Free Book Friday: Magnolia Grill edition

Ben and Karen Barker, owners of Magnolia Grill (photo by Ann Hawthorne)

Update 6/1/12, 3:10 pm: We’ve thrown names in the hat from commenters here, on Facebook, and on Twitter, and we drew the name of Franziska Korb (FB commenter) as the winner! Congratulations, Franziska! Thanks to all who contributed. This was a totally drool-worthy comment thread. May we all dine on as Ben and Karen taught us: “Not afraid of flavor!”

We’re bidding a sad farewell this week to legendary Durham restaurant Magnolia Grill, owned and operated for nearly 26 years by Ben and Karen Barker. As Andrea Weigl writes in the Raleigh News & Observer:

No other chefs have put the Triangle dining scene on the national map like this husband-and-wife team who met their first day of school at the Culinary Institute of America.

The Durham Herald-Sun’s Cliff Bellamy writes:

“They integrated real farm-to-fork 25 years ago,” said Scott Howell, owner of Nana’s in Durham. “They were working with farmers before it became fashionable.” Howell was a sous chef at Magnolia Grill before he started Nana’s. He said the Magnolia will be greatly missed.

[. . . ]

The Magnolia Grill opened in 1986, and was a forerunner of Durham’s many independent restaurants that specialize in seasonal, and locally grown and produced ingredients. Many current restaurant owners in the Triangle are alumni of the restaurant. The restaurant has given Durham national recognition over the years. Both Ben and Karen Barker are recipients of the James Beard Award, and the restaurant frequently made Gourmet magazine’s list of best restaurants in the country.

Free Book Friday from UNC Press We’re sorry to see the doors close at Magnolia, but we congratulate the Barkers on a wonderful run and wish them well as they begin the next phase of their lives. And when we get to craving the flavors that made the Barkers famous, we’ll turn to their cookbooks and have a Magnolia Grill night in.

We’re celebrating the restaurant and its talented chef-owners with a special Free Book Friday giveaway. Enter our drawing to win both cookbooks (in hardcover) and you can have your own Magnolia Grill night any night of the week. Reservations were booked solid within days after the Barkers announced the restaurant’s closing, so if you haven’t experienced their sensational dishes in person before now, here’s your chance to learn what all the fuss is about.

Not Afraid of Flavor: Recipes from Magnolia Grill, by Ben and Karen BarkerNot Afraid of Flavor: Recipes from Magnolia Grill, by Ben and Karen Barker

From spectacular soups to inventive updates of classic American desserts, this beautifully illustrated book features more than 125 exciting recipes from Magnolia Grill. While not strictly Southern, many of the dishes display a Southern sensibility–making creative use of regional ingredients or offering a new twist on a familiar favorite. Clear, detailed directions encourage readers to try such “fearless” creations as okra rellenos, spicy green tomato soup with crab and country ham, pan-roasted duck breast with sun-dried cherry conserve, striped bass with oyster stew, wild mushroom bread pudding, brown sugar pear poundcake, and Jack Daniels vanilla ice cream.

Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker's American Desserts, by Karen BarkerSweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts, by Karen Barker

Award-winning pastry chef Karen Barker draws on memories of her Brooklyn, New York childhood and years of professional baking experience to present a collection of more than 160 recipes for classic American desserts for the home cook, from fruit pies and fritters to cookies and ice creams. Includes Barker’s signature (and favorite) recipes: my cousin Steve’s cheesecake, cocoa fudge sauce, blueberry-blackberry pie, cornmeal vanilla bean shortbreads, blackout cake, key lime coconut pie with rum cream, and chocolate chestnut roll.

So how do you win?

The Barkers are all about bold flavor, so to win their books, you’ve gotta prove you’re a fan of flavor. Give us a brief description of the best meal you’ve ever had—leave a comment here on the blog, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #UNCFreeBookFriday.

At 3 pm Friday, June 1, we’ll throw everyone’s names in the hat and draw one name. We’ll post an update here to announce the winner.

