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Best of the Triangle 2012: Our back pages 

Looking back at the Best of the Triangle 1996-2011

In 1996 the Independent Weekly started its Best of the Triangle issue, or as it was known then, "The Real Best of," so as not to impinge on the "Best of" edition published by our then-competition, the Spectator. (Note to media historians: These things get sensitive and turfy. In 2002, the Indy achieved the Best of both worlds and bought the Raleigh-based arts mag.)

I digress. In 1996, Jesse Helms won his fifth term to the U.S. Senate; sometimes it feels like he never left. Hurricane Fran devastated much of North Carolina, including the Triangle. Nonetheless, the area was still basking in the afterglow of being ranked by Money magazine as the Best Place to Live in the U.S. just two years earlier.

The Triangle has changed dramatically since 1996—and mostly for the best, I-40 traffic notwithstanding. It consistently ranks nationally among the Best Places to, well, do about anything.

So in writing this year's Best of issue, we decided to reflect on the last 16 years' worth of editions: Who won what when? And what became of the winners? The Chapel Hill bar Hell, for example, won Best Jukebox in 2003. It's since closed, but former owner Mark Dorosin recently won a seat on the Orange County Commission, proving there are hotter places than Hell.

People tend to romanticize the past, and in browsing through more than a decade of Best of editions, we discovered we miss some of our favorite haunts. But we have new haunts, new experiences, new traditions—and in many ways, the Best is yet to come. —Lisa Sorg


1996 Raleigh's Warehouse District: Best Place for Urban Transit—Hello?

Everything's different. Everything's the same. In 1996, when we published our first "Real Best of the Triangle" edition for the high-minded purpose of making some money, we searched out the "nutty nooks and quirky crannies" of the Triangle, realizing that there was no serious city to be found amidst our subdivided sprawl. Not yet, anyway.

Still, we recognized in the re-emerging Warehouse District of Raleigh our Best Urban Resurrection. The district, an industrial area dating from when Raleigh was small and insignificant, was beginning its rebirth as a funky part of the great city Raleigh was destined to become—and in 1996, it was already an article of faith in Raleigh that a great city we would absolutely become.

An "X" marked the spot on West Street where the Triangle Transit Authority's downtown light-rail station would soon be located. Nearby, little buds of post-industrial age urbanity had sprouted in anticipation of a transit spring. Several of them are still going strong: Humble Pie, the restaurant that led the way on outdoor dining. Legends, the club très gay. The Berkeley Café, best small music hall around. Sadly, Button South, an outsized three-clubs-in-one mashup we mentioned favorably, soon proved to be way ahead of its time, as we were not yet Berlin or even Miami Beach. It soon closed and was later turned into the Raleigh Police Department's downtown HQ.

Two decades on, the center of Raleigh has been transformed with the reopening of Fayetteville Street and all that it spawned. The promise of the Warehouse District, in the western reach of downtown, was realized in part with the addition of the Contemporary Art Museum, Designbox and the Raleigh Amphitheater. But the "X" factor remains: The light-rail system that should've been up and running in Raleigh five years ago was instead delayed, delayed and finally shelved by antediluvian politicians. Hard to believe, but it's further in the future now than it was then.

No longer a nutty nook, the Warehouse District has become a pretty cool destination for the seekers of Raleigh nightlife, but one that remains far short of its potential. Our best urban resurrection is now our best example of where transit should be leading an urban renaissance but isn't—and where diverse downtown housing and retail spaces should be but aren't.

And as much as Raleigh has changed, its future continues to be throttled by the same Republican politicians as before. Paul Coble, a city councilor and later a one-term mayor, stood in the door of progress then. He and his GOP mates were voted out in 2011, but they've since taken control of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, with Coble as their chair. Meanwhile, their Republican friends in the General Assembly—led by House Majority Leader Paul Stam of Apex—have left it to the county to decide whether Raleigh should have a transit system or not.

The answer from Coble & Co. is: Not.

And just in case you think the General Assembly gave Wake's voters the right to decide this question, it did. But only if Coble & Co. allow us to vote. Which, to date, they refuse to do. —Bob Geary


1997 We would soon learn about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and the next year we elected Raleigh's own Johnnie Edwards to the U.S. Senate. Shocking! Though we sure read all the stories, LOL.

