Martin: My trip to Norlina

Come on and go to Norlina with me!

Before you ask where Norlina is, and why should you want to go there, let me explain:

I have agreed to write a new book for UNC Press, an expended and updated version of an earlier one I wrote several years ago, about North Carolina family-owned, home-cooking restaurants, where local people gather, but still close enough to big highways for travelers to visit without losing too much time.

That is a mouthful, isn’t it?

NC Bookwatch by D.G. Martin

NC Bookwatch
by D.G. Martin

But mouthfuls are what I will be writing about.

In the next couple of months, I will be driving up and down North Carolina’s major highways looking for those special local eateries.

Norlina is a couple of miles off I-85, just south of the Virginia line. Hence its name and slogan from the town’s website, “Norlina, where North Carolina begins.”

Because it is the gateway to and from Virginia, the new book needs a restaurant there.

So I asked for help from Jennifer Harris, editor of the Warren Record in nearby Warrenton. She wrote, “There’s a restaurant in Norlina called Whistle Stop Cafe that has been around awhile. Home cooking for lunch and dinner, closed on Sundays, cash or local check only, locally owned and operated. I think they would fit the bill for what you’re doing. They have daily specials (Thursday is chicken livers!), and my personal favorite menu item (which I get every time I go) is the country-fried steak with gravy and onions, plus gravy and onions on my mashed taters, another side and sweet tea, of course! They have some homemade desserts that change daily.”

This was great news.  Just the kind of place I am looking for.

But maybe, too good to be true. So last week I drove to Norlina, arriving at the Whistle Stop Cafe a little after 1 o’clock and met Sheila Arnold, one of a team of cheerful, friendly women who work there.

Sheila brought me the Tuesday special: fried chicken. I got dark meat, which cost a little bit less than the $7.25 for white meat. Tea is $1.59 and the special came with two vegetables.

When I bit into the crispy juicy chicken, I knew I had come to the right place.

Sheila explained that the owner, Lisa Willis, was too busy in the kitchen to talk. But when her husband Ebin dropped by for lunch, he explained that Lisa liked to stay in the kitchen monitoring the work there and leaving the customer service aspects of the business to her carefully selected staff.

Is there anything else to do in Norlina?

Sheila explained that the mayor could open up the railroad museum for me, but I found another gem a few doors away. The hardware store, owned and operated by Judy Hayes, gave me a great chance to experience the flavor of an old-time general store.

First, Hayes showed me bins and bins of all kinds of seeds. Then she demonstrated the micro scales she uses to weigh small amounts of seeds. “I will sell you a package for a couple of dollars, but if you just want 35 cents worth, I can measure that out for you.”

Hayes has three other sets of scales that give her the ability to sell just the amount of nails, building materials, or other products that her customers want.

A good meal, nice people, and a trip back in time.

That is why you might want to stop by Norlina on your next trip up I-85.

In the meantime, how about sharing with me other good local eateries that have stood the test of time and that you love to visit? Send me a note at nceateries@yahoo.comand I will be mighty grateful…

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information visit

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