A busload of “A Chef’s Life” fans took a road trip to Kinston for last month’s premiere of the show’s series finale, “The Final Harvest.” For some, it was a return visit. For others, it was a first chance to explore this eastern North Carolina city that’s now building a reputation as a food, drink and art destination.
The bus trip, organized by the folks behind the NC Food & Beverage Podcast, turned the evening premiere into a day’s worth of activities. On the way down, the passengers enjoyed mimosas and bloody marys made with SOCIAL HOUSE® vodka, which is produced in Kinston, and then got off the bus for a tour of the distillery. As our fans toured Three Stacks Distillery, they learned how SOCIAL HOUSE® vodka came to be housed in Kinston’s old power plant, a 15,000-square-foot russet brick building lined with arched windows. SOCIAL HOUSE® vodka’s president, Cary Joshi, explained that he was sold as soon as he saw the 1900s building. Joshi and his business partner, G. Patel, who owns the Raleigh restaurant group, Eschelon Hospitality, were excited by the location and its possibilities. It is close to the farmer who supplied the corn for the vodka. It is near Interstate 95, which is key for distribution. The 10-acre property has a reservoir fed by an aquifer that provides purified water; remember, vodka is 60 percent water. The men also were able to buy an adjacent 13 acres. Joshi, who has a real estate background, said: “The building could be transformed into quite a destination.” Since they started selling vodka in July 2016, SOCIAL HOUSE® vodka has become the top-selling spirit in North Carolina made by a N.C. distillery.
Raleigh architect Matthew Konar, 43, is one of the bus trippers who cannot wait to see the further evolution of the distillery and the city. Konar believes Kinston has two elements that are key to a city’s revitalization: beautiful, empty buildings and people invested in the town. “Kinston is ripe for transformation,” Konar said. “That’s what you need for that to happen.”
One of those invested individuals is Stephen Hill, owner of Mother Earth Brewery, which was the next stop on the Kinston bus trip. Hill opened the brewery in 2008 with his son-in-law, Trent Mooring, and next year they expect to produce 8,000 barrels. Beyond producing a great lineup of craft beers, our fans were delighted to hear how environmentally-friendly the brewery operation is, from its solar panels and rainwater cistern to its recycled denim insulation and LED lighting. In 2013, Mother Earth became the first craft production brewery to receive gold level certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The tour guide also explained that Hill’s investments are not limited to the brewery and a new distillery, Mother Earth Spirits. Hill started the smART Kinston City Project Foundation to renovate about 50 foreclosed homes in a downtown Kinston neighborhood into an arts and cultural district. Some of those residences are homes to working artists who are enticed by reduced rents and stipends to come live and work in this former tobacco town undergoing a metamorphosis.
“The thing that was really striking to me — and I’ve been going to Kinston for four or five years — is it keeps on expanding,” said Eric Surface, 48, of Raleigh, one of the bus trip tourists. “There’s something new every time.”
If you missed NC F&B’s Kinston tour, don’t fret. Kinston’s hotspots are regularly open for business and look forward to your visit. Here’s our recommendations of places to eat, drink, stay, and play.
Recreate the Road Trip
Down East Wood Ducks
The minor league baseball team is part of the Carolina League and affiliated with the Texas Rangers. Games are from April to September. Tickets cost $7-$11.Info: Grainger Stadium, 400 E. Grainger Ave., Kinston, 252-686-5172, milb.com/down-east
Mother Earth Brewing
Free tours are offered Monday-Friday at the top of the hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (The last tour is at 5 p.m.) Tours on Saturday are from 1-7 p.m. (The last tour is at 7 p.m.) If the taproom is open, tours gather there. If the taproom is closed, tours gather in the brewery store. Info: 311 N. Herritage St., Kinston, 252-208-2437, motherearthbrewing.com
Mother Earth Spirits
Free tours of the distillery are available Tuesday to Friday by appointment only; send an email to email@example.com. Tours are available at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday and meet at the Mother Earth Brewing Taproom with no reservation required.Info: 302 Mitchell St., Kinston, 252-208-2437, motherearthspirits.com
Three Stacks Distilling
Where to stay
This bed and breakfast is located at historic Vernon Hall on 12 acres close to downtown Kinston. Four rooms with private baths are available starting at $169 per night; full breakfast is provided. Info: 117 W. Capitola Ave., Kinston, 252-523-2337 (no website)
Brothers Farm Experience
For diehard “A Chef’s Life” fans, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to experience the hospitality of Warren Brothers, aka the Barefoot Farmer. Warren and his wife, Jane, offer two accommodations: a chance to stay at their farmhouse or at a cottage on their farm. It costs $149-$239 per night. Farm tours are $20 per person. Info: 5463 Pauls Path Road, La Grange, 252-361-2502, https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/20655587, https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/28836033
Mother Earth Motor Lodge
This refurbished 1960s-themed motor lodge offers economy rooms to suites for $109-$139 per night (breakfast included). Guests also have access to a swimming pool, shuffleboard and mini golf course. Afternoon cookies and refreshments in the lobby are a nice touch. Info: 501 N. Herritage St., Kinston, 252-520-2000, motherearthmotorlodge.com
