Unforgettable Date Experience in Johnston County, NC (40-mins from Raleigh)

Are you looking for unique date ideas with your special person? And are you growing tired of the same old options in the Raleigh area and looking for new experiences close by? Allow us to introduce you to Johnston County.

Awesome mural in downtown Clayton, Johnston County
Awesome mural in downtown Clayton, Johnston County

Whether it’s daytime or nighttime dates, Craig and I are always crafting unique ways the two of us can connect via experiences. We typically put exploration and travel at the center of it and attempt to do more than one thing.

It can’t just be dinner. We have to add in a cocktail drink (or brewery) before it, and maybe a concert after it.

We drove 40-minutes down to Johnston County from Raleigh in partnership with the visitors bureau for a unique day trip and couples date experience.

Man and lady having dinner at a restaurant
Fantastic dinner date at Crawford Cookshop in Clayton

We started in Smithfield for lunch, shopping, wine tasting, and learning about the life of local sophisticated icon, Ava Gardner, and ended with a delicious dinner and fantastic craft cocktails in Clayton.

We’ve been visiting this county just south of Raleigh since I was first placed in South Smithfield Elementary as a fifth-grade teacher in 2004. I always love returning to connect to those memories but to also see how Johnston County is progressing and growing.

JoCo, as the locals call it, still retains much of its rural charm with experiences to match like fruit picking, Fall farms, wineries, festivals that celebrate mules, and good old southern cooking dripping with good manners and welcoming hospitality.

a women walking into a cafe
The Gilded Pear is a top spot for lunch in downtown Smithfield

But you’ll also find pockets of hipster modern with award-winning chefs and farm-to-table restaurants; classy craft cocktail bars that feel like you’ve stepped into the mountain town of Asheville; boutique stores that support local and important causes; and craft breweries on the move!

If you’re new to Raleigh, you just may be wondering, where exactly is JoCo?

Where is Johnston County?

Shop fronts in Smithfield, NC
Shop fronts on 3rd Street, downtown Smithfield

Johnston County is the next county south of Wake County and is situated at the crossroads of I-95 and I-40. The closest town to Raleigh, and the one that has seen the greatest growth and revitalization, is Clayton, NC.

The other two biggest towns in the area are Benson and Smithfield, the seat of government. Mixed in are smaller rural communities like Pine Level, farms, and plenty of space!

Johnston County is one of the largest counties in North Carolina and has a rich history in farming and agriculture.

Depending on where you are departing from in Raleigh and going to in Johnston County, it can take anywhere from 20-minutes to an hours drive, perfect for a day trip or an evening out.

Lunch: The Gilded Pear Brew House

Lady walking into a cafe
Entrance off E Market St, Smithfield

We began our date experience in Johnston County with lunch at the Gilded Pear Brew House in downtown Smithfield.

The Gilded Pear has been a locals favorite for the past three years and are well known for their crepes – both savory and sweet. And I’m here to tell you, it’s now known for something even better: incredible coffee!

If you know us, you understand how excited we get when we discover a brew that’s worth drinking a few.

a hand holding up a cup of coffee
Very good lattes here

The café has a relaxed gathering feel with upstairs seating, cozy nooks, and modern decorative touches like bright paintings, murals, hanging shelves of plants, and a wooden bookshelf behind the bar.

The wooden floors, high ceilings, and antique furniture bring in a touch of nostalgia of what was once a department store. I loved the seated nooks in the window display where mannequins would have shown off the latest Smithfield fashion. Parents will love the kiddie corner set up in one of them!

a cafe filled with people sitting at tables
A locals favorite for lunch
Woman sitting on a stool looking out awindow
Seated nook in the window

The slower Smithfield pace gives you a chance to linger over lunch and chat (and time for more coffee!). If you’re a people watcher like me, you will enjoy seeing the locals stop at each other’s table to greet old friends and catch up on their news. It’s the Smithfield Way.

a lady sipping coffee in a cafe
Cozy spot to enjoy food and drinks

The menu has a variety of bubble waffles, English muffins, crepes, wraps and sandwiches with modern dishes such as flatbreads with toppings like goats cheese and pear, or sausage with cheese and chili oil. (Many of which can be made gluten free!)

bacon ang egg biscuit
Bacon and egg biscuit

If the corn chowder is on the specials menu, start with a warming bowl of this creamy delight, which is just as good as a clam chowder from up north.

