When Ilda, an Italian-Appalachian restaurant in Sylva, North Carolina, finally opened in April 2021, it was the culmination of years of experience and months of delay.
Chef Santiago Guzzetti and sommelier Crystal Pace imbued Ilda with all the couple had learned working in New York City. They had persevered, despite pandemic drags on both funding and renovations of the 1,242-square-foot vacant restaurant on Main Street that they’d bought for $225,000—an amount that goes a lot farther here than it did in Brooklyn.
Guzzetti’s menu turned local ingredients like cheeses, greens, and fish into catfish Milanese, Sicilian couscous salad, and ravioli with watercress, truffle butter, and pecorino.
But while Ilda was ready, customers weren’t. Some balked at getting their meatballs with polenta rather than spaghetti. Others, Pace said, “realized we don’t have Budweiser on the menu and they left.” Those who stayed favored recognizable dishes over Guzzetti’s more inventive ones.
“I went out with a menu that definitely got a lot of pushback,” Guzzetti said. “(After) the first two menus, I started understanding I had to trick people with something they may know. But when the food shows up, it’s something completely different than what they think.”
To achieve the necessary sleight of hamburger, the couple dug into Pace’s family history in Sylva.
Growing up, Pace split time between her mother, who lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and her father, a stained glass artist in this mountain town of 2,700. Fifty miles southwest of Asheville, Sylva is the county seat of Jackson County and a popular location for hikers, cyclists, and other outdoorsy tourists. It’s also been the setting for scenes in The Fugitive and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, among other films.
From 1983 to 2000, Pace’s stepmother, Karen Martar, ran Meatballs, an Italian restaurant in the same building Ilda occupies today. Martar and Meatballs were Sylva institutions; getting your picture on the wall at Meatballs was a status symbol for locals.
Martar was also a town zoning board member, an advocate for children, and supported the local animal shelter. “For many years she has entertained and nourished us, not just with food but with her very presence,” a local doctor wrote to The Sylva Herald and Ruralite upon Martar’s death in 2007.
Pace spent much of her childhood in the restaurant, eating calzones, sitting in on after-hours poker games, and being a little sister to the staff. Opening her own restaurant in the same space alongside her husband “felt like a dream come true.”
So meatballs seemed like the place to start when Guzzetti had to revamp Ilda’s menu. Born to an Italian family in Argentina, he’d long dismissed spaghetti and meatballs as “not Italian.” But by turning the meatball into a scotch egg—a soft-boiled egg baked inside of a ground beef shell—he found a dish that reconciled his own ideas with his customers’ expectations.
That dish helped win over the locals, who are about two-thirds of Ilda’s clientele, Pace said, depending on the season. A larger market would be less forgiving, Guzzetti said. In New York or even Asheville, failing with the first menu would keep customers from coming back to try a second. But with less competition and more room to explore, they had more chances to build trust with their community.
“We could put anything on our menu right now and people would be willing to try it, particularly our regulars and locals,” Pace said.
By the end of 2021, Ilda had been named Carolinas Mountain Restaurant of the Year by eater.com. That’s no small feat, with nearby Asheville boasting three restaurants that made the finals of the 2022 James Beard Awards.
Ilda aside, Sylva has a surprisingly varied dining scene for the 224th-largest city in North Carolina. Within a mile of Ilda on Main Street are White Moon, a coffee shop that becomes Dark Moon, an after-dark bar; Lulu’s on Main, a father-and-son establishment Southern Living has lauded; and Dalaya, a small northern Thai restaurant started by Kanlaya Supachana, whose popup restaurants in Brooklyn earned praise from The New York Times.
Ilda dishes, clockwise: Crawfish casarecce (summer 2022 menu), tiramisu, tune and watermelon carpaccio (summer 2022 menu).
Pace and Guzzetti saw kindred spirits and proof that an elevated eatery could succeed in Sylva. White Moon owners Cecilia White and Dan Panicko had both worked in New York City restaurants, and Supachana had also met and married a Sylva native in Brooklyn before moving south.
“We went to White Moon one morning and realized there were opportunities here,” Guzzetti said. “If we all combine forces, we can put this town in a different place.”
And they have. Ninety percent of commercial spaces downtown are now occupied, according to Bernadette Peters, executive director of the Sylva Main Street Association, up from around 70 percent a decade ago.
“Restaurant business drives retail,” Peters said. “If you don’t have good anchors and restaurants, you’re not going to have quality retail.”
