Why did a fire in Fayetteville cause a panic in Chapel Hill?
When I got word about the April 9 fire that destroyed the Haymont Grill in Fayetteville, a little bit of me got destroyed, too.
The Grill was a few blocks away from a house at 1805 Bragg Blvd., into which I and seven other lieutenants had stuffed ourselves while we were stationed at Fort Bragg in the early 1960s. The Grill became our favorite eating place, in part because Pete Skenteris, the longtime owner, took care of us. In early 2015, he told Chick Jacobs of the Fayetteville Observer, “Once someone comes once, they keep coming back. They become our friends, not just customers. We use only fresh ingredients, fresh ground beef, and seafood.”
I think he told me the same thing in 1963.
Since then, whenever I passed through Fayetteville, I tried to stop for a bite to eat and for a visit with the Grill’s current clientele and with Skenteris, who had taken care of my roommates back then and thousands of others like us since then.
So you can understand why the far away fire took away something from me. But the Chapel Hill panic about the fire was about more than my memories.
If you read this column regularly, you may remember that I have written about Haymont Grill several times recently. I used it as an example of the kind of place I wanted to include in my new book titled “North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners, and Barbecue Joints” to be published in October by UNC Press as a part of its Southern Gateways Guides series.
Looking for old-time, locally owned, restaurants that are community gathering places, ones that are close enough to the big highways for travelers to find them and, rather than loading up with franchise fast foods, have a meal with the locals, there could be no better find than Haymont Grill.
The fire that gutted the Grill caused an estimated $750,000 in damages. Almost nothing survived except the iconic sign “Hamont Grill” that perched atop the building. Why was it Hamont and not Haymont? That abbreviation came about because a sign with six letters cost $5,000 less than one with seven letters, and in the early days Skenteris needed to save every dollar he could.
Large cranes were required last week to lift and clear the big clumps of debris from the restaurant site, which is still secured for safety reasons.
No one knows, probably not even Skenteris, whether he will try to rebuild and restore the work of his lifetime. If he does know, he has not told others. He says he must wait until he gets reports from insurance company investigations and, until then, “There’s nothing I can do but sit back.”
Meanwhile, back in Chapel Hill, UNC Press has completed the design and formatting of “North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries,” including a long and loving description of the Grill and a beautiful photo of its “Hamont” sign.
“In a few days, it will be too late to make a change without incurring great expense,” my editor told me when he learned about the fire. “You can remove the Haymont description now, but it has to be now, not later. We think it’s best. Otherwise your book will be out of date when it’s published. But we have to decide now.”
Finally, I agreed to remove the listing. The book will not be the same without the Grill.
Nor will my world be the same without knowing that Pete Skenteris and the Haymont Grill are waiting to welcome me back to Fayetteville.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.