You can still try, and you should. This is your last chance, your very last, to eat at Magnolia Grill in Durham!
For what price can you put on devotion? Have you ever waited in line for:
Black Friday Super Duper Sale?
Midnight flight to Tangiers?
How about a meal? Well, not just a MEAL, but a dining experience; a “divine never to be had again culinary arts and historically impacting reveillon repast of the utmost unctuousness” yes, THAT experience.
Would you wait for that? How long?
Last Saturday on May 26, 2012 we decided we were game, game to try getting into Magnolia’s again. This would be our third time, since Maggie's as we fondly called her announced they were closing at the end of May. The first time was the Friday of Mother’s Day and Graduation weekend. A sign on the day proclaimed that they would not be accepting walk-ins that weekend at all. So we turned around, a bit dismayed, but never thwarted, and made other plans. The second time we tried was a Tuesday night of the following week, and when we arrived there was already a long line. We were number 36 and 37 that day. We laughed and joked with the others ahead – or at least those who found this sort of thing amusing, some actually didn’t – and then it began slowly, to rain. It dropped and dripped almost in perfect synchronization with the door that was opening slowly to allow the walk-in traffic inside. We half-hoped (actually we were praying) that the rain would discourage anyone, someone, everyone, in front of us. It didn’t. And at the stroke of 5:35 and four people ahead, they had all the walk-ins they needed, thank you very much, for the night. Damn. This was going to require strategy.
So at home we measured and plotted and talked and wined and decided that we would show up at Magnolia around 2 pm on Saturday afternoon. Saturday? What, were we out of our ever loving cotton picking minds? The LAST Saturday that Magnolia would ever be open? We had to do it. It didn’t even concern us that we would be coming after a very early start to the day; my husband, Rich, and I have been setting up tables near both the Carrboro Farmer’s Market and the Durham Farmer’s Market to talk to market folk about our summer kid-chef and teen-chef programs with C’est si Bon!, our cooking school in Chapel Hill.
But whatever brought any of us out that day, it was at 2 something pm that we drove down Ninth Street in Durham towards Knox Street. We scanned the sidewalk and only saw a few kids walking by, we gleefully parked in the parking lot, and rejoiced that there were not that many cars there. Maybe, were we too early? Perish the thought. People might think we were crazy. Oh well, we could live with that. But what we couldn’t imagine was not eating at Magnolia’s one last time.
Was the fervor knowing that we couldn’t anymore? Absolutely! Would we have been there otherwise? Probably not, even though we should have been. We “saved” Magnolia for special occasions or when we sorely needed a lift; and then would pop in, grab a seat and have dinner at the bar. When your life is running a cooking school, sometimes these spontaneous spur of the moment treats are every bit as delicious as the planned reserved ones. Over the years since 1990 we have had many splendid dinners in the dining room of Magnolia. See menus below!
But Magnolia meant more to us, to me, than just another restaurant. Ben and Karen, the owners, were neighbors of ours for a good while. We knew them a little bit, perhaps more than a bit, but they relished and with good reason, their privacy. We knew their youngest son Gabe, a bit better, as our sons, Erick and Jaryd hung out routinely. Karen and I would laugh about how it must be something in the water that drew families with boys, boys, and more boys to our neighborhood. Karen and I would talk over when Gabe was coming over, or Erick and Jaryd to their house ~ but not before 10:30 am on Sundays in either case. We would offer if I “could get anything for you” at the store ~ though we were both passionate and devoted to cuisine ~ i felt the greater common denominator was our both being the mother of two sons. I have nothing but admiration for how she managed all that she did.
And so back to last Saturday, the last Saturday that Magnolia would be open. We had parked and not a little excitedly, reverently got out of our car. Would we be getting right back in, defeated or would it be some six hours later, after dinner? We rounded the corner of the huge juniper tree to find a whole line of people sitting under the shaded eaves of the roof. A few on chairs, others just on the ground. They smiled and welcomed us to "the line."
We arrived at a critical juncture. Two critical junctures actually.
One: we were already number 19 and 20 in line. In the bar area there were eight tables and perhaps ten seats at the bar itself. In short by 2:30 all the seats of the bar would be taken at the sublime moment when the doors opened up at 5:00 pm. I imagined what it would sound like, feel like, smell like, all afternoon.
