Paul’s Place is a quick service restaurant selling mostly “famous” hot dogs on U.S. Route 117 in Rocky Point North Carolina, just a few miles north of Wilmington. The “Paul” of Paul’s Place is not an informal first name, but the family (last) name of the extended family who has operated a Paul’s Place in the Rocky Point vicinity since 1928.
The truly “famous” part of Paul’s Place is not the frankfurters themselves, but the relish applied. According to Paul’s Place own advertised history, the proprietor, Beverly Paul, was forced to come up with a new idea to replace the meat chili most customers clamored for during the meat rationing days of World War II. Mr. Paul’s bright idea came in the form of an unusual relish that copied the color of meat chili, if not the consistency and ingredients. The relish is pickle based, as most relishes are, supplied by the vast truck farms that permeated Eastern North Carolina. But, where as the average pickle relish is mostly finely diced pickles, Paul’s “special relish” as it is called, contains other ingredients.
I don’t know the ingredients, and I am sure Paul’s Place likes it that way. What one tastes is vinegar, ketchup, mustard and red pepper, the same ingredients that make up the tangy, simple sauce Eastern North Carolina cooks baste their pork barbecue with. The tang is there, but the consistency thicker, chunkier, to mimic meat chili. The magic comes when your taste buds realize Paul’s Place relish tastes better than hot dog chili ever could.
Paul’s Place occupies a seat at the table in my family lore. My paternal grandfather loved this place, discovered most likely on trips from his home town of Faison North Carolina down to Wilmington North Carolina, a little over an hour away, for military service and work. During the post-war travel boom, the restaurant’s location brought it many travelers; it being roadside with US Route 117, the main artery connecting most of North Carolina and Virginia with Wilmington and the vacation beaches beyond in the pre-Interstate 40 days.
Years later, as a married man with two children, he would drive the family down to Paul’s Place after church for lunch. A bit esoteric when a man driving from Faison to Rocky Point drives right past several dozen perfectly fine restaurants in the hour-long trip. But, somehow worth it to him.
My father grew to like Paul’s Place famous hot dogs too, and felt he couldn’t drive past without stopping. Thus, it was plain and clear we would be eating Paul’s Place hot dogs on the way to our annual or semi-annual trips to Carolina Beach, the vacation spot where he and my mom met as teenagers.
A visit to Paul’s Place is a vivid experience to begin with. You’ll first notice the building, the last of the old non-chain roadside restaurants; open, airy, with lots of windows, wood trim around the doors, flooring and crown molding. Below the large pane windows are built in shelving with formica tops and metal beveling. The shelving advertises 2 liter bottles of soda to go, fishing gear and sunglasses; items one might need on their way to the beach. Interspersed with these beach needs are Paul’s Place t-shirts and hats. Much of the t-shirt stock is of camouflage design, white silkscreen paint imprinted over the pattern, advertising the famous hot dogs. The hats are packaged individually in thin, billowy plastic, to keep the dust off.
Towards the back of the large room is a L-shaped counter. To the right, behind the longer side of the “L,” stands in display cases and shelves an under-utilized convenience store of old; offering nabs and headache powders, long johns and small toiletry items like toothbrushes and nail clippers.
The shorter length of the “L” counter offers the hot dogs and other items. There is enough counter space for one person to order, much of the counter taken up by the fountain drink dispenser. Two or three employees stand here, taking and filling orders. Behind them stands a short order grill, which can produce ham and cheese sandwiches, burgers and fries, though I have never consciously seen anyone order any item on the menu other than a hot dog.
Watching the employees make the hot dogs fascinate me at Paul’s Place. As you tell one person how many hot dogs you want, and how you want them, another employee, seemingly oblivious to your presence in the room, starts to assemble hot dogs. They pull at what I think is the old-type soda bottle cooler, the hulking metal body sheathed in bright red paint like a 50’s Chevrolet, with chrome sliding doors on the top. If I am correct in this, the owners have somehow rigged this cooler to steam instead of cool. One door is slid back, and steam rises out from a bubbling vat of frankfurters. Another door is opened where appears white enriched bread buns, steaming in a separate compartment.
You can ask that your dogs be dressed any way you like, but a sign above instructs that at Paul’s Place, “All the way means Paul’s relish, mustard and onions (as the photograph above illustrates). Three hotdogs and a large soft drink are the perennial “special,” which will set you back less than 5 bucks. I find that the soft drink they sell the most of at the fountain, Sun-Drop, is the perfect accompaniment. The gritty citrus taste may be the only beverage other than beer (which is not sold at Paul’s Place) that can neutralize the tang of the relish.
Everyone has their favorite details when it comes to enjoying food, and Paul’s Place delivers on those details with me. I like my hot dog buns steamed, not toasted or thrown up on the fry surface of the grill. The somewhat pedestrian white bread buns would seem boring for most sandwiches, but here act like grits do with breakfast, not so much the star of the show, but the vessel in which the flavor-delivery device is carried from the plate to your mouth. The frankfurters seem all beef with a good taste, and are devoid of the red dyes some feel make hot dogs look like “hot dogs.”
And, unlike most hot dog joints, the frankfurters and buns are really just playing second fiddle to Paul’s Special Relish. Amped up a bit by the diced onions the relish takes over. You taste the hot dog, yes. But, you remember the relish.
If you visit soon, and are as taken as I am with the special relish, Paul’s Place will sell you a mason jar full of relish to enjoy in the comfort of your own home.