When I was growing up, my parents and I would go to Breadmen’s nearly once a week. The vestibule, layered with enough posters for local events that the flyers may well have been structural, was always a fascination to me. As my parents settled the check at the counter on the corner of the bar, I would dawdle in the entryway, running my hand over band names I had never heard of, feeling the slight give that revealed how many pieces of paper formed the barrier between my small hand and the actual wall of the restaurant.
For the Venn Diagram of folks who spent enough time in Chapel Hill to get familiar with the blueberry pancakes at Breadmen’s and are reading a blog post on a Tar Heel Blog, the posters full of Tar Heels past (Coach Davis among them, undoubtedly) that covered nearly every inch of wall space in the old building probably felt like home. There was a comfort that permeated every inch of that building, a taproot of home that was always ready to welcome back any Tar Heels that happened to roam. In college, every time I made the trek down 421 South back to the southern part of heaven, Breadmen’s was on the short list of places I had to visit before heading back uphill. I could write a thousand words about the building alone, let alone the majesty that came through the swinging double doors from the kitchen.
I’ve written about Breadmen’s before, as anyone keeping score at home will have already doubtlessly noted. It was a formative place for me, from the days when my go-to order after a tough day of kindergarten was a grilled cheese, a fried egg, and a glass of chocolate milk. It’s always been there, and as such it was my touchstone when referencing the Chapel Hill of my youth. Such touchstones are hard to come by, and as such their loss or change is felt all the more profoundly. That’s why I’m writing about Breadmen’s again now, though the new (singular) iteration opened its doors in September of last year.
I’m a little young yet to be the crotchety old man with the arsenal of “back in my day”s that accompany that distinction, but even I can tell that Chapel Hill has changed. Things that are, were, and seemed like they would always be the same, aren’t. Forests and old buildings around town are being torn down indiscriminately, making room for yet another set of mixed-use residential/retail behemoths. The Carolina baseball team has a coach whose name isn’t Mike Fox. Breadmen’s has changed to Breadman’s, and the old building that was mostly held up by flyers and Tar Heel posters is now a flat slab of concrete. Roy Williams won’t be coaching again on the floor that’s named after him.
I haven’t made it to the new Breadman’s. I’m caught between the call of those blueberry pancakes (or, if they’re in season, the even better strawberry varietal) and the knowledge that there really is no going back. Once I step into the building that I used to know as Japan Express, it will become reality, and the days of grilled cheeses and fried eggs will well and truly be gone. It’ll happen eventually, as it must, but the limbo is comfortable for now.
Things change, but that’s not always a bad thing. To name drop another Chapel Hill staple, Monterrey, after hopping across Fordham Boulevard, can now provide their vital ACP and cheese dip to even more folks at any given time. The food is every bit as good, and the new space is even more comfortable than the loud little room that used to be the hot spot for Tar Heels looking for Mexican food. Nothing gold can stay, as they say, but sometimes things change for the better. If I still lived in the same bedroom I grew up in, the folks who bought my parent’s house a few years back would probably be unhappy with the arrangement. We can look forward to new adventures, even when they replace things that once meant an incredible deal to us.
Next season, there will be a new coach at the helm of the North Carolina Men’s basketball team. Coach Davis has done and said all the right things to get me on board, and I’m excited to see what the team can do under the new management.
After the first win of the 2021-2022 season, I may just make my way down to that new spot on South Elliott Road for a celebratory glass of chocolate milk.