The fine print: Must be a U.S. resident. UNC Press and Longleaf Services employees are not eligible.

The backup plan: If you’re not the winner of our giveaway, we’d still like to say thanks and offer you a 20% discount when you purchase the books through our website. Either book is available for $34.95 $24.00 hardcover and $22.00 $17.60 paperback. Just enter the code 01ENEW at our online checkout to receive the discount.


  1. The best meal I ever had was at an Indian restaurant in Scotland. It had been voted best Indian food in Britain and it was obvious why. The food was vibrant and alive with flavor as the spices melded perfectly together. The dishes went beyond your normal Indian fair to feature gourmet versions food from a region not normally served in restaurants here in the states. Wish I could go back for a second helping…

  2. I actually remember the first meal I ever ate at Magnolia Grill, and I frequently describe my first taste of twice-baked grit souffle and the venison I had that night in glowing terms. Today, the favorite meal I’m remembering is a fall lunch in Wellfleet, MA, sitting on a balcony overlooking Cape Cod bay: Portuguese fish soup–hot, spicy, steamy, full of tomatoes, fish and shrimp. Crusty bread. Cold beer. The feel of the sunshine, the smell of the salt water, my partner’s smile across the table. Total package: great food, great place, great company, great memory.

  3. Magnolia Grill has always given me an amazing food experience and they will be missed! I was lucky enough to get a reservation a few months ago and I soaked up every minute of my 2.5 hour meal. Good restaurants are few but GREAT restaurants like Magnolia Grill are rare. Sad to see them go but cant help but be happy for Ben and Karen.

  4. The best meal I have had has come in the smallest bites. While honeymooning in Spain, I got a chance to eat at a small place called Quimet i Quimet. It is slightly bigger than an office at work and the two people behind the bar (one being the owner.. it is a family establishment) sling drinks and montaditos (small sandwiches) with toppings like fresh tuna, caviar and honey to something simpler like a strong cheese and candied chestnuts. It was delicious relatively cheap and a true spanish experience.

    To give you an idea, take a look at this link from NYT to see just how tiny the place is.

  5. I am sorry that I never got to eat at Magnolia Grill. One of my more memorable meals was at a little restaurant along the banks of the Neretva River in Mostar, then Yugoslavia, now Bosnia and Herzogovina. This was in the late 1980s, before the war. I remember we had extremely fresh fish and a delicious meat platter (mešano meso) and some salads. What really made the meal stand out was the great view of the famous Mostar bridge that the restaurant had. Not many years after, the bridge was bombed during the war and my family and I always looked back on our trip with sadness.

  6. The best was at a tapas restaurant where we had plate after tiny plate of some really incredible dishes. It ended with a pastry that was drizzled with a chocolate sauce that I haven’t managed to replicate yet.

  7. Wow, that is a tough one, best meal… I remember a family dinner that my friend Ed’s in-laws-to-be threw for his groomsmen a couple of weeks before the wedding. They were first generation Italian-Americans and the array of delicious home-cooked foods was absolutely stunning. I think they were relieved to find out that their daughter would be marrying into a culture that loved their food and loved to eat.

  8. The best meal I have ever eaten–a petit filet steak seasoned and cooked to perfection with a side of mouth-watering fried green tomatoes. It was food heaven. Would love to win books highlighting bold flavors from such celebrated chefs!

  9. Unfortuately I did not make it to Magnolia Grill. I know their culinary creations and legacy will live on through the people they inspired and palates touched. I would love to have these cookbooks.

  10. Sign of a landmark restaurant that someone who won a gift certificate a year ago now can’t get in to use it. Best of luck with the next chapter.

  11. My best meal: a creamy soup made with wild mushrooms and dill, from a restaurant in Warsaw, Poland. I still dream about those flavors.

  12. The best meal I ever had was about 20 years ago at a B&B/restaurant in Sturgeon Bay, Door County, Wisconsin. I had ravioli, didn’t finish it, and still regret that I forgot to take the leftovers with me.

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