Char-Grill Heaven

There’s something about writing and including food in a story.  Maybe it’s a way to set your reader down in a scene, or to offer a sense of place.  No matter, food is a component I use a lot in the stories I write.  And of course, since I write Southern Fiction, I talk about southern food, but, I have another influence too.  Mom’s from Maine, so I was exposed to her dishes which have a French heritage.  Dishes like croton, (or, corton, or creton, I’ve seen it spelled different ways) and tourtiere.  Both of these foods are mentioned right along with grits, hushpuppies, and collards in my debut, THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE (Kensington, Nov 2016).

Back during my childhood there was this burger place my father took us to frequently – Char-Grill.

I found a couple pictures of the one we used to go to on Hillsborough Street, just a short distance from the Bell Tower of North Carolina State University (go Pack!) and the downtown Raleigh area where local city politicians and students alike are still slapped silly with the smell of grilled beef and the hot grease from the fries being…well, fried.

Char Grill

This building dates back to 1959, and is the original and first Char-Grill.  They take orders the same as back then, write it on a piece of paper and flip through a slot where it finds it way to the short order cook in the back.  By the way, I heard it’s the SAME grill from 1959.   I loved eating here.  I love that it’s a place that still exists from my childhood.

See that smoke coming up from the roof?  You think Burger King hamburgers smell good when you pass that restaurant?  You ought to smell these…

Nick Solares from a site called Serious Eats, offered up this great review.  What was cool was he had a pic (like mine above) only with a different car and a guy on the bench eating his meal.

What I remember..these are the best hamburgers I’d ever eaten.  I’m sure a little of that had to do with the ferocious appetites my brother and I had back then, after riding our bikes, climbing trees, and running around after each other from morning till dusk.  That kind of hunger deserves a steamy hot hamburger wrapped in white paper, with mustard, chili and slaw leaking through.  The first bite followed by the crunch of salty fries, and then all of that washed down with a cold Pepsi that always managed to make my eyes water.

I think we only begin to appreciate the simple things after we get older and worry they could disappear.  Like how on a hot summer evening, my family would pile into the station wagon to go out for supper.  How we’d wind our way up Avent Ferry Road, then down Western Boulevard, take a little jaunt across Pullen Road and then onto Hillsborough Street.  Mom and Dad in the front, pointing out little things to each other, while my brother and I sat in the back, our elbows resting on the back of the front seat.  We’d be so hungry, our bellies gnawed our backbones, and our mouths watered as we waited for the smell of those hamburgers to arrive via our open windows  – usually within a half mile of the place.


Raleigh, NC Char Grill

Char grill milkshake

Char Grill Chocolate Shake

Dad would park and say, “Okay.  What’s everybody want?”

We always got the same things, so he didn’t really need to ask, but he would.  Then he’d come back and we’d sit there in the parking lot with a bunch of other cars and wait for our number to be called.  When that happened, he’d get the bag of food and pass it all out.  For the next few minutes there was only the sound of paper crackling and the pungent smell of food.

Seriously.  What would I call this today? 






Fantastic descriptions, Donna! You wrote about food and touched my heart. ❤

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That shake looks delicious.

For our family, it was the sub sandwich joint just off campus where he taught. It’s still there, and still the same – the toasted buns (you cannot get these sandwiches otherwise) will tear your gums, and the peppers might blow your head off, but these subs are so good. They still have all the generations-old college pennants on the walls, a crowd of tiny tables, and plain styro cups; they still have ancient stools at the tiny counter. When you walk in, the scent of oregano, oil, and vinegar are a part of the pleasure.

Mmm. Now I want a sub. 🙂

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    So. Do. I.

    We used to go to Maine every summer. We always stopped in Connecticut to visit my aunt and uncle in Milford. I won’t ever forget the summer when I was about 9 or 10 and we stopped and my aunt said, “We’ll go and get grinders for lunch.” Grinders? I’d never heard of such, but in many ways that sounds just like the sub you describe above. It was loaded with meat, cheese, the vegetables, but it was the olive oil, vinegar and spices that completed it – and turned this southern girl into a lover of sub sandwiches. But not Sub Way’s. It’s not the same.

    There’s a pub on Hillsborough St. not but a mile or so from Char-Grill that my dad went to when he was in High School – it sounds a lot like your place above – just off campus, with the same wood bar, pennants, scratchings from decades of patrons which all add to the ambiance. It’s called Players Retreat. It’s been there since 1951.


      Yep, grinder/hero/sub are just regionalisms for similar sandwiches. Much like Subway has popularized, but our sub shop was of course much more individual and not what I call “production designed” (all about looks). I can eat a Subway (because they’re clients of my employer!), but I can’t think of their sandwiches as subs.

      I’m very like you in this taste: For me, a real Italian sub must have good salami, and be topped with oil/vinegar/oregano – all other variables are optional, including toasting or, in some shops, steam heating.

      If you ever come up to a James River Writers event (HINT HINT), we’ll have to find time for me to take you to Bernie’s. And meet Gossamer the Editor Cat, if you’re lucky!

      Liked by 1 person

      Oh my word. I’ve heard about the James River writing event. And as to visiting “Bernies?” All I can say is YAY! I know it would meet my every expectation for a real sub!


I could go for a burger like that right about now. Though we have a new Jamaican place in town, and I got a Jerk Burger from them the other night that was cooked and spiced to absolute perfection. Just a different beast from what you’re describing, I think.

Food is a powerful thing, though, and it makes a lot of sense to use it in writing. I think a lot of strong memories are tied to food, and there’s a lot of family and cultural ritual entrenched in it.

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    Exactly Jen. I’ve always like that sort of detail when I’m reading. I’ve read books before and the characters never ate. Or showered. Or drank water, or something – well maybe whiskey. 🙂

    And that was fine, but to me it would have enriched the story. I’m not saying write page after page, but there’s nothing wrong with it, if you can slip it in and not make a reader annoyed b/c it’s stalling a story.

    Honestly – that Jerk Burger sounds GREAT. We like jerk chicken, pork etc. My husband is the adventurous cook, while I’m more of the fix the staples kind of cook. I.e. fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy…


The answer to that question is that it depends.

If you just came from your doctor then HEART ATTACK IN A SACK should ring loudly in you ears.

If you are as strange as I am and are trying hard to get your technique and control back on track you would call it something else. I fight whenever I have the chance to get my time, on a stretch of my local river, down below 1:50 for 11.4 miles in my best long range kayak. After that you would call it LUNCH.

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    Let’s see if you find this as strange…when I was training for my marathons, I spent a lot of those runs doing calculations in my head – because when you know you’re going to be running for at least three to three and a half hours, you tend to keep your brain occupied in any way you can. So, I would try and estimate how long each mile would take – while I was running each mile, and without expending too much energy, keep each one consistent within seconds – which meant pace adjusting.

    I miss doing those long runs, actually – even though they took a lot out of me and basically sucked up a whole weekend. Run on Sat, and then all of Sun spent recovering. I also placed Gatorade at strategic points along the way b/c I couldn’t carry enough to sustain me on my Fuel Belt.

    I think anyone competitive will try and improve times, while maintaining form and technique – even if they aren’t really competing with anyone but themselves. I did it too.


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