Chapel Hill Restaurant Group has an enviable record for opening restaurants with staying power.
Even Page Road Grill, the baby of the family until recently, is 6 years old — a venerable age by restaurant standards. Mez has been open for a decade, Squid’s since 1990, and 411 West since 1986.
Spanky’s, the granddaddy of the group, opened in 1977. Famous for its burgers and its caricatures of UNC alumni, the place was a Franklin Street institution. But the old boy had grown tired in recent years, and finally gave up the ghost in March this year.
Three months later, Lula’s was born at that location. The newest member of the CHRG family brings a different cuisine — you might even say a family of her own — into the fold. Named for the great-grandmother of executive chef William D’Auvray, Lula’s offers a menu inspired by recipes passed down from three generations of the chef’s Salisbury family.
Best known locally as the former owner/chef of Fins and bu.ku in Raleigh, where his menus were a culinary travelogue of his extensive travels in Asia, D’Auvray has long nurtured a dream of exploring his Southern roots. Lula’s is the realization of that dream.
Lula’s signature “shallow fried” chicken is a tribute to the chicken D’Auvray remembers his grandmother frying up in a cast iron skillet. The chef tweaked her recipe (she fried in lard, for one, while he uses peanut oil) and adapted it to the restaurant kitchen. D’Auvray’s method — brining, marinating in buttermilk, and air drying before dredging in seasoned flour and frying in an enormous cast iron skillet that covers several burners of Lula’s commercial eight-burner stove — yields a juicy, crisp-skinned bird that would surely make his grandmother proud.
You get two pieces to an order, choice of dark or white meat (including a worthy-of-the-splurge two breast option), with a biscuit on the side. Alternatively, you can opt for a boneless thigh on a biscuit or on a locally baked bun with a spicy pickle slaw. There’s even a gluten-free version, fried in a pan reserved exclusively for gluten-free dishes.
Fried chicken is clearly the headline act, but it’s backed up by a strong supporting cast on a streamlined menu of salads, sandwiches, plates and table sides (which the menu accurately describes as enough for two).
You’ll probably find yourself craving more of those excellent biscuits — an itch you can scratch with an à la carte order, served with spun sage honey that makes the offering even more irresistible. And by all means, round out your meal with at least a couple of down-home sides. Scratch green beans with onions are a must, but you won’t go wrong with Lula’s creamy mac and cheese or greens seasoned with a splash of cider vinegar.
If fried chicken is not your thing, Papa’s grilled chicken is a winning alternative. Papa being D’Auvray’s grandfather, source of the umami-rich lacquer of Worcestershire sauce, lemon and butter that glazes the bone-in breast.
You won’t go wrong with the fried green tomato sandwich, either, stacked with avocado, Vidalia onion and buttermilk dressing between sturdy slabs of grilled white bread. Or with hickory- and applewood-smoked pork shoulder “carnitas” with chow chow on a locally baked bun. Or braised beef short rib, finished to order on a flat top grill and served on a bun with pepper relish and pan gravy on the side — though why it’s listed under the Plates heading instead of Sandwiches is a mystery. Maybe it’s to fill out an otherwise anemic section whose only two other listings are grilled chicken and the catch of the day (fried catfish both times I was there, but anything from NC waters is possible, from grilled wahoo to speckled trout).
You’ll also find lots to tempt you among the supplemental list of seasonal specials created to showcase local produce. Fried okra and an individual squash casserole with a three-cheese and panko crust were both superb recently, and either would serve equally well as a side for the table or a shareable starter. A green chickpea and corn succotash was more soup than succotash, but tasty nonetheless.
The specials menu is where you’ll also find a rotating treasure trove of old-fashioned desserts. Pound cake (“my aunt’s famous recipe,” the chef notes) will bring a tear to the eye of anyone old enough to remember when pound cake wasn’t considered old-fashioned. Same goes for a fried apple pie, its blistered, sugar-glazed crust generously filled with tender but still firm apples, seasoned just right.
Longtime fans of William D’Auvray won’t be surprised that his kitchen seldom misses the mark. Even when the food disappoints, it can often be laid at the feet of spotty service. Cold pan gravy that accompanied an otherwise first-rate beef short rib sandwich comes to mind. And an order of cocktails for a table of four that arrived in dribs and drabs over the course of 15 minutes.
The wait staff are friendly and eager to please, though, and combined with the casual setting (vintage black and white photos of Franklin Street have replaced the caricatures, but the place will be otherwise comfortingly familiar to Spanky’s fans) make for a warmly welcoming vibe. And the soul-satisfying Southern comfort food is sure to make you feel like you’re one of the family.
101 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: friendly but spotty
Recommended: fried chicken, Southern “carnitas” sandwich, fried green tomato sandwich, biscuits, green beans, fried okra, baked squash, desserts
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Sunday.
Reservations: not accepted (call ahead seating is available)
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in lots behind the restaurant.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.