What was lost: Saying goodbye to 3 iconic restaurants that closed in the South in 2021

When 2021 dawned, restaurant owners hoped it would bring a return to normalcy. For many, that was not to be.

The restaurant business already offers its fair share of challenges. Restaurateurs, who often operate on razor-thin margins, this year found themselves battling rising labor and food costs, unruly customers, staffing shortages and a supply chain that's refused to stabilize since the onset of the pandemic

With omicron cases spiking, restaurant workers and owners are once again facing a winter of uncertainty. With yet another COVID surge has come yet another wave of restaurant closures across the county. Some will be temporary. Some will not.

Not all of 2021's restaurant closures were related to COVID-19. Atlanta's iconic Buckhead diner, for example, shuttered after its property was sold. Here are three other iconic restaurants that closed in 2021.

Crook's Corner, est. 1982

Bill Smith spent decades as the chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, starting in 1993 and retiring in 2019. What Smith recalls most fondly are the happy times his diners had at the restaurant, which announced in June that it would close after 39 years. The management cited the pandemic, calling the situation "no longer tenable."

"I always called it the town's drawing-room," Smith said. "My whole deal when I was there was that people should come in, have a good time, and every once in a while look up and say this is really good. And then shut up about the food."

The food, like the restaurant, was unpretentious but always excellent. Under its opening chef, Bill Neal, Crook's Corner made America take Southern food seriously. Neal turned simple but satisfying Southern classics like shrimp and grits, Hoppin' John and the fish stew called Muddle into dishes worthy of coverage in the New York Times. Neal was also an early supporter of cooking with local products.

Smith, when he took over after Neal's death in 1991, added his own now-classic creations to the menu, like honeysuckle sorbet and an Atlantic Beach Pie with a saltine crust.

When it was announced that Crook's Corner was closing, Smith, even though he had left the restaurant years before, got at least a thousand email and Facebook messages. Everyone wanted to tell him how much Crook’s Corner meant to them.

"I was quite sad about something so important not being there anymore," he said.

Fans of Crook's Corner, however, can cling to a glimmer of hope. Although the return of the restaurant is far from certain, Shannon Healy, one of the current owners, said he is working to re-open Crook's Corner.

Upperline, est. 1983

JoAnn Clevenger, wearing one her signature red dresses, was photographed in March 2017 at Upperline, her New Orleans restaurant.

Upperline was not just owned by JoAnn Clevenger. The restaurant embodied her.

Clevenger, after a career running bars, vintage clothing shops and flower carts, opened the Uptown New Orleans restaurant in January 1983. Upperline was part of New Orleans' house bistro movement, when chefs, rather than chasing jobs at the grand, old-school places in the French Quarter, headed to the neighborhoods, converting houses into cozy restaurants and updating the city’s Creole cuisine.

Clevenger, however, was not a chef. She was more like a traditional maître d'. No matter the night, you would see her at the host stand, wearing one of her many red dresses, working the phone and making adjustments to the reservation book with a pencil. She glided through Upperline’s dining rooms, telling stories, introducing people she thought should know each other and whispering bits of harmless gossip. ("See that man over there? He was Rex at last year's Carnival.").

Upperline, on a leafy residential corner, expanded over the years. And nearly every inch inside was filled with Clevenger's collection of Southern art.

The restaurant closed at the onset of the pandemic. Clevenger announced in November the closure would be permanent, but Upperline's legacy lives on.

Even though Clevenger was not a chef, she created Upperline's best-known dish: fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade. As the story goes, and it was told often by Clevenger, she thought it would be wise to play off the publicity surrounding the 1991 movie "Fried Green Tomatoes." It did not take long before the dish showed up on other menus. Today it is a Southern classic.

Most other restaurants never gave Upperline credit for creating fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade, but Clevenger did not seem bothered. She once said that, with that single dish, she probably brought happiness to millions of people.

Hermitage Cafe, est. 1990

The last post on the Hermitage Cafe's Facebook page shows a creased 2007 photograph of the restaurant's founder Pat Taylor, arm around Jon Bon Jovi. The rock star, then 45, had staged a photoshoot at the iconic restaurant for "Lost Highway," his tenth studio album. 

Taylor died in 2014, but the restaurant has endured as an iconic symbol of Music City culture and a relic of "Old Nashville." National television shows "American Diner Revival" and "Nashville" have both filmed there, capitalizing on The Hermitage Cafe's old-school American diner feel.

Hermitage Cafe, as seen on Sept. 30, 2021.

Hermitage Cafe was famous for its affordable breakfast plates, as well as its 10 p.m.-1 p.m. operating hours. It fueled thousands of late nights and early mornings downtown.

In 2017, Tennessean writer Ellen Margulies called the restaurant the Queen of Late Night. Citing its position on a hill overlooking the Cumberland River and ever-growing downtown Nashville, she posited that the view may have inspired "philosophizing and, in extreme cases, songwriting."

"She’s been there long before the rise of New Nashville and she’ll probably be there long after the fall," Margulies said. 

That was not to be, and the restaurant appears to have instead been a victim of New Nashville.

The land on which the restaurant operated for more than 30 years has sold, owner Sherri Taylor Callahan posted on Facebook shortly after she announced the restaurant would close on Halloween 2021.

"(Local restaurants) are unfortunately dying, they are being pushed out," she wrote. "If Covid is not closing these places down, gentrification is," the post said. "Right now mom and pops need the community's support more than ever."