The Forks Cafeteria and Catering has been open for 17 years at their current location in Wake Forest, NC. Apparently they were open for ages before that, but I can’t find any documentation besides word of mouth. All of their employees except one or two have been there for 12 of those 17 years. They serve almost anything you could describe as “cafeteria food” or, perhaps more accurately, “good, homestyle, Southern food, and a lot of it.” My grandfather knows half the people in the joint at any given time, and most of the staff know him too. I still get excited every time he suggests we get the family together and go pig out at the Sunday buffet. Do you understand that we are dealing with the definition of ‘institution’ here?
Don’t journey out to The Forks expecting white tablecloths and romance – the focus here is the food and the friends and the family sitting around those big tables. It is in Wake Forest, which isn’t typically a culinary destination, but has new growth peeking around every corner of their historic downtown area. Don’t expect the finest china and stemware – you will find only melamine here. Don’t expect your vegetables to have any life remaining in them – they have been cooked to death in the most delightful way possible. The squash and onions have been melted down to nothing but earthy sweetness, the fried okra is crispy and cornmeal-crusted, the butter beans make their canned counterparts obsolete. And don’t even get me started on the brown gravy at the end of the line, tailor-made to round out the thick and dreamy mashed potatoes.
As much as I personally love to hate on ketchup as a cover-all for bland food, I have to respect the Forks’ meatloaf, which is topped with ketchup and baked to reduce it to a delicious glaze. It is tender without being mushy, and I have to have it every time I go through that buffet line. Their fried chicken is wonderfully salty, with a wispy crust that crackles at your teeth before giving way to melt-in-your mouth dark meat. Definitely aim for a thigh or drumstick. The chopped pork needs some vinegar, but they have eastern NC-style sauce at the end of the line too, so it’s no problem. Or, act like it’s Thanksgiving and fill up on turkey and stuffing and all the fixin’s. I probably don’t need to tell you about the macaroni and cheese, because it’s too creamy to pass up. I don’t think anyone leaves the line without at least a little scoop. If you prefer your mac cheesy as opposed to creamy, you probably should at least try it to make sure you’re not wrong.
Finish off your meal, and your whole afternoon (you’re gonna nap), with one of their 12 (!) desserts. Notably, the chocolate pie is decadent and topped with fluffy meringue. It practically demands a cup of coffee to cut the sweetness. The banana pudding is awesome as well, with its classic ‘Nilla Wafer layer providing a variety of textures to contrast with luscious hunks of banana.
Restaurant culture is all about elevation, or eating something you couldn’t necessarily have whipped up at home. Lots of North Carolina restaurants spruce up traditional Southern cooking and plate it nicely, and then elevate the price, too. I think Southern food is especially hard to make fancy, perhaps due to its humble origins and unfussy attitude. The Forks, and specifically the buffet offered during Sunday lunch for around $15, does not mess around with any frills. They elevate what could be written off as mere cafeteria food into a lesson on bringing ‘homestyle’ to the dining world. They also offer an a la carte menu of rotating classics on the other 6 days of the week at an impressive price point. Don’t sleep on The Forks – or go ahead, it’ll probably be here when you wake up.
Nathan Griesedieck is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and Raleigh native who works in the transfusion service at Duke University Medical Center in Durham – a true-blue Triangle foodie in every sense of the word(s). He spends most of his downtime either learning and thinking about food, or in his (tiny) kitchen making it for his girlfriend and best friend, Sarah. You can find him on Instagram (@n8greasy).