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BIG ED’S CITY MARKET RESTAURANT

Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant in Raleigh is a “big” success story in so many ways. It’s big just because the owner, Ed Watkins, is literally large in stature and substance. His larger-than-life personality and presence add a flavor to the restaurant that only a real character can achieve.

It’s also big on the food and atmosphere fronts, thanks to huge portions served in a warehouse-sized former garage filled with farm implements hanging from the ceiling and practically everywhere else. For all these reasons and more, it’s simply big-time when it comes to restaurants in Raleigh--or anywhere else in the state.

Opened in 1989 in the rejuvenated City Market area near the State Capitol, Big Ed’s is now an anchor for a once-dilapidated area. Watkins, who never made it out of eighth grade, had a reputation for opening and running successful restaurants, and country-cooking fans have made him a Rhodes scholar of food in Raleigh.  He started with Ed's Grill in 1957, and he owned and operated a number of successful restaurants until he was approached by city leaders and convinced to bring skills downtown.

Now, city and state politicians, plus other downtown workers, have a place to call home for breakfast and lunch.

The formula for success in the struggling City Market building was one Watkins had successfully embraced in other venues: serve large portions of traditional country cooking, hire friendly servers and charge a moderate price. A quick look at the menu--and the crowds--confirms that his recipe works.

Watkins is certainly a character befitting the restaurant’s food and ambience, which includes lots of farm tools and supplies from his family farm. This is now a family operation as well. His son, Richard, daughter, Menette, and daughter-in-law, Debbie are actively involved in the business. Ed’s wife, Lynda, is his frequent companion on RV trips, when they sample country cooking wherever they can find it.

Watkins holds court on most days at his reserved table, in his special chair.  He says that dinner menu is handwritten daily and features the dishes his mother prepared while he was growing up on a tobacco farm in nearby Knightdale.

“Everything is prepared fresh that day, just like my mother did for us,” he says.

Open only from 7am to 2pm Monday through Friday and 7am to noon on Saturdays, Big Ed’s serves up some serious country cooking for breakfast and lunch (which Ed still calls dinner). It’s a haven for lots of local workers and residents, with several regulars eating there every day for breakfast, lunch, or both.

The fresh country breakfast menu is an ode to the pig, with practically everything but the “oink” featured somewhere on the list of options. There’s bacon, smoked, patty, or link sausage, seriously tasty (and salty) country ham, and even pork tenderloin. Other breakfast offerings include country fresh eggs (he likes his over medium), grits (“Georgia ice cream”), thick and savory red-eye gravy, hot biscuits, huge hot cakes, omelets, biscuit sandwiches, and more.

The biscuits served at Big Ed's have a reputation all their own, and Watkins says there's one one woman in the kitchen who has the sole job of making the famed biscuits.

“Those biscuits are made just like my momma made them and they can make a poodle pull a freight train," he says.

The mid-day menu typically includes homemade chicken-n-dumplings, as well as fried chicken, chuckwagon steak with onion gravy, and several offerings that Watkins says regulars won’t let him take off the menu under any circumstances. Other popular choices often seen on the menu include country ham, beef tips, catfish, and country-style steak.

Virtually every full meal comes with a choice of one meat, two fresh vegetables, bread, and dessert--Watkins convinces most folks within earshot to order the brownie topped with vanilla pudding or a piece of homemade pie. For their bread basket, many diners ask for more of those famed biscuits. At lunch, many locals top them with thick molasses.

Watkins is quite proud of the huge sparkling kitchen, which diners can see into from practically anywhere in the restaurant. Watkins is also proud of what comes out of that busy kitchen whether it's biscuits or fried chicken.  And any and all leftovers are provided to the Raleigh Rescue Mission each afternoon when the restaurant closes.

Either Watkins or his son are at the restaurant every day, making sure both employees and customers are happy. It’s quickly apparent why Ed has lots of long-term employees--and customers. Whether it's sending over a free piece of pie to a loyal luncher or some other favor, Watkins makes sure everyone is pleased when it comes to great food and service. The bottom of the menu says it for Watkins, but he’ll also say it himself: “If you enjoyed your meal, tell a friend. If not, please tell us.”

From the farm breakfasts to his filling lunches, Big Ed’s means big-time country cooking in the heart Raleigh.