Farewell to a Durham Landmark:
The Closing of Magnolia Grill
The line to get a table on one of the last nights of service. All photos by Kate Medley.
I got lucky. Two months before Karen and Ben Barker, co-chefs and co-owners of Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina, announced their plan to close their restaurant on May 31, my son, Jess, and I walked through the front door of their twenty-five-year-old citadel of New Southern cuisine and claimed seats at the bar.
We ate yellowfin tuna, dressed with a buttermilk sauce and tucked in a nest of cucumber noodles. And spring onion pesto-swaddled black grouper, served on a drift of creamy lemon grits. And banana pudding ice-cream cake, capped with toasted meringue.
Documentarian Kate Medley got lucky too. Five nights before the Barkers closed their doors, she captured the end of the Magnolia Grill era in the photos that follow.
The Barkers—who met on the first day of school at the Culinary Institute of America and who both won James Beard Awards for excellence—went out on top. They didn’t close because the stock market went south and took their clientele with it. They didn’t close because the fine dining market shifted. They closed because they possessed the aplomb to recognize when their work was done.
“We have all of our parents, all eighty years old, or nearly,” they wrote in an e-mail that hit my inbox on the morning of April 21. “We want to see them more. We have two grandchildren we’ve barely spent any time with; we want to see them more. We have co-workers we’ve been around more than our sons—it’s time for that to change.
Here’s a glimpse of Magnolia Grill, just before the change came.
Ben and Karen Barker
The original building housed Scarboro’s Food Store.
Scarboro’s Food Store was replaced by Wellspring Grocery before Magnolia Grill took over.
Here’s that line again.
Eleven-year-old Jarod Cohen arrived at Magnolia Grill for his birthday dinner. His family drove to Durham from their home in Montville, New Jersey, each year since 2006 to celebrate his birthday at the restaurant. Jarod will turn twelve in July, but with news of Magnolia Grill’s closure, they decided to celebrate early. Jarod was flanked by his former New Jersey neighbors who now live in Durham.
The basement office.
Reservations and wait-list for the nightly dinner service. To the right was a legal pad with nearly ten pages full of “any night” wait-list names.
Ben held a meeting with his staff before dinner service began.
The remains of the wine cellar.
A close-up of the pan-roasted Pidemont guinea hen breast that Jarod ate.