Charleston and New Orleans are lionized food destinations, so why is North Carolina’s Research Triangle also included? You’ll be surprised—and impressed. Chapel Hill (a dapper college town with strong culinary mojo), Durham (home to Duke University and morphing from a sleepy tobacco town to a local foods mecca), and Raleigh (the urbane state capital with only a few standout restaurants) may be different in scope, but collectively the scene is energized and deeply rooted in Southern pride. The farm-to-fork predilection will feel familiar to Atlantans, but a few noteworthy aspects separate the Triangle’s dining scene. Local cooks bask in their heritage, so staples like biscuits and barbecue generally outdo our best efforts, and the upscale Southern restaurants reveal a more relaxed, grassroots sensibility. Hospitality is warmer overall. And while Atlanta thrives on cocktails and beer, the Triangle delights in exceptional, affordable wines. The pace is charmingly slower, and the biggest stress you’ll likely face over a long weekend will be zipping the twenty minutes or so from town to town to fit in all the outstanding dining options.
» Chapel Hill chef Andrea Reusing has had quite the year. She published her first book, Cooking in the Moment, about using the abundance found at farmers markets in practical, pleasurable ways. She also won the 2011 James Beard award for Best Chef Southeast for her Asian cuisine at Lantern, which has been a town darling since it opened in 2002. Reusing doesn’t dabble in fusion until dessert time; many ingredients may be sourced locally, but she holds fast to honest Eastern flavors. An entree of crackly tea-smoked chicken with pork and shrimp fried rice and green beans splashed with XO sauce (an intense seasoning that includes dried shrimp and dried scallops) showcases the love of distinct textures that defines Chinese cooking. Fried okra humming with spices and flanked with hot tomato chutney sings of India. At meal’s end, opt for the steamed pudding scented with yuzu. If you’ve supped in the restaurant’s sedate front room, consider an after-dinner drink in the racier back bar: Wallpaper resembling pressed-tin panels, hidden lights that cast mysterious red shadows, and paper lanterns strung overhead bring to mind a set piece for an East-West spy thriller. 423 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, 919-969-8846, lanternrestaurant.com
» Bill Neal, the founding chef of Crook’s Corner who died in 1991, may not have invented shrimp and grits, but he perfected the pairing, glossing the grits with Parmesan and cheddar and gilding the shrimp with bacon, mushrooms, and scallions. Neal’s masterpiece remains endlessly popular, though Crook’s longtime chef Bill Smith also rotates in seasonal snapshots, which in late summer included figs with country ham and mint sauce as well as mustardy roasted pork tenderloin with green peach salad. With its tiled counters and massive patio, the casual restaurant looks the part of a well-loved college town hangout. 610 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, 919-929-7643, crookscorner.com
» In Carrboro, the small town abutting Chapel Hill favored by Gen-Y progressives, Bill Neal’s son Matt builds exquisite sandwiches at Neal’s Deli. The tiny shop makes its own pastrami, which is as memorable for lunch on a Manhattan (piled with slaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing on rye) as it is for breakfast on a buttermilk biscuit. 100-C East Main Street, Carrboro, 919-967-2185, nealsdeli.com
» I grazed through nearly sixty barbecue joints in the Atlanta metro area last year, and I’m sorry to report that not one of them served nearly as remarkable a chopped pork sandwich as the one at iconic Allen & Son Pit Cooked Bar-B-Que. The comfy shack, on a quiet country stretch about fifteen minutes from Chapel Hill’s nexus, has received accolade upon accolade since it opened in 1970, and it still deserves them. Thick Brunswick stew and crisp-tender hushpuppies are each worth a few bites, but save your appetite for the sublimely smoky pork, which requires a few shakes of pepper-flecked vinegar sauce to give it the requisite North Carolina tanginess. 6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill, 919-942-7576
» Chapel Hill is home to the area’s most satisfying one-two breakfast punch: Caffe Driade serves robust brews from local Carrboro Coffee Company. Just down the street, Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen serves classic fluffy biscuit sandwiches—fried chicken, sausage and egg—from a drive-through window until 2:30 p.m. daily. Caffe Driade, 1215-A East Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, 919-942-2333, caffedriade.com; Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen, 1305 East Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, 919-933-1324
