That wasn’t always the case. When the Riverside opened in the 1940s, Exchange Park Lane was one of the major thoroughfares to Hillsborough. The Riverside helped make motorized travel possible. Initially, it operated as a service station called Windy Bill’s, and later expanded with a drive-up window that sold food—of which there was no shortage in Hillsborough.
Leon Lea, one of Riverside’s current owners, writes about Hillsborough in a short history of the restaurant: “It was being criticized in those days saying it had 14 places to eat and nowhere to buy a funeral suit. You had to go to Durham.”
Leon believes that that’s probably still true, saying, “There are always plenty of places to eat.” But the Riverside offers a menu of fresh, slow-cooked vegetables much different than other restaurants in nearby downtown Hillsborough.
Inside Riverside’s small dining area, color printouts pinned near the cash register display an array of sandwiches and a fish plate that is sometimes available. But the focus of the restaurant and its offerings is a short buffet in the back, which offers one meat and two vegetable sides for $5.99. Also front and center is a large painted portrait of a wide-grinned Princess Diana, created for the Riverside by one of its regular customers.
Yesterday at lunch, Dorothy Lea, the restaurant’s co-owner, caught me staring at the sign by the cash register, trying to decide between turnip greens or baked yams. “Oh, that’s not right,” she said, putting down a stack of dishes to erase the board. “Look over here.”
Leon and Dorothy are the sole employees at the Riverside. Six days a week (the restaurant is closed on Sundays) they arrive around 4:45 a.m. to prepare breakfast, which starts at 6:30 a.m. The couple stays until at least 6:30 p.m., and sometimes later, for dinner.
When the Leas took over the Riverside eight years ago and became the restaurant’s seventh owners, they employed other staff. But due to the recent recession, explains Leon, the restaurant has seen a 35 percent dip in business, leaving all the tasks to them.
Dorothy, who grew up in Hillsborough, remembers eating at the Riverside since she was 6 years old. She does all of the cooking from recipes she inherited from her grandmother, whom she cooked alongside for about 24 younger grandchildren. Before opening Riverside, Dorothy ran a catering company out of her home. “We had business, so we decided to open the restaurant,” she says.
Leon, who previously worked for the Pentagon and a fiber optics business in Research Triangle Park, holds a degree in business administration from UNC-Chapel Hill and oversees the books, cash register and the buffet (though Dorothy shares the latter two responsibilities). “Everybody does everything,” Leon says.
Yesterday, in the middle of lunch, Leon came into the restaurant carrying multiple bags of groceries. But most of the vegetables are bought fresh at local markets, says Dorothy. It shows: The yellow squash I ordered retained its sunny summer skin. And on top of the buffet, a basket of plump red tomatoes sat not far above a sweet, baked dish of the same.
While I finished lunch, Dorothy rang up the bill for two of the three other customers in the restaurant, who introduced themselves to her before leaving, offering praises for the pie they’d just polished off.
“Are a lot of your customers regulars?” I asked Dorothy.
“Some,” she told me earlier. “I just wish I could get more people.”
I was sold after the tomato bake and fried cornbread. She definitely got me.