John Ayers has been eating breakfast at the Grill every Saturday morning for years. “It’s no organized group. We’ve just all become friends over the years,” he said. They arrive at 7 a.m. and have the table until 9, when a group of retired military, known around the Grill as “the Generals,” arrive. Conversation starts with a quick catch-up around the table and eventually veers into politics and world news swapped with diners at nearby tables. From prayer groups to business meetings, everyone seems to be solving the world’s problems over a plate of eggs.Ayers’ group sits at a large table at the back. “Most places, people wouldn’t want to sit by the kitchen, but we wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. “We call it the owner’s table.”
The actual owner, Pete Skenteris, points out that the table sits in what once was actually the kitchen itself. “My kitchen was Metropolitan Life Insurance and what are now the other dining rooms were First Citizens Bank and Haymount Shoe Shop,” he said. Since buying the building and its 12 parking spaces in 1967, Skenteris has expanded from the original 60-person capacity into room for 250 guests. The family atmosphere and high food quality, however, have stayed the same. “It’s not fast food and it’s not what I call ‘big box’ food,” Ayers said. “I guess that’s why I’ve been eating there for 38 years.” Down the road a bit, another group of loyal breakfast-goers frequent JK’s Family Restaurant and Deli. On the menu bagels with cream cheese and Greek omelets with feta cheese and tomato sit next to breakfast staples like eggs with country ham, pork chops or steak. To make the military feel at home, there’s even S.O.S. biscuits and gravy, served with a mix of sausage and ground beef.
Customers are greeted by the buzz of conversation, from the waitresses who know most of their customers by name and the diners engrossed in cross-table conversation. “I would say 75 percent of our customers come in every day or at least a couple of times a week,” said Missy Mercer, one of the morning waitresses. Even those customers dining alone wind up engaged in conversation with each other, talking about local events, hobbies and, inevitably, politics. “You think people are grouchy in the morning, but a good cup of coffee and a smile does wonders,” Mercer said. One regular, Ron Rock, has eaten at JK’s almost every morning for the past 10 years. What keeps him coming back? “Breakfast just does you a whole lot better than lunch,” Rock says. “The waitresses do a good job, and they’re always around to fill your cup.” Like most of the regulars, Rock is a standard bacon-and-eggs man, but they all admit to occasionally mixing things up with JK’s famous made-from-scratch hotcakes. Mercer recently shook things up herself by starting a Facebook page where she posts messages and photos of the regulars.
On Sundays in Fayetteville, Beth Shearin-Smith of Hilltop House goes completely off the menu and offers decadent brunch options no longer reserved for Mother’s Day and Easter. The resulting back room buffet is an assault on the senses, from the sweet and spicy pecan praline sauce drizzled over bananas foster French toast to the fresh batter of made-to-order waffles. Oysters are always on order, along with Norwegian salmon, a cold salad station and fresh fruit. Shrimp and grits, featuring andouille sausage and a tasso cream sauce, is not typically a part of low country North Carolina cuisine but has become a favorite with Hilltop patrons.
Shearin-Smith knows that sometimes it’s the simple pleasures her customers enjoy most, a lesson she learned after mistakenly removing deviled eggs from the buffet once. “It didn’t take long to start getting complaints. I won’t make that mistake again,” she said. A stickler for standards, Shearin-Smith ensures quality is never sacrificed on the buffet line. Only certified Angus beef makes it to the prime rib carving station, and the same attention to detail is placed in every dish, from homespun collards to Hilltop’s signature Death by Chocolate dessert. “You can do a little bit more with brunch,” she says, admitting that the buffet-style presentation allows people to taste items they might not order off of a traditional menu.
A few of the other Southern comfort foods offered include the squash casserole, corn casserole and homemade macaroni and cheese, all old family recipes passed down from Shearin-Smith’s grandmother. “These are all things people can make at home, but don’t always take the time,” Shearin-Smith said. “Plus, they can come here and enjoy it without all the preparation and clean up.” Hilltop House, like many of its morning counterparts, harbors an unmistakably familial feel, the house itself a monument to a time when family meals were always cause for occasion. Coupled with the promise of no dishes to wash, it’s no wonder every corner of Fayetteville is abuzz at breakfast.