There aren’t many places East of Greensboro that I haven’t been to in North Carolina.
Kinston was one of them until last weekend – sorta. I don’t think driving through town on the way to and from New Bern counts. I had always wanted to see what Kinston was all about because of my friend Bryan Hanks’ bragging over the years. Hanks was a sports editor and later editor-in-chief of the county paper, The Free-Press. But I was not nearly as excited as Ashley, who became enamored with the lore of a rustic and artsy downtown on the verge of a major comeback in a city that had struggled. All she really knew was that’s where Chef and the Farmer and Boiler Room were, both restaurants owned by Vivian Howard. All I really knew is it’s got the most basketball talent than anywhere in the state, it used to have minor league baseball (and will soon get that back) and there are some bad parts of town.
I’ve been begging for my wife to let me take her on an adventure. But traveling too far with two kids is hard – leaving them behind, with our daughter as young as she is, is impossible. But I finally succeeded in letting me take her to Kinston for her birthday. She would get to walk in downtown. She would get to eat at Boiler Room. And I knew there was a nice riverwalk just around the corner, where the Neuse River looks like a river instead of the muddy creek that winds through Wake and Johnston County. With Tropical Storm Hermine out of the way, the day was a little cloudy, but cool. The high was about 75. If you know Ashley, that’s her perfect temperature. So we drove to Clayton, hit U.S. Highway 70 and headed East.
Kinston’s a lot bigger than you would think land-wise. Just a small sliver on the southern edge is its downtown area. But man is it full of things to do. We missed Boiler Room the first time – which is apparently the thing to do if you’re a Kinston tourist. I later helped two other groups of people find the restaurant, located in a brick alley. In some ways, those brick alleys remind me of Charleston. You just don’t see them, in large, newer southern cities like Raleigh or Charlotte. We ate in the alley because there was too long of a wait else-wise. It ended up being perfect. Josiah got to sit at a big boy chair that way, so he was happy.
Between Vivian Howard’s two restaurants, Boiler Room is the less-bougie, less-pricey one. The food didn’t disappoint. I made a rare choice for my preferences – a BBQ chicken sandwich. But you see, this sandwich was with blueberry BBQ sauce, something I haven’t seen except for 12 Bones in Asheville. With a $2 16-ounce PBR and cheese fries that I dipped in Ashley’s lime-ranch sauce, I was set. We put the kids in the stroller and decided to see what else Kinston had to offer.
Unlike downtown areas in much bigger towns like Fuquay-Varina, Apex and Cary, Kinston’s is measured by the mile, not block. It’s huge, and offers a lot. Also in downtown Kinston you can enjoy a replica of a Civil War ship, the CSS Neuse, a microbrewery with its own garden and lawn – yes, a downtown lawn – for the Mexican restaurant. The riverwalk has a stage for outdoor concerts. You couldn’t dream up a better plan. We walked until it started to drizzle. Then we found Grainger Stadium – a wonderful minor league ballpark that’s been kept up despite not having a team these last few years. I’m glad they’ll have another soon enough.
A few blocks from that was what looked like an old high school that’s now a Performing Arts Center and apartments, much like the one in Garner. There’s a Paul Jones gymnasium attached, and of course the parking lot looked full. It wouldn’t be Kinston if you didn’t see someone – probably some future ACC and NBA players – playing pick-up. We were turning around to get to the stadium when we saw a huge house on a hill that looked like it could be a small college campus. We didn’t know what it was, but it turns out that it is now a bed & breakfast called the Bentley. Ashley is now insisting that we have to go there some day.
On the drive back we found Highway 55 (oh hey! Didn’t know you came out all this way old friend), drove over the Neuse River and by a playground and nature area that we wish we’d seen earlier, and headed out of town. To think we didn’t even get to see most of the town.
But we saw enough to know we’d see it again soon.