Two: the other critical juncture. The sun. Once we were seated outside Magnolia the real fun began. The sun crept over the roof and began beating down on all of us. There was no escape. We were all determined and devoted and get this, jovial. Kind. In good humor. Excited. And reflective. Oh, the reflections! Reflections so good they dissipated the sun a bit. Maybe just a bit.
Each of us shared our history of eating at Magnolia. First time. Best time. And we dared to say what we hoped for our last time.
In the first hour another drama was ongoing. One young couple was sweetly trying to decide whether it was worth standing in line for this dinner. We, the people of the line, hesitated and smiled politely. It was hard to ignore this young couple conversing on the phone with his parents over a momentous decision. Once we heard the other dining option to Magnolia Grill, the Angus Barn in Raleigh, we chimed in emphatically. Loudly booing the option of the Angus Barn, not because it wasn’t a nice place to eat, too, but it would still be there tomorrow. Magnolia would not. It was either eat here tonight or not at all. The parents in question were his parents, we learned, and theretofore afterwards his parents ~ who we met shortly before the doors opened ~ referred to all of us as “the crazies.” We thought we were the devoted ones. But more on this idea of devotion is coming.
As the sun continued and we sweated for three hours the sharing continued. Where we were from. Where we had been. Where we were going.
One very kind gentleman let me borrow one of his two umbrellas. My husband, who had taken up residence in the actual Juniper ~ he had offered it first to me, just to let you know ~ was enjoying conversations about wine and Spain.
But all the while we were talking, I was remembering other times our family had walked in the door to celebrate at Maggie's table.
Later, I dug up Magnolia Grill menus I had saved from 1993, 1995, 1998, 1999, and 2000.
June 25th 1993 – Dinner Menu
Pan-Roasted Quail with Peregrine Farms Blackberries and Lemon-Mint Tabbouleh
Milk Chocolate Malt Ice Cream with Peanut Butter Sauce
June 3rd 1995 - Dinner Menu
Sauteed Carolina Grouper in Smoked Tomato & Tarragon Sauce with Fresh Morels, Sweet Corn, Fava Beans, & Country Ham
December 7, 1998 - A Warm December Night in Burgundy Menu
Lobster Poached in Citrus Beurre Blanc, Mache Salad with Shaved Fennel
Blood Orange and Meyer Lemon
October 4, 1999 – Dinner with Louis Osteen Menu
Duck Breast and Confit Leg in Espresso-Infused Sauce with Creamy Grits
April 20, 2000 – Dinner Menu
Pan-Seared Crawfish, Veal Sweetbreads & Wild Mushroom Crepinette
in Porcini-Madeira Essence with English Pea Fondue
Sooner than we thought, or could even imagine, the clock came round to five o'clock.
The Crazies. Greatest folks ever to wait in line with. Ever!
At our various tables we cheered and toasted each other. Mostly with water, but then with wine.
We had made it.
Once our eyes adjusted I looked around wanting to permanently etch everything in my brain.
Had Magnolia changed? Ben was a little grayer. So were we.
Looking into Magnolia's Kitchen
Magnolia's Bar Scene
So how was the long-awaited dinner?
Ap: Twice-Baked Grits Souffle
Ap: Grilled Asparagus and Warm Mushroom Salad
Entrees: Ashley Farms Guinea Hen and the edge of THE Pork Chop
Worth every moment in the sun. Like each dinner we’ve had the pleasure of raising our forks to; sublime and ethereal, a sum of something much greater than its parts.
I started out talking about devotion. How easy is it to sit in the sun and wait for a meal. Very.
But real devotion is what Ben and Karen have been and embraced.
Unending. Undeterred. Unwavering.
Ben and Karen, Merci Bien et tres Beaucoup, for so much more than is apparent here.
For your devotion in coddling, slow-cooking, braising, roasting, smoking, dressing, glazing, buttering, crusting, sugaring, melting and compoting all that is Magnolia Grill.
For Magnolia isn't gone. Maybe we can't walk in your door at Ninth and Knox after tonight.
But we can walk in the door of the many delicious memories you gave all of us.
And now, may you take your time to pursue, nurture, and entice each other out into the world.
Congratulations! You made it!
We'll miss you, but look to see you soon.