by Eric Ginsburg
It has recently come to my attention that everyone in Greensboro doesn’t know about Stephanie’s II, and even though I don’t eat there frequently, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try to correct this massive affront to this Southern institution.
When Barack Obama knows more than you do about a culinary icon in your city of less than 300,000 people, something is terribly wrong.
His photo is right there on the wall in the entryway, because someone in his cadre knew enough to bring him in for a meal.
Stephanie’s II, a sit-down restaurant with an expansive dining area, grew out of a drive-thru hut just up Randleman Road in south Greensboro. And it may be more representative of the Gate City than just about anywhere else in town.
Very little has changed about the soul-food restaurant in the year or two since I last stopped in: Most of the food is so heavy that it’s not the kind of place one should eat at weekly.
But in my absence, a wider cross-section of people has discovered the beauty of Stephanie’s comfort food. On Sunday, as a gospel radio station played over house speakers, well dressed black families stopping in after church sat near a table where white men sported camo and a metal T-shirt. I never would have expected to see a crew of hungover, mostly white college kids sitting down to chow this far from campus, but there they were, rolling 11 deep in garb that would make Macklemore proud.
The reason that they know about this place, and that Obama does and you should too, is that the food is fantastic: the fried chicken quarter, the half-rack of ribs with meat that practically falls off the bone, the fact that hushpuppies are considered a bread or that you can buy eight meatballs for $8.
Stephanie’s claims to have a world-famous mac & cheese — they even print it in all caps on the menu — but the creamy broccoli chicken & cheese casserole is significantly more memorable. It reminds me of the home-cooked food I’ve eaten at Southern church socials, which is a compliment of the highest order.
Everyone around me seemed to be eating something different. At the table closest to me, a man wearing headphones watched a video on his phone while cutting up his meatloaf, and servers carried by plates with fish filets, a grilled chicken sandwich and popcorn shrimp. One woman even ordered a salad, and a man a table over took on whole fried chicken wings. In other words, it’s everything you’d expect to find at a place like this, and all of it apparently popular.
I returned to Stephanie’s II after an accidental hiatus when a friend said she needed to combat the effects of heavy drinking the night before. There are several things that must be in place to properly heal a hangover like hers: somewhere with no wait, where the food comes quickly, where there are multiple bread options including cornbread and a biscuit, somewhere with an ample amount of fried fare where showing up in sweatpants isn’t a major faux pas.
Stephanie’s II, as the collegiate hipsters still wearing club wristbands have discovered, meets all the necessary qualifications. But this isn’t a typical diner — even when it isn’t Sunday morning, most people are dressed professionally.
But let’s get back to talking about the food, because that’s the reason everyone in and around Greensboro is required to know about Stephanie’s. The normal chicken wings are everything you’d hope for, but the upgrade to the larger pieces of fried chicken is undoubtedly worth it.
And the half-order of ribs, which is almost too much for one person, comes slathered in a savory and messy sauce that melds well with the tender meat. Do not order a full rack of ribs unless you’re eating family style or are planning to save half of it for later. Many of the meals at Stephanie’s II, including the ribs, come with two sides and a bread, delivering more than enough variety to satiate customers.
The only restaurant in Greensboro that may come close is the Universal House of Prayer, a soul food restaurant in the basement of a church across the street from NC A&T University that is set up with a cafeteria-style buffet.
There are vegetarian options at Stephanie’s, especially if you’re the kind that eats fish — flounder, trout, catfish, whiting, fantail and grilled salmon are all on the menu — and there is a veggie plate, but the best purely vegetarian food is on the dessert menu. After all, this is a Southern soul-food standby.
Visit Stephanie’s II Tuesday through Sunday at 2507 Randleman Road, (GSO) or at stephaniesnc.com.