And save room for desserts – with another cup of coffee! Guess what gluten free eaters – there are plenty of options for you including banana bread and Bundt cake!

The Gilded Pear Brew House is a delightful lunch spot. It reminded me of how much I enjoyed teacher workday lunches with my colleagues: good food paired with friendly southern conversations.

  • Address: 234 East Market Street Smithfield, NC
  • Opening Hours: Tues-Fri 8am-3pm; Sat: 8am-2pm

Shop Local in Smithfield

With a full belly, you can now walk the downtown streets (mostly E Market and Third St) to peruse the local retail offerings from boutique clothing, handmade goods, vintage décor, and fine jewelry.

What surprised me on this visit to Smithfield was the growing number of independent stores and boutiques in the main downtown area. 

The Dragonfly Boutique

Cothes hanging on a rack in a boutique store
Trending and affordable clothes

The Dragonfly Boutique is more than a clothing store. It has a mission to empower their customers to live a life of confidence and community.

Owner, and creative, Brittany handpicks each product and even has her own handmade clay earrings line in the store.

Woman looking at a table display in adress store

You’ll find trending and affordable clothes, jewelry, and accessories; many sourced from locally owned and women-owned small businesses.

Don’t miss the beautiful naturally lit reflective space upstairs where you can sit on a swinging chair or leave a request on the Prayer wall.

  • Address: 228 E. Market St., Smithfield, NC
  • Opening Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 10am-6pm, Friday-Saturday 10am-7pm

The Twisted Willow

Shop front ofastore
Third St, downtown Smithfield

What started as a place to house old church pews has turned into a rustic store filled with a wonderful mix of antique furniture, vintage wares, and modern home décor and farmhouse furniture, and lovingly restored church pews!

You’ll be surprised at this hidden gem the minute you open the doors and walk into this unexpected gigantic space over-brimming with goods for your home.

Woman at the counter of a home goods store

The Twisted Willow is in a gorgeous historical building on Third St. Instead of covering over the brick walls and stunning timber roof trusses with a modern look, owners John and Terri kept them exposed, maintaining the historical integrity of the building and allowing eons of stories to seep through.

I couldn’t imagine the Twisted Willow to be any other way!

  • Address: 119 S 3rd St, Smithfield, NC
  • Opening Hours: Wed-Thurs: 10am-5pm; Fri-Sat: 10am-6pm; Sun: 11am-4pm

Visit the Ava Gardner Museum

Woman admiring a poster of Ava Gardner in a museum
Johnston County local

This was our second time visiting the Ava Gardner Museum on E. Market Street and I enjoyed it just as much as the first.

The Museum has been renovated since our last visit and includes brand-new exhibits featuring costumes from Ava Gardner’s five-decade career in film and television, the new Ava’s Husbands Exhibit and Ava’s Collections Showcase with new artifacts loaned to the museum from collectors and Ava’s family.

lady looking at a dress in a museum
Portrait of a woman and dress in a museum
Fantastic collection

Ava grew up just 7-miles east of Smithfield in Grabtown. She starred in numerous Hollywood movies alongside leading men such as Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, and Richard Burton.

You can learn more about the real Ava Gardner away from Hollywood in the interactive room Ava: My Real Story. It dives into her NC roots, important friendships, charitable work, and her love for Frank Sinatra.

