Wilson, North Carolina is conveniently situated about four hours south of Washington, DC, or at just the right place to stop for lunch when you’re headed south on 95. The big decision is whether to eat at Bill’s or Parker’s.
Much of Wilson can be divided into Bill’s people and Parker’s people. We are Parker’s people. I like it because if you’re going to the beach near Morehead City, it’s on the road to Goldsboro and just far enough that you can be ready to eat another sandwich at Wilber’s when you stop at the fruit stand there for some peaches and tomatoes. And some okra, muscadines, boil’ peanuts, and a watermelon and maybe some cantaloupes: you need supplies at the beach Back in her teenage years Liza liked it because she thought some of the waiters were cute and, being her father’s daughter, she really liked the barbecue and the corn sticks. Nancy doesn’t really like North Carolina barbecue — the texture is too fine and it tends not to be very smoky under the best of circumstances — but she goes along with us because she is a Real Trooper. And we go because Parker’s has the best bread sticks in the world, great cole slaw, and really good fried chicken, in addition to good eastern North Carolina barbecue. We once had our Christmas card picture taken in front of Parker’s. Nancy is a Real Trooper.
But we have family in Wilson, and they are Bill’s people. My cousin Ann Thomas is a Bill’s person as is my Aunt Ann Griffin, who was as gracious as can be when we undiplomatically took her to Parker’s last year, although I suspect that I was the subject of a couple of “bless his hearts” afterwards. I have not asked why they prefer Bill’s because there are some subjects that you let lie when you’re with relatives. We don’t talk politics either.
In this trip I decided to stop at Bill’s.
I had been there before and enjoyed it a lot. I hadn’t been back largely because if you eat at Bill’s, you will not be able to have another sandwich at Wilber’s and you are likely to fall asleep at the wheel and never get to the beach or on down the road to wherever you’re going. Bill’s has a buffet. It is a big buffet.
In addition to barbecue and fried chicken and baked chicken and chicken with a red barbecue sauce and Salisbury steak and chicken and dumplings and smoked sausage and red links and fried fish and a whole lot of vegetables and desserts and even a tossed salad, it includes a whole hog. And big sheets of pork skin and fried streak o’ lean.
The barbecue at Bill’s, like that at Parker’s, is not cooked over wood. Both serve slow-cooked pork chopped fine and mixed with vinegar and pepper. Both lack a smoky flavor, but both taste good.
I showed restraint.
No hushpuppies, no banana pudding, no chicken and dumplings. I got small helpings of barbecue and three vegetables and only two (!) corn sticks and just half a small piece of smoked sausage, and then headed to the whole hog. I managed to pull some pork off the hog’s cheeks, and it was really good. The corn sticks were good, but not Parker’s. The fried chicken was very good -– as good as Parker’s. The green beans and the field peas were great. Parker’s doesn’t have field peas – few places do, which is a shame. Bill’s collard greens were chopped extremely fine, however, and ended up as a glob with bad texture and little taste. The steak o’ lean was good, of course.
Nancy had some barbecue and some chicken and salad and cole slaw.
Nancy thought it was all “ok” except for the Brunswick Stew, which she never likes.
Each restaurant has its good points, and you really can’t go too far wrong at either. The real difference between Parker’s and Bill’s is that Parker’s is a roadhouse that, despite its simplicity, reeks of nostalgia and of family. Bill’s is an empire. They can seat 850 people. There is a major catering operation. They catered an AMA meeting in Chicago which, when you think of it, says a lot for the AMA.
There is a separate building for drive-though orders.
They feed a million people a year. They have a convention center. No, really. See?
They have a fleet of 30 trucks. They have their own pig farm.
The owner, Bill Ellis, began with a hot dog stand and built it into an empire through long hours and hard work. The entire uninsured place was flooded up to the ceiling by a hurricane in 1999 -– Lake Ellis it was called -– and Mr. Ellis built it all back again, and added the buffet. It is a remarkable story and he certainly is a remarkable person, much to be admired.
You really ought to stop at Bill’s and hit that buffet at least once. The place is tastefully decorated with a NASCAR theme featuring Mr. Eliis’ car. It is an experience, and well worth your time. And for those of us on the far side of 65, it is only $8.15 per person. To avoid falling asleep at the wheel, stay the night in Wilson. It’s a lovely town, with soaring pine trees and old tobacco warehouses. Have a steak at the Beefmaster or maybe just a sandwich and a beer or two at the Brewmaster. In the morning, have a biscuit at Flo’s -– if you don’t mind the wait.
But we’re Parker’s people. I want that sandwich from Wilber’s. For dessert.