Consider the Capital
Raleigh’s identity hasn’t always been easy to pin down. As North Carolina’s capital city, it has the legislative aura and shiny high-rises you’d expect. It’s also part of the Triangle—the tri-city region touted for academia and innovation. But where Durham has its signature grit and Chapel Hill its calling card as a college town, Raleigh has long come off as the buttoned-up older sibling who has her life together. So what is it, then, that draws us to the City of Oaks? In a word, it’s the people. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in its culinary community, a deeply diverse group of folks as dedicated to their city as they are their kitchens, who push the Southern food narrative forward by exploring both its deep roots and intersections with other cultures.
EAT + DRINK
While Raleigh’s dining scene has turned heads in recent years, it didn’t come out of nowhere. Now easily the city’s most recognizable culinary ambassador, Ashley Christensen heads up a small fleet of downtown restaurants (six at last count). But it all started back in 2007 when she opened Poole’s Diner, a new-age lunch counter with an ever-changing blackboard menu of comfort food rooted in regional ingredients. More than a decade later, it’s still cranking out plates like heirloom tomato pie drizzled with sherry vinaigrette and seared flounder atop succotash and fried avocado. (And it’s true: You can’t go and not order the macaroni au gratin. It’s just as good—and as decadent— as they say.) This summer brings the newest addition to the AC Restaurant family: Poolside Pie. Adjacent to Poole’s, it’ll be slinging Neapolitan-style pizza.
Another restaurateur with deep roots in the area, Scott Crawford recasts the Southern larder as art form at Crawford & Son. Compressed melon carpaccio spattered with bright pops of blackberry and cherry tomato could double as abstract expressionism. Keep an eye out for the chef’s second restaurant, French bistro Jolie, opening this summer. And Crawford isn’t the only one shining a bright light on the region’s cuisine. Raleigh native Sean Fowler has built a temple to all things Southern and seasonal in Mandolin. In addition to area purveyors, restaurant ingredients are sourced from Fowler’s own Mandolin Farm, planted north of the city. Just as Raleigh’s culinary fabric is shaped by those paying tribute to the region’s foodways, so is it by newcomers carrying with them a taste of home. Laos-born siblings Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha have earned much acclaim for dim sum-centric Brewery Bhavana. (The buzz is well deserved: Bhavana’s silken dumplings and spiced meat-filled mooncakes are enough to make anyone a regular.) But don’t pass on their original restaurant, longtime local favorite Bida Manda. Get started with an order of panang curry-glazed chicken wings and lemongrass sausage before digging into a green papaya salad topped with garlic pork neck.
A few blocks away, Garland is the cardamom and curry playground of Cheetie Kumar. The Indian-born chef explores the commonalities between Southern and pan-Asian food traditions through their many shared ingredients—think rice, okra, tomatoes, and cane sugar. For a taste of the Latino South, head to Jose and Sons in the nearby Warehouse District and try the braised collard green tamales. Or, make your way to Centro, Angela Salamanca’s love letter to fresh, regional Mexican flavors. It’s hard to resist the institution’s twenty-plus ingredient mole; at dinnertime, it cloaks grilled chicken on a plate with fried plantains and cilantro rice.
Looking for a quiet moment among the hustle-bustle of downtown? Follow the trendsetters to Heirloom Brewshop, a teahouse-meets-sake-bar in a sleek, bright space that beckons one to linger. Or, head north to savor a homemade pop tart and cold brew on the patio outside Yellow Dog Bread Co.
As night falls, slip down a set of stairs below Fayetteville Street to land in the cool confines of Foundation; the hip hideaway comes with a solid whiskey selection. There’s also Gallo Pelón, a new mezcal and tequila bar with chicharrones for snacking. Neighborhood hangout more your scene? Go for a North Carolina brew at Person Street Bar.
The city’s creative class isn’t only found in restaurant kitchens. Raleigh Denim Workshop, helmed by husband and wife Victor Lytvinenko and Sarah Yarborough, recalls Raleigh’s history as a textile town. Stop by the 6,000-square-foot space to catch a glimpse behind the scenes. Visitors can also watch artisans in action at Videri Chocolate Factory, open to the public on weekdays. (And with flavors like pink peppercorn and sea salt, its chocolate bars make for great souvenirs.) The sprawling State Farmers Market is filled with plenty of produce vendors, but also those peddling regional products like cheese, bread, and wine. And set a few hours aside to explore the North Carolina Museum of Art, home to an impressive permanent collection of modern and classical works, including a Rodin sculpture garden.
The Guest House Raleigh is, quite literally, a home away from home. It’s set in a 1880s-era house once slated for demolition in the name of new development. Now safely relocated six blocks away, the eight-bedroom boutique hotel offers cozy digs downtown. Craving a little luxury? The Umstead in nearby Cary, with its 16,000-square-foot spa, is just the ticket. The hotel’s masculine, modern design is imbued with touches of whimsy—be it from rotating regional art or the theatrical fare Executive Chef Steven Greene serves at the property’s Forbes Five Star restaurant, Herons.