Photo of Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra
Two ladies looking ata display in a museum
You can learn so much about her life and career

She was quite the woman of her time: a beautiful leading lady of the 40s and 50s, a strong-willed woman who, demanded feminine independence, and chose to live overseas to escape the limelight – one of the first of the Hollywood elite to do so.

People visit from around the world to visit the Ava Gardner Museum. There’s a short film sharing her life and within the museum are displays showcasing movie posters, portrait paintings, costumes, scripts, and personal effects.

Poster of Ava Gardner in her museum
Mural on side of a building of Ava Gardner
Don’t miss this wonderful mural outside

Each year in October, Smithfield hosts an annual Fall festival in her honor and 2023 is the year for Ava’s 100th Centennial Celebration.

And for your date experience, there are lessons on love in the displays – what worked and what didn’t!

  • Address: 325 E Market St, Smithfield, NC
  • Opening Hours: Mon – Fri 9:30am – 4:30pm; Sat: 9am – 5pm; Sun: 12-5pm

Wine Tasting at Hinnant Family Vineyards

Two ladies looking at grape vines at a vineyard
100 acre vineyard in JoCo

How did I not know about Hinnant Family Vineyards, the largest Muscadine winery in North Carolina? I drank plenty of wine with my teacher friends and none of them told me that the Hinnant Family have been growing grapes on their 100-acre vineyard in Pine Level since 1971.

Sitting on the back patio overlooking the vines here with a glass of wine feels like you’ve stepped into the wine regions of the Columbia Valley, Washington State. 

Woman sitting in a swinging chair drinking wine
Loved these swinging chairs out the back

You may even have a glass of chardonnay that tastes like it. That’s because Hinnant gets the dry grapes from Columbia Valley for the wines they can’t produce in the North Carolina climate. They bottle and label the dry wine range on the vineyard. 

So, if sweet Muscadine wine is not your palate, you’ll be able to find a drier wine to suit. I was quite impressed with their chardonnay, rose, and the Meritage, a wine I had not heard of before, and is quite special with its own special society. 

Meritage is a New World wine blended in the more traditional Bordeaux-style. A red Meritage wine must contain at least two Bordeaux grapes and together they create silky smooth , robust wine which comes highly rated.

What’s also fun are the special labels for each bottle from the dry range. Designed by an artist from Bryson City, each label features a different animal playing a jazz instrument. Line them all up and you get the jazz band! Purchase each bottle and show it off in your home bar. 

6 bottles of wine lined up next to each other
The jazz band of labels

If you like Muscadine – and we tried some that were quite good – you’ll be pleased to know Hinnant has 17 North Carolina varieties.

We enjoyed a wine tasting experience at the bar with Ashleigh who was very knowledgeable about the wines – what kind of food to pair each one with and creative ways to drink them, like a wine margarita cocktail made using their citrusy Wine Candy as a base. 

Lady pouring a glass of wine behind a counter at a winery
Ashleigh was friendly and knowledgable

Be sure to taste the Electric Pelican, their award-winning double gold wine from the 2019 NC State Fair. It’s their best-selling wine and is the perfect summer pairing with spicy shrimp by the beach or pool.

Bottle of wine on a table
Award-winning double gold

You can tour the winery, enjoy wine tasting, purchase wine flights, or wine by the glass. On weekends they have live music and charcuterie boards (best to order in advance).

The winery is located in Pine Level, Johnston County, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Smithfield.

  • Address: 826 Pine Level Micro Rd, Pine Level, NC
  • Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday: 10am – 6pm; Sunday: 12pm – 5pm

Dinner: Crawford Cookshop, Clayton

Two ladies sitting at a bar in a restaurant
U-shaped bar sits at the center of the restaurant

Time to drive 30-minutes north back towards Raleigh to downtown Clayton for dinner at award-winning Chef Scott Crawford’s newest restaurant, Crawford Cookshop.

