Warm and Friendly Service: The Hallmark of Wilson Eateries
By Bridgette A. Lacy
North Carolina Arts Council Correspondent
Start your morning at Flo’s Kitchen, with a gigantic biscuit sandwich. The fluffy concoction is bigger than a cat’s head.
Owner Linda Brewer’s mother was the late Florence Williams, well known all around Wilson for biscuits made from buttermilk, lard and flour rolled delicately with soft hands and loaded in the oven.
Brewer continues the tradition. Her most popular mouth-watering biscuits are stuffed with sharp, cheddar cheese, pork tenderloin, sausage, and cheese. Let’s be clear about one thing. “The cheddar cheese is baked in the biscuit, not melted in there,” Brewer says proudly.
At Flo’s, a biscuit is a meal. For those with a big appetite other breakfast fare includes omelets, grits, French toast, pancakes with lots of meats to choose from including sausage, steak, bacon, country ham and fatback.
This tiny restaurant, located in a 120-year-old building in the Five Points neighborhood, has cars wrapped around the building daily for a reasonably priced breakfast or lunch. While many locals like to sit down in the cozy spot to eat, probably more order food to go.
The daily plate specials include baked ham, fried pork chops with gravy and meatloaf, along with two sides ranging from creamed potatoes to spiced apples and green beans. Of course, that comes with a serving of hush puppies or hot rolls.
The meal is served up with old-fashioned hospitality. “Hey, Sweetie Pie,” greets every customer and you are sent off with a meal for under $5 for breakfast and under $7 for lunch. That comes along with a sincere, “Thank you.”
Next stop is SaYum Jamaican Food Restaurant in downtown Wilson. This cavernous community eatery offers an eclectic mix of fare. In fact, the former ice cream parlor still draws the young and old partial for a scoop of hand-dipped Hershey’s ice cream.
Travelers like grabbing a quick sandwich or wrap to take as they prepare to board the Amtrak train or Greyhound bus across the street. The real draw is the authentic Jamaican food.
During the week, SaYum serves a $5.99 special featuring jerk, brown stew or curry chicken along with rice and peas, mixed vegetables, or cabbage and a choice of iced-tea or lemonade. Of course, SaYum also offers other traditional Jamaican fare including coco-bread, jerk pork, oxtails, beef patties, ginger beer and Ting grapefruit soda.
“They make you feel welcome especially when you are hungry,” says Delores Crawford-Carey, who works nearby. Crawford-Carey typically orders the special with jerk chicken.
City workers, bank employees, and sheriff deputies all eat at SaYum and owner Rev. Dr. Michael S. Bell says he gets his share of musicians. The regulars include Bill Myers, the saxophonist and founding member of The Monitors; Dale Bryce, a bass guitar player; and Sam Latham, a drummer, also with The Monitors. Just last week Durham resident and jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon dined at SaYum’s.
What do they order? The jerk chicken, Bell says. “We have the best jerk chicken in Eastern North Carolina.” The cooks follow his mother’s recipe. The late Pearl Bell worked as a chef for Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records in Jamaica. Her spicy, jerk chicken was served to Bob Marley, Grace Jones, and Mick Jagger.
The Rev. Bell, the presiding elder of the Wilson district of the AME Zion church, said his restaurant also serves a good cause. SaYum is housed in a building owned by the St. John Community Development, a non-profit that provides an after school program for at-risk children in Wilson. Here you feed the soul in more ways than one.
If you really want to get a sense of the heart and soul of Wilson, there’s no place like The Whole Truth Lunchroom. This restaurant, housed in a brick building in a residential neighborhood, started off as a church kitchen feeding church members only.
The Whole Truth is now a popular restaurant for locals and visitors alike. It was listed on the 2013 Daily Meal’s Great American Fried Chicken Roadmap featuring 50 best spots for crunchy, juicy fried chicken.
“We are often busy from the time we open to the time we close on Sundays,” says head cook Tina Wilder. Customers love the pork neck bones with gravy, pig-tails with gravy along with mustard greens and collard greens seasoned with pork and homemade banana pudding and bread pudding.
