Last week Mike and I spent a few days exploring central North Carolina and snooping through the greater Raleigh-Durham area. We scouted old favorite places from Mike’s college days and taking a trip literally down memory lane as we skulked around behind the house he lived in senior year. The verdict, for interested parties: deck appears to be gone, but the ancient hot tub lives on. (eww.)
Much as I loved seeing the locations of epic hibachi dinners of yesteryear, mostly we were finding new places and discovering how much has changed in the region over the past 10+ years. I’m by no means an expert on urban revitalization, but even I could see the signs that both Raleigh and Durham are part of the same trend that has Austin, Nashville, Portland (OR & ME), and of course, Brooklyn, drawing like-minded people together to found businesses, open restaurants, and write a new chapter for these great cities.
Chiefly, of course, I’m most interested in the food culture and North Carolina is well established as an intersection of low-country, Southern cooking and pork-focused barbeque. Before we left I did a ton of research to try to focus our efforts, but with only three days I know we missed some gems!
Dine + Drink:
Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (Downtown Raleigh) Restaurants need focus and if the name alone didn’t clue you in, the menu will. Beasley’s is doing simple, beautifully executed Southern food, with just a slight twist. Like my crispy fried chicken on a fluffy biscuit for instance, which came drizzled with golden honey and topped with a pickled green tomato. The interior reflects that “modern-heritage” vibe too – a little industrial, with just a hint of schoolhouse. Perfect.
Boulted Bread (Raleigh) Taking pride in the craft and highlighting local ingredients in the most delicious way possible were my takeaways from Boulted Bread. Oh, and the amazing chocolate-raspberry pull apart, which was a revelation. The space is 25% café with straightforward coffee and gorgeous pastries, 75% working bakery providing bread to local restaurants. If there are samples on the counter – try them! Then buy a loaf once you realize how good that Seeded Levain is and tell your friends.
Foster’s Market (Durham) This market is of the old guard specialty food shops - think Oakville Grocery, Barefoot Contessa, TASTE. Mike remembered it from his college days and it came to our rescue when we had concert tickets and traffic estimates were dire. The new plan: arrive early and tailgate. After much contemplation of the menu we made our selection of “fancy” sandwiches, picked out a cold six-pack of microbrew, a cookie or two (the gingersnaps are extraordinary), and sat in the stadium parking lot for an impromptu picnic.
Fullsteam Brewery (Durham) You’ve heard of “farm-to-table,” well this brewery is “plow-to-pint” and is highlighting North Carolina produced ingredients in their beers. It serves a dual purpose: crafting distinctive Southern-style brews and contributing to the economic well-being of the region. They’ve created a fun atmosphere in what appears to be a converted mechanic shop and we were easily talked into staying for their Thursday night trivia competition. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but their El Toro Shandy hit the spot and Mike took a shine to the El Toro and the Cack-A-Lacky.
Pizzeria Toro (Downtown Durham) Fresh, ingredient-centered dishes, thoughtfully combined and judiciously prepared – no over-wrought plates here – just as a pizzeria should be. Start with the suppli al telefono (miniature arancini) and kale salad for sure - we had to negotiate last bites. Then see if you can choose just one of the perfectly crispy wood-fired pizzas. We finally settled on the soft-egg with arugula, and I loved the peppery leaves with the rich, salty parmesan.
Stay + Visit:
21C Museum Hotel (Downtown Durham) Durham has some lovely architecture and I was impressed by the city’s efforts to repurpose and preserve historic office buildings and manufacturing facilities. Case in point: this hotel house in the Hill Building, where many of the original fixtures have been preserved including the original bank vault, lobby letterbox, and floors. The hotel has several galleries of contemporary art and was the perfect home-base for our explorations.
Hillsborough, N.C. – This town is so charming and appears to be carpeted with historic homes. I swear every lawn had a white-painted shingle detailing a past resident of significance. We would have spent more time here, but a torrential storm dampened our enthusiasm for exploration (pun 1,000% intended) and instead we camped out at Cup-A-Joe and had one of the best chocolate chip cookies ever. So, it wasn’t a total loss! I’d love to go back for a visit to Ayr Mount and hopefully dinner at Panciuto.
Sarah P. Duke Gardens – After wandering the Duke University grounds, getting our requisite gear from the campus store, and marveling at the massive amount of construction underway a visit somewhere more peaceful was in order. A lovely combination of manicured, formal gardens and more naturalistic green spaces it was fascinating for a novice gardener to see how the two types were seamlessly intertwined. A great place to stroll the paths or stretch out on the lawn with a good book.