But upon moving here a year ago, Brendan and Leslie Cox noticed that there was really nothing that was casual yet upscale near downtown. The closest thing to that -- the General Store Cafe -- closed earlier this year.
Now, thanks to the Coxes, there is Oakleaf in Chatham Mills, the renovated textile mill that is something of a hub to the small community as it is home to Chatham Marketplace, a grocery co-op; a dance studio; a farmers' market and an architect's office.
Brendan is the restaurant's executive chef, while Leslie, an attorney, takes care of the front of the house along with manager Aaron Hall. The Coxes relocated to the area from Washington, D.C., where Brendan was the executive chef at two restaurants at once. He specializes in French and Italian cuisine with a local and seasonal emphasis, as evidenced by Oakleaf's menu. "I love simple, bold flavors," he says.
For lunch, diners can enjoy a warm wild mushroom salad to start ($7), followed by artisan pasta, tuscan pork and a pancetta ragu ($11). Dinner options include a beet and goat cheese salad ($8), mussels in a saffron-white wine broth ($10) and a hanger steak with fries ($20.50). For brunch on Saturdays, Brendan serves up a farm egg fritatta ($8) and blueberry pancakes with sweet ricotta cheese ($8), among other things. But there's no use in memorizing the menu; Brendan hopes to change it on a daily basis as he builds relationships with local farmers.
The Coxes have three children, ages 5, 7 and 9. They always knew they wanted to settle in the area. Leslie is originally from Sanford and graduated from UNC. Her parents and brother still live in Sanford. Brendan, who is a native of D.C., certainly feels at home. "I love Pittsboro," he says. "If it wouldn't mess up Pittsboro's character, I'd advise everyone to come here."
The Coxes considered opening a restaurant in Chapel Hill but felt there was more of a need in Pittsboro. Plus, they live only about a mile from the mill. They signed their lease at the mill in February, and construction began in March. (The space was pretty much an empty shell.) They preserved its history by keeping the exposed bricks, beams, fire door and large windows. The floor is new to the space but is made from reclaimed wood procured from a tobacco warehouse in Durham. Local metalworkers designed the zinc wall and bartop. "It will get more beautiful as people beat on it," says Leslie of the bar.
The restaurant can seat 66 at tables and nine more at the full bar, although it can accommodate about 100 for private events.
Since opening on May 21, Oakleaf has been, well, pretty slammed. Folks have even driven up from Sanford and Fayetteville. And although Oakleaf makes for a nice date night, the Coxes also want people to feel comfortable. Children are welcome, and a kids' menu foregoes the usual grilled cheese and chicken nuggets. "I think kids' palettes are more sophisticated than we give them credit for," says Leslie. Children can still order a burger and fries, but healthier options include meatballs, grilled fish and grilled steak. (All kids' items include a side and a drink for $7.)
Leslie says she and Brendan would love to open a small retail wine shop next door so that Oakleaf could expand its wine list. But for now, she is celebrating what they have already accomplished. "We'll just enjoy being done with Phase 1 for now," she says. "It turned out better than we imagined. It injects something in Pittsboro it's never had."
And for Brendan, who started out as a dishwasher in college and then slowly moved up the culinary ranks as his passion for food grew, Oakleaf is a dream realized. "I've been cooking for 15 years, and I always wanted my own restaurant," he says.
Check out our slideshow of photos of Oakleaf.
Oakleaf is located at 480 Hillsboro St., Pittsboro. It is open for lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday and brunch on Saturday.