» Chef-owner Amy Tornquist named her restaurant Watts Grocery after a long-gone corner store that served the Durham neighborhood in which she grew up. Splashy colors and easygoing servers set a cheerful tone. Tornquist’s food reminds me of a more laid-back version of Steven Satterfield’s cooking at Atlanta’s Miller Union. Plates like fried puppy drum (a fish popular in Louisiana) over crabmeat custard or peach-glazed pork shanks with butter beans over green beans with crème fraîche engender a sense of place but also incorporate a worldly perspective. Brunch, always crowded, is worth the wait for housemade corned beef and poached eggs or rich caramel French toast. 1116 Broad Street, Durham, 919-416-5040, wattsgrocery.com
» Toast feels like the kind of restaurant we should have in Virginia-Highland but don’t: a stylish little cafe that serves fresh, creative, and quickly prepared food with panache. It trades in bready Italian specialties: bruschetta, panini, and tramezzini, the latter of which translate as ladies-who-lunch sandwiches (link shrimp and sunchoke salad with watercress) with the crusts removed. Crusty panini filled with spicy tuna and olive spread or rapini with Italian sausage, roasted garlic, and Asiago stand out. If you’re too full for the moist ricotta pound cake, get a slice to go. 345 West Main Street, Durham, 919-683-2183, toast-fivepoints.com
CHEF OF THE MOMENT: ASHLEY CHRISTENSEN
The corn soup resembled a bowl of swirled pudding, and each cloudy spoonful melted on the tongue like whipped cream. A precise mound of chopped lobster meat melded oceanic sweetness with the corn’s sunny taste. Leaves of tarragon—a woefully underused herb—lent licorice brightness. I looked up at my tablemate and said, “This reminds me of something that would have floored me at Seeger’s.”
But we weren’t sitting in any rococo gastronomic sanctuary. We were in Raleigh at Poole’s Diner, a former pie shop and luncheonette that chef-owner Ashley Christensen took over in 2007. She kept the diner’s metallic horseshoe-shaped bars and lipstick-red barstools, but her food merges Southern and French sensibilities. Her velvety chicken liver pâté with Grand Marnier and fig compote pleases, but her macaroni au gratin astounds. A pool of creamy, al dente pasta beckons beneath a crusty lid of Parmesan, Gruyère, and white cheddar. The blend of cheeses might be unorthodox to some, but this registers on the palate as straight-up Southern goodness. And there’s nothing European about the fried chicken. Its crust reminds me of Watershed’s Tuesday night fried chicken, with a delicateness that doesn’t overwhelm the meat.
Christensen, a veteran of local kitchens, bought Poole’s with a gambling spirit: Raleigh’s nearby convention center hadn’t yet opened when she came in, and the faded downtown stretch where the restaurant sits wasn’t exactly a draw. But she turned Poole’s into a destination; it doesn’t accept reservations, and it’s mobbed on weekends, though the bartenders pour zippy, seasonal cocktails to ease waits. Christensen is creating the same buzz with a three-in-one concept a few blocks away that she began launching in August. A 6,500-square-foot space that was formerly a Piggly Wiggly houses Beasley’s Chicken Honey, Chuck’s (a burger joint), and Fox Liquor Bar. Beasley’s opened first, giving Poole’s fried chicken a star turn. Mac and cheese marbled with pimento cheese shines among the seven sides. Champagne, which pairs superbly with fried chicken, shares equal space on the drink list with beer and cocktails.
Chuck’s (serving creations like the Dirty South Carolina burger topped with slaw, chili, and fried onions) and Fox (whose drinks are being designed by New York cocktail master Karin Stanley) will be open by the time this article hits the newsstands. But I nonetheless suggest starting at Poole’s, where the fizzy crowd and the exquisitely rendered comfort foods already make it clear that Christensen is single-handedly advancing Raleigh’s dining reputation. Poole’s Diner, 426 South McDowell Street, Raleigh, 919-832-4477, poolesdowntowndiner.com; Beasley’s Chicken Honey, 200 South Wilmington Street, Raleigh, 919-322-0127, www.ac-restaurants.com/beasleys; Chuck’s, 919-322-0126, www.ac-restaurants.com/chucks; Fox Liquor Bar, 919-322-0128; ac-restaurants.com/fox
This article originally appeared in our October 2011 issue.