Pack Your Bags: We’re Heading to the Carolina Inn

When I think of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I think of it as the quintessential Southern town.  Delightful shops and charming bistros surround the state’s oldest public university, which just happens to be my alma mater.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founded in 1789, is the core of this Southern, North Carolina town.  Certain landmarks, however, will forever be associated with this university town.  One of those landmarks is The Carolina Inn.  Since 1924, it has welcomed guests to stay and relax in the heart of the university campus.

The Carolina Inn is in a great location in Chapel Hill, NC.
A guest can park his car, and not get back in it until it is time to depart.
The inn is rich with Carolina history, and is the essence of Southern hospitality and comfort.  In fact, a man after my own heart, John Sprunt Hill, class of 1889, built the inn after spending the night in a rundown hotel on Franklin Street in 1921.  Unable to sleep, Hill took a walk on campus in the middle of the night and discovered a vacant lot in the moonlight.  Right there, he envisioned a beautiful and cheerful inn for visitors and alumni to enjoy.  Three years later, Hill opened The Carolina Inn with its antebellum beauty and welcomed guests for the first time. 

Carolina Inn in its early days
Image courtesy of The Carolina Inn

The Hill family generously donated The Carolina Inn to the University in 1935, with the stipulation that the profits, after expenses, were to support the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library. Today Destination Hotels and Resorts manages the inn for the university, but the inn remains true to its Carolina roots.  Guest rooms and hall corridors display notable alumni and faculty. It really is like a museum. 

Images courtesy of Carolina Inn

This black and white hallway is stunning. 

When Will and I walked into the inn, we were immediately mesmerized with the inn’s birdhouse parade.  

The lobby of the inn reminds me of a formal, stately living room
Over 100 unique birdhouses greet guests in the lobby as part of the inn’s 11th annual Celebration of Spring through April 8.  These are some of my favorites. Some of them you cannot even imagine are birdhouses.

Through the annual birdhouse parade, the inn showcases the talents of local NC artists. 

I’ve been to the inn several times for weddings, and it is an absolute favorite place of mine for afternoon tea, but until last week I never had dined in the award-winning, Carolina Crossroads restaurant.  It is one of three restaurants in North Carolina with a Forbes Four-Star rating, and is also a AAA Four-Diamond rated restaurant. 

On this particular spring evening, we were guests of the inn and Executive Chef Jimmy Reale. We attended a special media dinner to preview Chef Reale’s new Spring Menu for the restaurant.  Each season, he adds new items to the dinner menu in addition to the restaurant’s tried-and-true favorites like grilled sweet tea brined N.C. chicken, and oven-roasted N.C. catfish. 

The inn’s famous chicken pot pie and shrimp and grits are popular lunch entrees.  Chef Reale told us that these menu items have been so popular in the 13 years that he’s been head of the culinary team at the inn that he can never replace them or there would be a riot.

An inn favorite is sweet tea brined chicken.
Image courtesy of The Carolina Inn 
With that said, this talented New York-born chef still likes to change things up a bit each season, and he loves to incorporate food from his Italian-Lebanese family, but he rounds it out with a little Southern flair since this is the South, after all.  We’ll also claim him as a Southerner because although he was born in New York, he spent his childhood in Fayetteville, North Carolina. 

The Spring Menu at The Carolina Inn is divine. Here are a few of Chef Reale's creations that we enjoyed at the preview dinner.  Top photo: (L to R) Bittersweet Chocolate Bourbon Cake, Crunchy Praline Ice Cream, Caramel Sauce, Raspberry Lambic Sorbet, Lemon Cookies, White Chocolate Croquant, and Cherry Almond Streusel Cake, Double Chocolate Ice Cream, Cherry Drizzle.  Bottom photos: Korean Salmon Cake, Organic Buckwheat Noodle Salad, Sesame-Cucumber Salad, Cashews, Ghost Chili Oil, Ginger Vinaigrette, Spring Pea Soup, Smoked Bacon, and Greek Yogurt Tasting, Roasted Baby Beets, Blood Orange, Grilled Lavosh, Local Micros, Hillsborough Goat Cheese, and Broken Vinaigrette

We sampled nine courses, and they were amazing.  By the ninth course, I didn’t think I could take another bite. My photos don’t do the entrees justice, but each one delighted the palate. 

Reale begins planning the next season’s menu the day after one season goes live.  He plans his menu based on what is in abundance at each season’s farmer’s market and works very hard to strengthen the inn’s relationship with local farmers.

Chef Jimmy Reale and me. His wife is also named Leigh.  He has two children, and of course, loves Carolina basketball. 

I cannot tell you how impressed I was with Chef Reale’s culinary creations.  I will definitely visit Carolina Crossroads again.  Except next time, I want to walk upstairs to this lovely guestroom and start the next day with a delicious Sunday brunch.

Deluxe guestroom at The Carolina Inn 

But that will be another story!  However, I do have a recipe surprise for you this Friday compliments of Chef Reale.  Foodies will rejoice in the kitchen.  Stay tuned!

Want to Go: 
211 Pittsboro Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

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