A luxury boutique hotel was originally a Farmers & Merchants Bank built in 1924 when Kinston was a center of the state’s agricultural economy. The hotel has only seven rooms, which start at $189 per night. Even if you are not a guest, the staff will give tours of the Renaissance Revival-style building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The lobby’s ornate plaster ceiling is worth the stop. Info: 200 N. Queen St., Kinston, 252-208-1130, the-oneil.com
Things to do
A collective studio space for artists who sell their works directly to the public. Open to the public from 1-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Info: 105 W. Blount St., Kinston, https://art105kinston.omeka.net/
Kinston Community Council for the Arts
Browse works from local artists in their galleries, which are open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. Info: 400 N. Queen St., Kinston, 252-527-2517, kinstoncca.com
Vivian and Ben’s take on a classic eastern N.C. oyster bar serving burgers, beer and, of course, oysters (raw, fried and steamed). Open for dinner on Monday-Tuesday and for lunch and dinner on Wednesday-Sunday. Info: 108B W. North St., Kinston, 252-208-2433 x2, vivianhoward.com/boiler-room/
The Captain’s Corner
The place to get a hot dog and a cold beer in Kinston. Open 7 a.m.-9 p.m.every day. Info: 711 Plaza Blvd., Kinston, 252-522-5559
Chef and the Farmer
Vivian and Ben’s flagship fine dining restaurant serves seasonal fare rooted in eastern North Carolina food traditions. A few dishes not to miss if they are on the frequently-changing menu: the cheese biscuit, the grits, the butternut squash. Open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Info: 120 W. Gordon St., Kinston, 252-208-2433, vivianhoward.com/chef-the-farmer/
Hawk’s Nest Cafe and General Store
A cafe and general store serving classic breakfast and lunch fare. Check Facebook page for specials. Open 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday.Info: 100 S. Queen St., Kinston, 252-686-6149, facebook.com/HawksNestCafeandGeneralStore/
The Inside Scoop
An ice cream shop serving hand-dipped Hershey’s ice cream in cones, sundaes, splits and milkshakes. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday. Info: 222 N. Herritage St., Kinston, 252-686-5255 (no website)
A breakfast and lunch spot, owned by the same family since 1941, serving biscuits, omelets, burgers and meat-and-three plates. It is home to the doughburger, described on the menu as “hamburger, flour, onions and secret ingredients.” Open 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday and 6 a.m.-11 a.m. Saturday. Info: 320 N. Herritage St., Kinston, 252-523-6854, http://lovickscafe.com/
Middle Grounds Coffeehouse
Where to get your caffeine fix in downtown Kinston. Open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. Info: 212 N. Herritage St., Kinston, 252-686-5140, facebook.com/middlegroundscoffeehouse/
The Peach House Restaurant
A casual cafe in a converted home serves salads, sandwiches, paninis and plenty of desserts. Open 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Info: 412 W. Vernon Ave., Kinston, 252-522-2526, peachhousenc.com
Queen Street Deli
Vivian Howard’s sister, Leraine Tolston, owns this casual eatery, which offers salads, sandwiches, paninis and a large selection of refrigerated and frozen meals to go. We love the chicken pot pie. Open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday.Info: 117 S. Queen St., Kinston, 252-527-1900, queenstreetdeli.com/Home
Sabor Modern Latin Cuisine
One of the newest restaurants in downtown Kinston, this lunch and dinner spot serves an array of Latin American, Mexican and Caribbean dishes, including burritos, paella and Cuban sandwiches. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Info: 108 W. North St., Kinston, 252-208-2663, https://sabor-modern-latin-cuisine.business.site/
Sugar Hill Pizzeria
A favorite spot for pizza and classic Italian subs; one of our team’s favorites is the Chicken Philly sub. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-8 p.m. Sunday. Info: 211 N. Herritage St., Kinston, 252-686-8800, https://sugarhillpizzeria.com/
CSS Neuse Museum
See the remnants of this famous Civil War ironclad gunboat, one of 26 vessels commissioned by the Confederate Army. The Civil War Interpretive Center houses the boat’s remains, shares its history and tells the story of the salvage operation. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.Info: 100 N. Queen St., Kinston, 252-522-2107, nchistoricsites.org/neuse
CSS Neuse II
The only full-scale replica of a Confederate ironclad gunboat is on display and open for tours from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Info: 118 N. Herritage St., Kinston, 252-560-2150, cssneuseii.org
Built in 1772, this restored historic house was once home to North Carolina’s first governor, Richard Caswell. Free and open to the public for viewing from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday as well as the first, third and fourth Friday of each month and the first and second Saturday of each month. Info: 109 E. King St., Kinston, 252-522-0421, harmonyhallkinston.com
Neuseway Nature Park
A 55-acre park situated along the Neuse River features a nature center and trails, a playground with a miniature train, a 52-seat planetarium and a children’s health and science museum. Info: 401 W. Caswell St., Kinston, neusewaypark.com
Want to workout with Vivian Howard’s personal trainer? Head to one of Chappriel Pitt’s facilities in downtown Kinston: Pitt Fit Society gym, which offers group classes and personal training sessions, and She Box, a women-only boxing gym. Both locations offer early morning, lunchtime and after work classes starting at $7 each. Text 252-939-0263 for the most up-to-date schedule. Info: Pitt Fit Society, 300 Mitchell St., Kinston; She Box, 122 W. Lenoir Ave., Kinston.
One more idea...
If you want to learn how to make Southern biscuits from the master herself, Lillie Hardy, you can book a one-hour class for $200. Schedule the class via Jane Brothers at 252-361-2502. Be sure to like the Warren and Lillie Facebook page.