A staple of the Durham dining scene shut its doors for the last time this summer.
Magnolia Grill closed May 31 after nearly 26 years in operation. The award-winning restaurant’s locally-sourced Southern cuisine led a renaissance in the local dining world, but chef-owners Karen and Ben Barker decided recently that it was time to focus on other things.
“Operating a restaurant like ours requires an investment of time, energy and commitment that is unfailing, unrelenting and without compromise,” they wrote in a statement on the Magnolia website. “It’s time to invest that capital elsewhere.”
The Barkers met on their first day of sanitation and hygiene class at the Culinary Institute of America. They moved to North Carolina and worked in high-end local restaurants for a few years before opening Magnolia Grill in 1986. Ben managed the savory side and Karen the sweets. Since then they have both won James Beard Awards—Ben for best chef in the southeast, Karen for outstanding pastry chef—and the restaurant has been honored by leading food publications such as Bon Appetit, Gourmet and Wine Spectator.
At the time of writing, the door of Magnolia Grill still advertised dinner Tuesday through Saturday, but the floor was bare, the walls stripped clean and white and the coat rack held no more coats. The next tenant had not yet been determined.
The Barkers had auctioned off the contents of the building Tuesday June 12, and, in between shuttling the remnants to their house, had found the time to forage 10 pounds of chanterelle mushrooms. Rather than manage a bustling kitchen Saturday night, Ben Barker was preparing a meal at home—pizza with leeks and the fresh-picked mushrooms, paired with a kale salad and Caesar dressing.
“We’re moving into another zone of life, dude, after 30 years as culinary professionals,” he said. “We’re gonna do the things people do that don’t have to go to work every day.”
They plan to take this year off, to travel, to get a dog or two. Ben said they will also stay active in the Southern Foodways Alliance, a non-profit that preserves and celebrates the unique and varied culinary traditions of the South.
The closing, however, has saddened numerous long-time fans, including recent graduate Rachel Sussman, Trinity ’12. Magnolia was too expensive to frequent on her own, Sussman noted, but it became a tradition to go to with her parents. They first dined there when she visited Duke before becoming a student, and the last time was to celebrate her graduation.
“It doesn’t really try too hard, because it lets the food speak for itself,” she said. “It’s creative and delicious and local and true to the heritage of where you are, being in the South.”
The kitchen excelled at putting inventive twists on well-known foods, Sussman said. She recalled enjoying the sweet and salty flavor of bacon ice cream, and was won over by the texture and detail of the twice-baked grits.
This signature appetizer, which persisted across seasons on an otherwise shifting menu, was the twice-baked grits soufflé with wild mushroom ragout, aged sherry-mushroom emulsion and shaved confit foie gras.
“I was looking for a mechanism to showcase grits in an elegant fashion that was true to the texture and the corniness of them but took them to a more exalted plane,” Barker said. “But not so much that it wasn’t recognizable to the hip people and the little old grandmothers from Wilson, North Carolina.”
All chefs are inspired by other people’s food, Barker said, and he draws inspiration from the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where he grew up. The grain for Magnolia’s grits came from Lindley Mills in Saxapahaw, the same mill where his grandfather used to grind corn to feed his family on the tobacco farm. Ben grew up churning butter and slopping hogs on the family farm.
“My approach was always to make dishes that reflected a contemporary approach to execution, but at the same time would trigger palate memories for people who had never eaten the food prepared that way,” he said. “It is not forced in any way. It’s the food I grew up eating.”
When the Barkers opened Magnolia Grill in 1986, Durham did not have many white tablecloth fine dining restaurants, Barker said, and seasonal locally sourced food would not become the restaurant world mantra for another decade and a half. Since then, they have watched the growth of the dining scene and the city itself.
During this culinary evolution, Barker said they kept the emphasis on the food itself.
“Our restaurant was always comfortable and lively and we sought to present excellence without pretension,” he said. “Our greatest sense of satisfaction is that we always did things the right way, always honest.”
This approach to excellence proved a fertile training ground for rising chefs. Thirty-four people who worked in the kitchen at Magnolia Grill now have their own restaurants or run their own kitchen, Barker said. These include Scott Howell of Nana’s, a former Magnolia Grill sous chef, and Phoebe Lawless at Scratch Bakery, who used to make pastries with Karen. They, like Ben and Karen, found cooking to be satisfying to the soul as well as a viable professional direction, Ben said.
“It was a great run,” he added, as he returned to his home-cooked wild chanterelle pizza.