The vibrant restaurant scene also led Southwestern Community College to create the state’s first culinary apprenticeship program, which helps pay for culinary arts students from the community college to work in local kitchens.
“Our restaurants have created such a good culture that students and others in the area really want to work in the restaurant business,” she said.
Big Appetite, Small Town
The same desire for affordability and flexibility that lured Pace and Guzetti to Sylva also sent Raleigh restaurateur Scott Crawford to Johnston County.
Crawford is a James Beard Award-nominated chef whose two restaurants, Crawford & Son and Jolie, helped make Raleigh a dining destination. He’d spent four years looking for a building that could house a third.
“Basically, some institutional money will come in and outbid me because they don’t have to make business sense out of the building,” he said. “They’re just gonna level it and build up 40 stories.”
That’s why he opened his newest restaurant in a 110-year-old former hardware store in Clayton, 17 miles away from downtown Raleigh. Crawford Cookshop emerged from the shifts he’d made to keep his flagship restaurant, Crawford and Son, alive after the pandemic shut down indoor eating in early 2020.
His curbside restaurant pivoted from new American fare to “more Southern-influenced dishes that might make people feel better about what was going on,” Crawford said.
Chicken pot pie and seafood stew were in. Yellowtail crudo and apple soup were out. Those stick-to-your-ribs meals stuck—with Crawford’s customers and his staff alike.
“We joked one day that if we ever get through this craziness, we should think about doing this food,” he said. “It’s fun for everyone.”
As Crawford and Son was getting back to normal in 2021, he finally got the opportunity to open a more casual concept. The Cookshop opened at what seemed like an auspicious time. And by metric that matters most—customers coming in the door—the opening started off well.
Maybe too well. There were too many diners and not enough staff. Some nights, there weren’t enough workers to open the restaurant, so they didn’t. Other nights, customers waited to be seated in a dining room with plenty of empty tables but no staff to serve them.
Inflation compounded the labor problems, and Crawford could only pass on so much of the extra cost to a new customer base that was already rankled by the inconsistent schedule and long waits. The Cookshop absorbed as much of the cost as it could, Crawford said, and lost money for the first few months.
“That restaurant saw more challenges in six months than most restaurants will in a lifetime of being open,” he said. “It was a perfect shitstorm.”
In time, though, the COVID-19 waves waned, staffing stabilized, and the welcoming restaurant Crawford envisioned found a following. The place itself—outfitted in warm, wood-grain finishes, bright lighting, and a massive table built from components of an elevator uncovered during renovations—was a departure from the austere slate-and-brick look of Crawford and Son.
The menu was too. Where the Raleigh restaurant’s carpaccios and crudos demanded admiration, the Clayton Cookshop’s wings, catfish, and sloppy joes asked only to be devoured.
“There are a lot of snacks and appetizers and things on that menu that you pick up and eat with your hands,” Crawford said. “Could we pull that off at Crawford and Son? Maybe. But it’s not really in keeping with what we’ve been, you know?”
Making a Scene
The Charleston Food and Wine Festival is a name-making event for chefs. It draws top chefs from around the country each year, plus thousands of food lovers and national media outlets.
So when Jamie Davis, executive chef of The Hackney in Washington, N.C., got an invitation two days before the festival in March, he packed his knives and went. He moved 1,800 servings of his dish—olive-brined quail with tomatoes, capers, red onions, and a basil jus—and enticed visitors to see where he’d come from.
“Both days, we were told that’s one of the best things anybody tried,” Davis said. “And everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you’re from Washington, D.C.’ No, we’re from Washington, North Carolina.”
Being mistaken for the nation’s capital is nothing new for Washington. Elsewhere in North Carolina, people call it “little Washington” to distinguish it. But locals will remind you that it’s “the original Washington,” the first American town to be named for the first president.
For Davis, though, the town’s low profile is a virtue—less pressure for Michelin stars and Beard awards. Here, he’s able to shape the story of regional dining and development.
For three decades, Washington has, like a lot of other eastern North Carolina communities, been rebuilding from the decline of manufacturing. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Washington residents employed in manufacturing fell by more than half. Poverty rates in the town of 9,700 have lingered around 28 percent for all the 2000s, more than twice the statewide rate.
At its peak in the early 20th century, Washington’s location at the junction of the Tar and Pamlico Rivers made it a shipping hub. The bustling downtown boasted a vaudeville-style theater and a collection of pre-World War II buildings significant enough to land all of downtown on the National Register of Historical Places. As cargo traffic moved from the waterways to railways and roads, though, Washington’s fortunes waned.