Scott Crawford is a five-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist for “Best Chef: Southeast,” and the Chef/Owner of award-winning Crawford and Son and Jolie in Raleigh, NC. 

Deviled eggs, wings, and oysters on a table
Our appetizers to start

Scott has proved once again that he understands how to create innovative dishes that pay homage to the local culture, using fresh, local, and seasonal produce from small local NC farms with an ethical focus.

The food at this upmarket casual Clayton restaurant is what Crawford calls Americana. You’re not going to find typical Southern dishes like the hush-puppies and slaw accompanying a greasy chicken sandwich, instead you’ll find traditional dressed up in a Crawford suit.

Bowl of fried oysters
Fried Oysters (Pickled Okra Tartar Sauce, Fennel-Herb Salad)
Bowl of duck wings
Grilled Duck Wings (Hot Honey, Brown Butter, Peanuts)

Dishes like pimento cheese served with brioche toast, fried oysters with pickled Okra Tartar Sauce, Fennel-Herb Salad (even non-oyster eaters will love this) and deviled eggs with pickles and crispy pork rinds – is there a dish that speaks more to the flavor of Johnston County in 2022?

Deviled eggs on a plate
Deviled Eggs

Wings are done three ways: Alabama smoked, crispy hot, and grilled duck wings covered in hot honey, brown butter, and peanuts. The duck wings were my favorite dish of the night with a sweet spiciness that took me back to the streets of Bangkok

Man looking at a duck wing
The duck wings are so good!

Craig’s grilled duroc pork served with cheddar grits and bacon jus was his favorite dish. I can verify that you’ve never tasted a more tender pork in all of your life.

Grilled pork chop on a plate
Grilled Duroc Pork (Cheddar Grits, Bacon Jus, Charred Scallion Relish)

Just as tender and delicious was my grilled NC trout with braised cabbage and fennel.

Piece of trout on a plate
Grilled NC Trout (Braised Cabbage, Fennel, Shellfish Butter)

Leave room for dessert as the celebration of local continues with warm bread pudding, chocolate s’mores pot, and warm apple crisp – the perfect salve to the soul. My gluten-free option was ice cream from Howling Cow – local, creamy, and delicious.

Lady taking a photo of ice cream in a restaurant
Bowl of ice cream
Warm apple crisp

Whatever you order, there will be a creative craft cocktail, local brew, or glass of wine to match.

If you need some ideas, a Beach Buggy cocktail with tequila, mezcal rinse, peach and grapefruit, or the French Connection with Vodka, St Germain, blueberry, and gin.

Proving their dedication to letting local shine, you’ll even find Cheerwine on the menu either as a standalone or mixed into an old fashioned. I’ll pass on the Cheerwine like you’d probably pass on my vegemite. It’s definitely something you grow up on. 

What I really like is the gathering space Crawford has created for the Clayton community inside an historic building on E Main St. It doesn’t feel 1904. 

The restoration is homely, fresh, and simplistic with an almost Scandinavian vibe – sleek booth seating, wooden slats, and soft lighting in a bright and airy space.

People dining at tables at a restaurant

A U-shaped bar sits in the middle of the room and garage doors fully open to the covered patio with fireplace. Be sure to appreciate the giant mural on the back wall above the patio. 

People dining outside at a restaurant
Outside patio area
People dining in booths at a restaurant
We dined in a cozy booth

I felt like I was in Oregon – the lumberjack hipster part that elevates farm-to-table to be more than just a catchy, slap-on label, but a homegrown dedication to making local the star – in whatever style that is.

We’ve traveled enough to know that creating an edge like that is not easy, no matter how effortless Crawford makes it seem. 

  • Address: 401 E Main St, Clayton, NC
  • Opening Hours: Tues – Thurs: 5pm – 9pm; Fri – Sat: 5pm – 10pm

After Dinner Drinks: Revival 1869 (A Drinkery)

Lady sitting at a bar drinking a cocktail
Drink conversations with co-owner Mike Stojic

I was intoxicated by Revival 1869 as soon as we stepped inside the dark interior and breathed in the earthy citrus aromas of their elixirs. What is this place? 

