Carol Barrow: Family restaurants serve more than a meal

July 30, 2013 

Carol Barrow


My daughter and I went to the Merlion in Southern Village for dinner last night.

We go there for the Char Siew soup. We think that it acts like penicillin, and that it can cure you of anything that ails you through the steam of its broth and the aromas that come with it. We love that broth, the long noodles,, the almost-raw baby bok choy, the dumplings and the roast pork. Sometimes we even ask them to add Beijing duck to the soup. You know – duck soup!

Last night was special, though. I changed soups. I had the spicy seafood in lemongrass broth. It was spectacular. I know that they have a lovely menu, and that anybody can make “pineapple fried rice (yeah, sure…),” but we like their soup so much more than anybody else’s around town.

I keep forgetting that there are more restaurants than just on “the strip.” Good restaurants are all over the place, you just have to look for them. I’m going to let you in on a secret. I have narrowed down my eating out to family-owned restaurants.

You know the kind; where the waiter is the owner and he remembers you and your family and what you like to eat. He makes sure that your water glass is full because he cares. He wants you to come back. He makes sure the place is clean and the service is good, because he has a stake in you. When you come the first time, he’s got the restaurant’s rent paid. The second time, you’ve covered food costs, and the third time you come back, it’s about the profit.

That’s not why he does it, though. A family-owned restaurant WANTS to be there. It opened up in the first place because the owner genuinely likes people and wants to make them happy through his delicious courses. The generosity of the owner’s spirit comes through in the way the dishes turn out.

Last night was special for another reason. We crashed the family meal. Well, not quite crashed, but we were looking for the waitress who graduated high school with my daughter Flora. When I couldn’t find her, I went looking for her. And there they were: Simon and his wife, Winnie; Nicole (my daughter’s friend); and her mother, Nancy, who also works there. Eating dinner together.

Of course my daughter was mortified that I just sat down. Then Nicole asked me if I wanted to taste her delicious chicken, and handed me a fork. She was right, it WAS delicious. Then Flora eased her way to the table and joined the conversation. (Flora was right to be mortified, not everyone has the skills to crash a family meal. It isn’t a trick that just anyone can get away with.)

This is what life is really about – neighbors. Stopping in. Making room. Being treated as family, even in a restaurant. I couldn’t swear to it, but I don’t think that that would ever happen in a Red Lobster.

My teacher (Chef Brian Bailey) taught our class of Culinary graduates that RESTAURANTS stay in business because they want to please people. Food is really a people business. If you don’t enjoy pleasing people, don’t bother opening up the doors, because your restaurant won’t be there for long.

That’s why I frequent family-owned restaurants. I go with my family or friends to enjoy a night out. For me, it’s never about the “food” – I don’t need to eat to fill up, I can do that at home. When I eat out in Chapel Hill, I want a pleasurable experience, and it’s never about the price. It is all about how all of the pieces of the restaurant fit together.

Ciao, grazie and arrivederci,


Carol Barrow was invited to Chapel Hill 12 years ago; her husband, Michael, was born and raised here. She and her family moved here from New York City after 9/11/01. You can contact Caroleena at

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