“I’m just so mad,” the old man says as he enters the Chicken Hut’s dining room. He’s got everyone’s attention.
“Whatchu mad about?” different people ask.
He describes a situation where he was disrespected and says what he wants to do about it. “Oh no, don’t do that!” people call out, while others say, “They shouldn’t talk to you like that,” and “Ain’t that a shame.”
The man calms down, joins the others in line, and is soon joking around. Places like the Chicken Hut offer up a bit of free counseling alongside the collard greens.
The Chicken Hut’s catering service is well known. If you’ve attended a special event and got luscious soul food instead of the usual chicken wraps from a chain, chances are it was from the Chicken Hut. If you’ve ever ordered inside the restaurant, you’ve met the manager, Peggy Tapp.
But not everyone knows about the eat-in lunch, served weekdays from 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. Don’t expect to huddle in the corner with your laptop. There’s no Wi-Fi; people hear converse the old-fashioned way.
The Chicken Hut was Claiborne Tapp Jr’s idea. He and his father started out cleaning chickens at their small grocery store on Morehead and Carroll on Durham’s West End. After a few years, he realized that he’d rather cook them up and serve them directly to the public. The first “Chicken Box” opened in 1958 near Apex Highway and Riddle Road and was an instant hit with people looking for authentic but inexpensive soul food. At its height, the restaurant, whose name eventually changed to the “Chicken Hut,” had five locations: four in Durham and one in Chapel Hill.
There’s only one left, at 3019 Fayetteville St., but the restaurant is still run by Tapp family members. Claiborne Tapp Jr. died in 1998, and his widow, Peggy, has taken charge. Her sister, Ruth, can be found creating dangerously delicious peach cobblers in the back, and her son, Claiborne Tapp III (better known as “Tré”) is the main server on the cafeteria-style line.
Julia Tapp, Claiborne Jr’s sister, is a co-owner. She made sweet-potato pies for the restaurant until a few years ago; now in her upper 80s, she prefers to work behind the scenes on the business side.
Hungry patrons start lining up around 11:25. They file into the unassuming, whitewashed dining room and claim their tables, breathing in the luscious aromas and exchanging pleasantries. Many are regulars.
Wakefield Thompson has been eating lunch at the Chicken Hut since his high school days more than 50 years ago. “The food here is excellent,” he says. “It’s like home cookin’ and I’ll tell you they got a taste of Grandma in it.”
Steaming-hot food is slid into place behind the counter and the employees do some last-minute scurrying about, setting out napkins, pouring cups of lemonade and sweet tea, and grabbing serving spoons and tongs.
“OK, first one up!” Tré calls out. Out of respect for one another, nobody rushes forward. They look hungry but they don’t want to be impolite. Soon, there’s a line of regular folks, mostly men over a certain age, wearing an array of easy-fit jeans, plaid shirts, overalls, and baseball caps. One by one they’re greeted by Tré, who’s quick, focused, and friendly.
“Hey, man, how’s your mom?” he asks one patron. He’s been serving many of these regulars for more than a dozen years and is able to go down the line so efficiently that most of us are chowing down within minutes.
The conversation picks up. Someone will bring up a topic like Duke basketball, and the volume increases as comments and jokes are thrown around from different sides of the room. Even though most of Chicken Hut’s patrons are men, the talk never sets the ladies on edge. This is no “boys’ club” – it’s more like listening to a bunch of uncles and grandfathers gathered around the kitchen table.
It’s noon and employees from N.C. Central University, students wearing Eagles gear, and even the local mailman, Larry Guess, start arriving. He gets his lunch, scans a newspaper, and joins in one of the conversations as he eats. “This place is the epitome of consistency,” he says. “I can’t get over the cross-section of people who eat here – ministers, sales reps, service personnel. … Anyone you want to get to know eats here.”
People start drifting out, saying easy goodbyes, “Later, man,” “See you tomorrow,” and “Alright now.” Tré wraps up a lunch to go for one of the last customers of the day, who says, “Thanks, man—I appreciate it.”
Tré smiles. “I appreciate YOU.”Patricia A. Murray is the founder of The Durham Skywriter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and read the Skywriter at http://durhamskywriter.blogspot.com/
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