“We have congressmen, mayors and local musicians who dine with us,” says Wendi Dupree, a restaurant employee who may be on the register one minute and helping out in the kitchen the next.
“We get customers from Raleigh, Greenville and even Richmond, Va., since we have been ranked one of the best places for fried chicken,” she explains.
On this weekday afternoon, Corvett Batts has stopped by for a fried chicken dinner with creamed potatoes and lima beans. “This is going to be gone before I get to the stop light,” she says about the hot, tasty hush puppies in a white bag. In fact, she gets a second bag because the first one she ate while waiting to pay.
Its dinnertime so head over to Sylvia’s Family Restaurant. This small cafeteria-style eatery is known for its collards and mustard greens seasoned with pork, fried chicken, chitterlings, meatloaf and turkey wings.
Owner Sylvia Coleman, who has been in the restaurant business for 27 years, says she gets more takeout orders than she does folks dining inside. If you do sit down to eat, everything you need is on the table: Texas Pete hot sauce, White House apple cider vinegar, and salt and pepper.
The t-shirts her employees wear say it all, “When you have a taste for home.” For less than $7, you can get a fried chicken dinner with two sides, a bag of hot hush puppies and sweet tea. Of course, the faithful need to add some homemade banana pudding or a slice of chocolate cake to that order.
Customers range from seniors eating their dinner early and boxing half of the generous portions to take home to a stream of professionals and workers of all types dining in or taking to-go boxes packed with vittles like grandma made on Sunday, like mac and cheese, yams, and turkey and gravy.
The friendly service and the reasonable prices make this spot a favorite with locals.
Parker’s Barbecue is an institution in Wilson. The huge restaurant with its white siding and huge blue sign, located on U.S. Highway 301 S, serves 20,000 customers per week. “Anybody and everybody eats at Parker’s,” says Kevin Lamm, one of the three owners.
Travelers venture off I-95 to experience Parker’s and of course it’s a favorite with local residents. Parker’s opens at 9 a.m. and serves chopped barbecue and fried chicken from dawn to dusk. And early shift workers like it for breakfast.
Founded in 1946 by Graham Parker, Ralph Parker, and Henry Parker Brewer, this casual eatery is known for its fast and friendly service. The waiters dressed in khaki pants, white shirts and paper hats, waste no time taking your order and clearing tables. They are polite and efficient, making sure you never run out of sweet tea, iced-water or soda.
Parker’s specializes in fried chicken, chopped pork barbecue seasoned with vinegar-and-red-pepper sauce coupled with your choice of three sides including Brunswick stew, green beans, boiled potatoes and mustardy coleslaw.
The Parker brothers have passed away but co-owners Donald Williams, Eric Lippard and Lamm worked under the brothers and continue the Parker’s principles. “We turn tables three times per hour,” Lamm says.
That doesn’t mean you don’t have to wait. On Sunday afternoons, the restaurant will have more than 350 patrons sitting in wood chairs eating and close to 400 people waiting outside for a fried chicken and barbecue plate, which is only $8.97 including tax.
But the Parker’s figured out a way to keep things moving. They didn’t believe in serving dessert so that’s why customers are willing to wait in line for a table because they know one will be available soon.
Wilson residents visit with each other as they stand in line. All types of folks come together under the same roof to eat at Parker’s on Sundays: love of old-fashioned ‘cue is the gospel at this legendary establishment.
If You Go
1015 S. Goldsboro St., Wilson, N.C.
SaYum Jamaican Food Restaurant
408 E. Nash St., Wilson, N.C.
Whole Truth Lunchroom
515 Walnut St., S, Wilson, N.C.
Sylvia’s Family Restaurant
1700 Martin Luther King Parkway, SE, Wilson, N.C.
2514 US-301 South, Wilson, N.C. 27893
Bridgette A. Lacy is an award-winning journalist with a public love affair with food and culture. She authored a column “Morsels” for The News & Observer in Raleigh for many years and writes about food, chefs and culinary trends for The Independent Weekly and the North Carolina Arts Council. She’s the author of Sunday Dinner, a part of the Savor the South series by UNC Press and a finalist for the Pat Conroy Cookbook Prize.