Why would you possibly drive nearly 90 miles for dinner? The answer is simple: When the dining experience rivals – and perhaps eclipses – most places you’ve eaten in the Triangle.
In what may be one of easiest drives eastward you’ll ever encounter, our recommended journey will take you to historic Tarboro. Home to approximately 11,000 residents, this Edgecombe County town ranks among the oldest in the state. It was established in 1760.
Just a stone’s throw from the county courthouse in downtown Tarboro sits On the Square, a culinary cornerstone that has made an indelible mark on the community and well beyond.
By day, On the Square operates as a casual, counter-service lunch eatery featuring items like fried oyster salad, a classic Reuben sandwich and a stellar pimento cheese Angus burger served alongside golden-crisp, hand-cut fries. Guests take a number, and they fill their own cups with sweet tea, soft drinks or water.
Wednesday through Saturday evenings, the restaurant transforms into a fine-dining destination with linen table cloths, candles and fresh flowers on the tables. You’ll find locals intermixed with diners from Greenville, Rocky Mount, Wilson, Raleigh and elsewhere. They all come for upscale American cuisine sourced with local, seasonal ingredients.
“The dinner menu changes every two weeks, so that helps us to provide a good variety to our guests,” said Frances Liverman, former owner and general manager. (The Tarboro native retired shortly before publication.)
Another solid reason for making the drive is an award-winning wine selection and an onsite wine shop. On the Square made Wine Spectator magazine’s 2019 list of North Carolina restaurants with the best wine.
“We offer retail wine as well as wine served in the restaurant,” said Alice Webb, the night floor manager, who lives just a short block away from work. “If you like something you have while here, you can always purchase some to take home afterward.”
When it comes to the food, start your meal with a serving of cornmeal-dusted fried okra or a plate of steamed mussels infused with bacon and green onion. Or order the grilled Romaine with blue cheese, buttermilk ranch, grape tomatoes, bacon and balsamic reduction drizzle.
In the mood for fresh seafood? Consider pan-seared beeliner snapper, a shellfish trio or grilled amberjack with miso marinade.
A signature petite filet mignon with fried onion ring arrives alongside a tantalizing beurre rouge reduction sauce and carrot-potato mash. Popular chicken scaloppine is served atop orzo pasta with a lemon cream sauce.
Whatever you do, save room for dessert. Choose from among four scratch-made concoctions like crème brulee, cheesecake or fried apple pie. The hands-down winning option, though, is a well-executed chocolate molten cake that will make your taste buds celebrate.
Interestingly, every Wednesday is sushi night at On the Square. It’s just one more thing that makes the restaurant so distinctive.
“There are a limited number of other items available on Wednesdays, like a steak with an Asian flair, stir fry or a tempura fried shrimp,” Webb explained.
Meals are delivered to tables by friendly, well-trained servers eager to recommend a dish or help you pair the perfect wine with your food.
Everything happens in a building constructed in 1871. Plank wood floors ooze antique charm and vintage black-and-white photographs hang on vibrant yellow walls.
Proprietors and advanced sommeliers Stephen and Inez Ribustello stay busy running several business ventures along with On the Square, including Tarboro Brewing Company and TBC West Tacos & Taproom in nearby Rocky Mount.
While Tarboro is Inez Ribustello’s hometown, Stephen Ribustello grew up in New York. The couple met and began dating while working together at the World Trade Center’s renowned Windows on the World restaurant. Their lives changed forever on 9/11.
The Ribustellos lost friends, colleagues and their livelihood in the deadly terrorist attack. Soon afterward, the couple decided to leave the city. They moved to Tarboro and ultimately began running On the Square.
Not surprisingly, Tarboro residents seem to have a particular fondness for their town’s most notable bistro.
“It’s local people running a great farm-to-table style restaurant, offering something that we didn’t have before they came,” said Sammy Anderson, who co-owns an insurance agency next door to the restaurant.
“The great thing about On the Square is that you get to enjoy an historic small town while you have an urban experience with the food,” Webb said. “It also could be considered a layover destination for people who are on the way to the beach.”
On the Square is open Monday through Friday for lunch and Wednesday through Saturday for dinner. Reservations are strongly recommended.
On the Square
115 E. Saint James St., Tarboro
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