Co-owner Mike Stojic, a twice-deployed former Marine who spent some time at Camp Lejeune sat us down at the bar to explain. 

They’d just finished mixing their homemade tonic and presented it to my nose. For the first time I learned, proper tonic has a tinted color and a rich aroma. I don’t think I’ll touch that supermarket bottle stuff ever again. Apothecary Magic. 

old fashioned cocktail
Old fashioned

Pre-mixed syrups, fake juices, and obscene flavored alcohol are banned at this Clayton bar, which we’ll now call a Drinkery. Revival 1869 only has room for classy cocktails meticulously made with freshly squeezed juices, tonics, and tinctures made on site with real ingredients. 

And yes, you can tell the difference. Light, earthy and refreshing with a hint of magic. You won’t understand what that means until you have your first sip of a Moscow mule with a real ginger zing. I felt seen and healed. 

Deepening my healing journey was the Fresh Cut…Grass, a vodka cocktail with green chartreuse, fresh lime, coconut water, cucumber mint, and topped with a CBD tincture. There’s no guilt needed sipping on a cocktail here!

And if something on the menu doesn’t suit you, you can put your complete faith in long-serving bar staff by telling them what you feel like, and they’ll create a concoction to match on the spot. 

Cocktail glass
Ready Ryete Now (Rye whiskey, Fresh orange, Ginger, Aperol)

Quality doesn’t end there. Mike is meticulous in selecting only the best liquor, which he demonstrated by showing me a bottle of Pluma Negra, an artesanal Mezcal I’d never heard of.

A ladder rolls across the back bar for the staff to pick out your favorite dram, nip, or shot from over three hundred whiskies and spirits stacked upon the shelves.

Liquor bottles on shelves in a bar
Fancy a drink? Take your pick!

Elevating the sophistication of this drinkery is their live jazz, Thursday and Saturday nights. And their patio with heaters, and the welcoming absence of TVs help achieve the Drinkery’s mission of reviving the art of celebration and conversation with new friends and old. 

Like Scott Crawford, Mike chose Clayton as the spot for his unique concept, as he recognized not just Claytons’ phenomenal growth, but its emergence as a community-forward town. One that’s focused on gathering in the town’s main streets to create its own Southern personality that’s now quite a mixed salad of backgrounds. 

Lounge chair in a bar
Awesome decor

Revival 1869 is cool. Not the fabricated kind that tries to copycat a trending formula, but the kinda cool that just IS because it’s an Enigma.

While Revival is not a speakeasy, it has that throwback vibe of an insider secret hiding behind nondescript doors. It reminds me of the Crow & Quill in Downtown Asheville – another bar dedicated to the craft of drinking whiskey in an apothecary kind of space. 

Before you leave, take your drink into the Ava Gardner lounge to close the loop on this JoCo date experience.

Lady drinking a coctail on a lounge in a bar
Ava Gardner lounge

Be sure to read the golden plaque on the wall with her quote, “I wish to live to be 150 years old, but when I die, I want to have a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other”.

I shared with Mike, the quote of Ava’s that resonated the most with me in the museum,

“If I had my life to live over again, I’d live it the same way,”

To live that kind of life you need to be able to crack your own enigmatic code, discover your essence, and keep reviving to continually express that. 

Just be warned. Revival may so captivate you that you’ll need to get an Uber home! 

  • Address: 222 East Main Street, Clayton, NC
  • Opening Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 5-10pm.

If I was to live my date experience in JoCo again, I’d do it the same way! It was fun, unique, and gave us the rich learning and connecting to LOCAL culture experiences that we love.

After 22 years traveling the world together, Craig and I need way more than to just look at each other across a candlelit dinner.

About The Author

Scroll to Top