OBXers’ getaway: Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery

By on August 24, 2015

Grillades and Grits. (Jim Trotman photos)

Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery
100 East Franklin Street
Chapel Hill
www.thetopofthehill.com
(919) 929-8676

We pulled into the Aloft hotel on the East side of Chapel Hill, unpacked and called a cab to take us to Top of the Hill (aka TOPO) Restaurant and Brewery, right in the middle of things on Franklin Street at its intersection with Columbia Street.

The story of how this restaurant and brewery came to be is a good one. In 1994, Scott Maitland, a West Point grad, an Army veteran and singular force of nature, was studying law at UNC when he learned a national chain restaurant was in the works at what may be the most visible locations in town.

This didn’t sit well with Maitland, who pulled out all the stops to prevent it from happening. He lined up partners and capital and established not only a very proper and popular restaurant in the space, but an award-winning brewery as well.

We were seated at a table right up against the curved glass wall separating the dining room from two massive copper kettles and promptly ordered drinks.

First in a series
Some time back, Russ Lay and I took a weekend trip to the Research Triangle to, well, do some research. Research can be exhausting, feverish work, and one may succumb to bypassing a meal or not take in as much liquids as one should. We determined we’d not let that happen. We were lucky the quaint hamlet of Chapel Hill is well sourced with plenty of food and drink.Once back home on the Outer Banks, we came to a crossroads. We could either keep our finds to ourselves, or share them with Voice readers who may find themselves in that center part of the state, and be in need of some recommendations.

We chose to share. We understand this may be preaching to the UNC choir at times, but every year, a fresh crop of young people leaves these shores to attend the centers for higher learning in the Piedmont. Parents need to know these sorts of things.

We will cover four restaurants, one museum and one distillery in our Chapel Hill adventure!

The dining room is expansive and fitted out with good sturdy wooden tables and chairs, the walls covered in collaged enlarged photos of noted sports figures of UNC’s past. There is an outdoor option as well on their patio with views overlooking Franklin Street.

Fried pickles have become standard fare in inland communities, but TOPO offers them mixed in with fried jalapeño chips in their Lizard Chips appetizer. So it can be a bit of a game of risk involved. We enjoyed both equally. The batter is made from their house-made beer. A chipotle ranch dip is not going to give you the relief a standard ranch will, but it was delicious and added an extra kick.

We backed that appetizer up with the Mediterranean Flatbread, one of three offered. I once asked, “What’s the difference between flatbread and pizza?” The answer was, “About five or six bucks.”

This was in all ways Mediterranean, with mozzarella, calamata olives, fresh spinach, tomato sauce, feta, shreds of braised beef and anointed with tzatziki. This can be a shared appetizer or, at under $10, an affordable light entrée for one.

Since we had been travelling so long, we couldn’t stop there. There were still other items left on the menu.

Russ picked the TOPO Whiskey and Coke Braised Beef. This was a near-perfect square of succulent, slow braised boneless short-rib atop mashed potatoes and circled by roasted veggies and all topped in an assertive whisky and Coke reduction sauce. I flipped over my sample of it.

I was up against a hard choice. After hearing great things I was leaning toward their Lobster Mac and Cheese, but on learning the chef was from New Orleans and that Grillades and Grits were offered, I called an audible.

Whiskey and Coke Braised Beef

What arrived was not exactly what I expected, but I was quickly won over. Grillades (pronounced, gree-yahds) are traditional Creole fare, usually beef or veal and sometimes pork cutlets, pounded thin and dusted with flour then browned and slow -braised in a flavorful roux with the trinity of onion, bell pepper and celery, and so it cooks in its own gravy, which is served over the grillades and a serving of grits.

In this case, the chef Carolina-fixes the dish using slow roasted pulled pork instead with peppers and onions in a redeye gravy atop creamy local grits. Not Eastern Carolina or Western Carolina but something altogether different, warm and savory. Had I read the menu more carefully, I would have seen it spelled out.

The menu is in broadsheet form and includes beer-pairing suggestions with each entrée. The back of the menu, or front depending on your perspective, has a panorama photo from April 6, 2009, showing TOPO swarmed by UNC fans flooding the street as the Tar Heels won the National Championship. Thus, the menu also serves as a nifty sports souvenir.

Interesting to note, the TOPO restaurant, as in their distillery and brewery, has set a course to keep as much of their source materials local and organic whenever possible. This commitment is reflected in the sources listed in full at the bottom of the menu.


Flatbread

I’m not one to share food I like, so Jim did indeed have to fight for scraps. I am not a fan of short ribs as a rule, but as Jim said, these were over the top and I did indeed scarf them down.

Top of the Hill strikes a balance of everything and anything you might associate with Chapel Hill and UNC.

Older patrons wearing nice slacks and polo shirts. UNC students at the bar with ball caps on backwards. Beer and spirits aficionados trying out the house brews and three house-made spirits — TOPO Gin, TOPO Vodka, and TOPO Whiskey.

Enough wide screens to keep sports fans happy, but the ambience is more refined than a sports bar.

Russ Lay

Next up: A chain breakfast eatery turns out to be pretty darned good!

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