The Packhouse reimagines classic fare with a down-home treatment
A section of East Morehead Street, known mostly for its sterile law offices, sleepy corporate buildings, and the Dowd YMCA, received a bit of down-home treatment from an Eastern Carolina girl. Just look for the rocking chairs out front.
Restaurateur and philanthropist Deedee Mills recently opened The Packhouse, an homage to her rural Carolina roots that features Southern fare and a transportive interior that leans on the tobacco farming history of Eastern Carolina. This is the third restaurant for the Treehouse Kitchen, Mills’ restaurant group, which oversees the Mayo Bird, Summit Room, and a soon-to-be fourth concept adjacent to the Packhouse called Joe & Nosh, which will serve coffee and quick food.
The Packhouse is representative of the tobacco town of Williamston, N.C., where Mills was born. Inside, the space has been transformed into a comfortably rustic dining room, dripping with remnants of tobacco barns and bonafide packhouses, where cured tobacco leaves were once packed and stored. Tobacco baskets are artfully suspended over the main dining room, while reclaimed tin adorns the private dining room. Large windows look out onto Morehead Street where picnic-style tables and rocking chairs charm the street-side view.
The bar is awash in Carolina-centric décor, including an oversized North Carolina flag directly behind the bar and a large photo of Mills’ grandfather standing in the tobacco fields as a young man. Most impressive is the bar itself, made of tobacco leaves coated smooth with epoxy.
The menu is Southern and makes an effort to support local producers and regional artisans. The watermelon and heirloom tomato salad is a light and refreshing way to start the meal, as is the effervescent Cannon’s Shine & Rise, a cocktail made with muscadine juice (a private label named after Mills’ 9-year-old son, Cannon), prosecco, and lychee puree.
Beneath the “Supper” portion of the menu are tried-and-true Southern staples like skillet tomato pie, shrimp and grits, and sweet tea-brined fried chicken. The “Meat & 2” option included a perfectly crisp cornmeal-crusted trout the night we dined.
Dessert is simple and nostalgic, and features a pie of the day (ours was key lime), and homemade oatmeal cream pie.
Of course, the sweet ending doesn’t stop there. A philanthropic approach is built into each Treehouse Kitchen concept: 10 percent of the restaurant’s profits goes to support Behailu Academy, a nonprofit founded by Mills in 2011 that empowers youth through the arts and community-based service. For a once-lackluster section of Morehead, the Packhouse not only enlivens the block but performs charitable works through a Southern dining experience.
Photography by Michael C. Hernandez