Jack Tar and Club Whatnot

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It was getting ever louder, but in a seemingly orchestrated moment — the kind of moment that happens in movies but never actually in real life — the restaurant went quiet.

Out of the silence came a full-throated, fully Southern, drunk-girl voice: “Potato skins!”

Club Whatnot does not, nor do I think that they have ever, served potato skins.

When people find out I am a food writer, after muttering something about “Gee, they do let anybody with a mouth and a laptop …” they ask me what my favorite restaurant is.

That’s like asking me to choose my favorite pair of boots, or 1980s big hair band — it’s hard to choose.

I may have mentioned before that The Kid and I bring nerdiness to a whole new level. In the before times, we attended yearly — let’s call them “Out There” — conventions in Raleigh. If it came from outer space, the future, or your nightmares, we were all over it.

We approached each year like a couple of battle-hardened field generals. The first year we realized we needed a breather from the packed building and packed lunches. We walked a couple of blocks from the convention hall and discovered this bright, cheerful, art deco space on the corner of Martin and La Salle streets in Raleigh. It’s called “Capital Club 16,” but we just got into the habit of calling it Club Whatnot.

It instantly became our favorite brunch spot.

It’s honest, simple food cooked very well. There is a German influence with lots of sausage, nutty cheeses, and root veggies.

This Raleigh spot is really special to me because it comes with some wonderful memories and delicious food.

Back in the ‘90s, before it had its renaissance, downtown Durham was a blight. Smack dab in the middle of downtown, right around the corner from the main past office, was a old ‘70s hotel building that looked like the kind of place the Brady Bunch might have stayed in its heyday.

One day we noticed someone had papered the window with a message about 80 feet high and 50 or 60 feet across:

WE WANT OPRAH!

I guess they did.

Over the years, no matter how run down, how neglected the building became, it stayed up, and so did the gargantuan, handwritten supplication to The Divine Ms. O.

Then downtown started getting interest. The economy was better, people were tired of malls and chain stores, and things started happening.

One of the things was that the Jack Tar hotel, that blue turquoise Oprah building, was getting a new owner and a new life as a cool, trendy boutique hotel, Unscripted

Down the road a bit there was news that there would be a restaurant on the ground floor which would be helmed by respected local chef Gray Brooks.

When Jack Tar opened I attended an event to introduce to the world Chef Gray’s vision of the Platonic ideal of an American diner.

It wasn’t like any Jersey diner I’d ever been to, but with bone marrow butter, mussels, made to order crullers and brightly colored, sweet, and really strong cocktails. It was 100% a quirky, witty, food-forward Durham diner.

Hidden behind this lovely, bright, thoughtful diner is a noir little secret.

It’s a cool mid-century modern bar that serves off the same menu as out front, but only has about 17 or 18 seats.

It feels like a speakeasy, but it also feels like Frankie and Dino might come swinging in at any minute.

Every bite in the place is delicious, but they do one thing probably better than any other establishment in history.

Regardless if you’ve been over to the DPAC for some chamber music, checked out the reopened main library, recently had your heart broken, or just crawled your way through the Bull City’s pub scene, the very best indulgent final bite is the poutine followed by Jack Tar’s mystical, memorable silk pie.

I defy you to give me a situation that will not be made miles better by the inclusion of poutine and silk pie.

Next week is the historic return of my green chili — with photos and the recipe.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at dm@bullcity.mom

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