Several dishes from The Hackney. (Courtesy of The Hackney)
There’ve been several revitalization attempts since the late 1960s, each focused on making the most of that downtown and waterfront. The waterfront has come a long way, with a parkway and public docks replacing rows of empty mills, warehouses, and shipyards.
Downtown growth was slower until the last five years or so. And that’s where the stories of Davis and Washington intersect.
Davis moved to Washington from Mt. Airy, Maryland, where he was executive chef at the fine dining restaurant Black Ridge. His wife Jennifer, a baker, had signed on to help start Rachel K’s Bakery in the DeMille Building, an 1884 structure that once served as town hall and a fire station.
For Davis, a Jacksonville native, the move was an opportunity to return to eastern North Carolina and recede from the stress of a big-city kitchen. He took a job as an associate operations manager at the corporate offices of Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N’ Bar-B-Que. It paid well and let him take vacations for the first time in years.
It was comfortable, but it wasn’t cooking. Davis’ culinary ambitions, shaped as an Army chef in Iraq, a culinary school student in Savannah, and a budding chef in restaurants around Maryland, ultimately called him back to the kitchen.
Hearing that call was easy. Heeding it was harder.
“Anybody who knows anything about eastern North Carolina knows there aren’t a lot of chef jobs,” Davis said.
He eventually found one at Ducks Grille in Jacksonville, a military town to the south. Two years later, his wife shared his resume with Nick and Susanne Sanders, who planned to open a restaurant and distillery in a century-old building in downtown Washington that became The Hackney. Davis saw the opportunity as a “blank canvas” and signed on.
The restaurant took shape in a bank building, bought for just $325,000 after having been vacant for more than a decade. Their vision was ambitious.The vault became the kitchen. Columns dating to the 1920s construction stayed, along with the original windows and plaster. They reopened a mezzanine to serve as an event space.
It took more than $1 million and a lot of Davis’ labor to bring that vision to life. He designed the kitchen, scoured auctions for equipment to stock it, and helped assemble the tables and bars.
Nearly three years later, The Hackney remains “an ideal adaptive reuse” for a historic structure, said John Green, a supervisor for the State Preservation Office who consulted on the project.
“It makes for a really cool dining space,” Green said. “When you walk in there, the ambiance and historic character of the property adds so much to the experience of what Nick’s trying to do with the type of food, the menu, the way his staff operates.”
With that menu, Davis aims to expand diners’ understanding of the region’s food culture. If eastern North Carolina has a culinary profile, it’s more whole-hog than haute cuisine. Davis has plenty of experience with barbecue. Pulled pork and pig’s feet are his favorite foods, and his first restaurant job was as a dishwasher at a Smithfield’s.
At The Hackney, he follows his own instincts, as well as the output of local farms and fishermen. Steaks from Wheat Swamp Farm in Snow Hill are a mainstay, but oysters, tuna, grouper, and even shark make appearances. Nearly everything on the menu is handmade, from the bread to the ice cream.
“We’re not in a major market, and we don’t have to listen to everybody else’s guidelines,” he said. “We can just make our own. We’re really farm-to-table. If I want to change the menu every day, or sometimes during the middle of service, I have the freedom to do that.”
The Hackney is establishing a template for economic success, too, Green said. Its success turned a vacant building into a source of tax revenue and helped inspire other projects. The Mulberry House, a fine-dining restaurant with a brewery and rooftop bar, opened on Main Street in late 2021, and Greenville-based Pitt Street Brewing opened a taproom in an old grain mill on the waterfront earlier this year.
Earlier eastern N.C. eateries iterated on a similar recipe: The Hen & The Hog in Halifax, The Chelsea in New Bern, On the Square in Tarboro, and even the famed Chef and the Farmer in Kinston.
In Kinston and New Bern, those restaurants have contributed to the sort of downtown resurgence that Washington hopes it’s embarking on now. Green said he’s recently talked to developers on potential retail, restaurant, and residential projects in a dozen other historic downtown buildings.
“When you have restaurants that are open after 5, all of a sudden that gets people downtown for a night scene,” said Green. “If you can parlay enough of that happening, then all of a sudden you start getting loft apartments on these unused upper floors of these commercial buildings. You get more life downtown.”
Jimmy Ryals is a writer based in Raleigh. A Kinston native, his work has appeared in Slate, several eastern North Carolina newspapers, and little notes in his kids’ lunchboxes. You can see more of his writing here.