County
Another restaurateur returning home to Eastern North Carolina from New York is Inez Ribustello, who opened On the Square with her husband, Stephen, in 2002, in historic downtown Tarboro. The menu is eclectic, with dishes from Greece, Italy, and Asia showing-up, and a 500-bottle wine list to match. The couple even started a sushi truck downtown, which has been a huge hit.
On the Square
115 E. St. James St., Tarboro, NC
Gardner’s Barbecue Highway 301
1331 N Wesleyan Blvd., Rocky Mount, N.C.
Gardner’s Barbecue is a small family-owned chain of three restaurants all in Rocky Mount. The Gardners established their business in the 1970s, and specialize in pork barbecue, turkey barbecue, fried chicken, and country vegetable sides. Other locations:
Gardner’s Barbecue, Westridge
3651 Sunset Ave., Rocky Mount, N.C.
Gardner’s Barbecue, Fairview
841 Fairview Rd., Rocky Mount, N.C.