Hector's Odyssey

Hello h'yer! What I'd like to file a report on now is the triumphant return of Hector's to this plane of existence. For those who don't know, Hector's is my favoritest place of all time to eat at, with the occasional exception of my mama's kitchen. (Oh, them biscuits!) Many years ago, fire and insurance companies conspired to take my beloved Hector's from me, like unto a soothing maternal teat stripped senselessly from a blind suckling pup. Now the teat is back. And indeed, the only thing that disappoints me is how anticlimactic my first new suckle was.

I had envisioned for years, in great detail, being there on Grand Ribbon-Cuttin' Reopening Day, stepping up to the counter with pride to order my double cheeseburger on pita with chili and everything, and, as my teeth sank into the charred, orange-greased amalgamation of beef and fat and love, I would weep. Deeply and profoundly bawl like a toddler.

But ah, heck... I missed out on the first day. They opened Hector's and nobody told me. The nerve.

I finally made it for lunch a few days later, and I actually thought as I walked up the stairs: am I gonna cry? I kinda wanted to. But I couldn't. I didn't feel it in my heart like I thought I would. Something just wasn't there, but I wouldn't figure it out just yet.

The owners of Hector's New Hector's is just like old Hector's, only it's on the floor above where it used to be, it's got more seating space, and it's a lot cleaner. There was maybe one person there eating when I came in. And the staff behaved differently. They were friendly and courteous. They chatted with me and, when the chef felt that he had improperly jostled the contents of the pita when he gave it that final flop-over, he offered to make me another one if I didn't like that one! Mind you, he didn't dump my lettuce and chili all over the floor or anything: everything remained within the confines of the pita, it just didn't crease as symmetrically as it might with a protractor and a pair of forceps. This could have had no conceivable impact upon the burger's taste or value, but this honest craftsman felt he had just plain screwed the pooch.

Now, the burger was extraordinary, utterly satisfying, and just about brought me to orgasm, but any true Hector's connoisseur can easily tell me that something is eminently wrong with this scenario:

The people at Hector's are NOT nice!

Hell, in the olden days, you were lucky if they even bothered to take an order from your sorry ass! After enduring a queue that could easily wrap around to the door (at lunchtime as well as after the bars closed), you got grunted at by some swarthy greaseball who might not even speak English, or maybe that legendarily pompous guy with glasses and the beard who yelled out "Next, PLEASE!" like some kind of grandiose Roman centurion calling forth the next piece of chattel to be thrown in the lion pit. When I first went into Hector's as a UNC freshman, I was fucking SCARED. My first knowledge of the place came on my C-TOPS orientation outing, as we walked past it and someone whispered, "Ooooh, that's Hector's! Never eat there! That place is nasty! The food there'll kill ya!" True, at that time Hector's had a "C" sanitary rating. In all my sheltered, Mayberry-like days of restauranteuring, I had never even seen a "B." Hector's was one of my first indicators that Chapel Hill wasn't Kansas, Toto. Ordering at Hector's was a complex ritual that you were expected to know and follow to the T. First you gave your order to the cooking guy. As he fixed your food, you went on down the line until the cash register guy made eye contact with you. Then you repeated your order to him, in its entirety, so he could ring you up. What a faux pas to go "Huh?" when register guy looked at you! I remember my roommate Ullie telling me of some unfortunate friends from State who had difficulty with the protocol. "Even I did better than that my first time at Hector's!" Ullie laughed. And heaven only knows what the consequences might be if you lied and gave register guy a cheaper order than what you really got. I guess that would be your ass, because you're damned straight they'd know, somehow.

You see, Hector's knew they made fuckin' good food, and everybody who was worth a damn knew they made fuckin' good food, so they didn't have to impress anybody with good manners. Once I understood that, I fell in love with the place. It was like a big and yet exclusive club, redolent of this satisfying brand of unseemliness borne of implicit and intimate respect. It's just like Peter O'Toole can go on Letterman drunk off his ass with his hair fucked up wearing an ugly-ass suit, but he still gets a standing ovation because everyone knows he's already proved that he's The Man. "This is Hector's, by God, and if you don't like it, you can fuck off." And Hector's could afford to be that way, because it had been there goddamn forever. Famous since 1969.

But unknown since 1991.

An entire generation has matriculated through Carolina without Hector's. The students there now know only of Hector's through oral legend or because they ate there in grade school. Hector's no longer possesses the clout to tell you to fuck off. They're just another new business, out to build a consumer base via cleanliness and good customer service. They have an "A" rating. The rack of gyro meat is encased in a hyperbaric gyro-scopic chamber, rather than rotating perilously amid the flies and slung chili driplets. They apologize for non-Euclidian pita assemblage. And this, my friends, is why I could not weep for Hector's. The food is back, but the place is only a cherished memory. And this perhaps is really worth crying over.

(Originally published in The Lard Letter, September 1995.)

D. Trull