There was precious little to titter about when we published our Best stuff of 1997, however, with Jim Hunt still teetotaling in the governor's mansion (Year 13) and Clinton re-elected without any opposition if you don't count Bob Dole. Thus, the Indy declared itself desperate to locate "splashes of color in a Walmart world." Locate them before C.D. Spangler sells Chapel Hill to NationsBank.

Where to begin?

Chapel Hill has devoted the intervening years to soiling its brand as a charming and slightly anti-establishment university town. Soon, it may take anthropologists to uncover the splashes of color that once were the Hill before town and gown—and Dean Smith's legacy—were buried in giant buildings, giant egos and giant capitalism of the kind that turned our own NationsBank (once the very respectable N.C. National Bank) into the despised Bank of America.

We did love Dean Smith, a splash of color and so much more.

So, every local official who's prepared to say no to the next Walmart when it comes along to kill your local enterprises, and every university leader who'll say no to selling your basketball team to CBS, please raise your hands.

Higher, please. We don't see you.

Everywhere you look, huge corporations and bankers with money from somewhere else are taking over, tearing out the charm and replacing it with a big box of some crap designed for Anywhere, Planet Earth. (But being careful to name it for whatever it destroyed.)

Which brings us to Sadlack's Heroes. In 1997, we cited Sadlack's, a tiny bar, sandwich and music place on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, as the Best Place to Encounter the Medicated (Or Those Who Should Be). Our salute to Sadlack's as "the model of a classless society ... outside the realm of propriety and convention" was doubtless written by the late Peter Eichenberger, a Sadlack's regular and a man who was anything but propitious.

We miss Eichenberger, who heard black helicopters no one else could recognize (were they drones?), and who railed in no uncertain but often inspired terms at the forces burying his beloved Raleigh in derivatives-financed mediocrity.

Now, as Hillsborough Street redevelops, a hotel is on tap (a rezoning case is coming) for the block where Sadlack's stands, across from the NCSU Bell Tower.

Raleigh taxpayers invested $10 million-plus in a redo of the street for the purpose of luring new and, frankly, much-needed development there. But there's a right way to develop: building on the traditions that caused Hillsborough Street to be "classless" and diverse in the best sense of those words. And there's a wrong way: wiping out what was valuable in the first place. (See: Chapel Hill.)

It's not clear that Sadlack's owners want to stay in business if and when the hotel goes up. Nor is it clear whether a Sadlack's could comfortably reside within a new hotel-retail complex. What is clear, however, is that Hillsborough Street needs its Sadlack's—this one, or a new one, or maybe more than one. And Raleigh needs the splash of color that is Hillsborough Street, not something giant that destroys it while stealing the name. —Bob Geary


1998 If you were to take a random sample of most any American population and ask them about five things North Carolina's good at, the results might read something like bluegrass, Michael Jordan, basketball, NASCAR and good ol' barbecue. Actually, if you were to ask folks about 100 things for which this state's known, its pioneering role in vegan dining—hold on to your fatback, mama—might not make many lists.

Indeed, in 1998, the Independent awarded top vegan-friendly restaurant honors to a Mexican café that left the lard out of its refried beans. That's admirable, yes, but in 2012, it's doubtful that Durham's vegan sorts find their sustenance exclusively at Blue Corn Café—or would appreciate our 1999 sentiment that, "Sometimes, meatless is murder."

Though the Triangle still has work to do in adding vegan (and sometimes even vegetarian) options to menus and in opening restaurants that work primarily without animal products, the options are certainly much more bountiful these days. Just last year, for instance, PETA named the Remedy Diner's Tempeh Tantrum—pesto, avocado, bacon and tempeh, pressed warmly between slices of sourdough—one of the five best vegan sandwiches in the country. In random rooms throughout the Triangle, the Fiction Kitchen turns remarkable tricks with its too-infrequent Vegan Brunches, making barbecue and more that stands up to the real deal. There's the Spotted Dog in Carrboro, Butternut Squash in Chapel Hill and the vegetarian half of the regular menu at, of all places, the German-inspired downtown Raleigh restaurant Capital Club 16.

Indeed, surveying the winners from 1998's Best of the Triangle, the shifts and upgrades in Triangle dining culture are overwhelming: Mad Hatter is a wonderful place to meet for a bite, but would you vouch for its Best Coffee ranking? Back then, Katie's Pretzels in Carrboro took home honors as Best Snack Emporium; Katie's closed in 2009, but could it stand up to the small-bites pleasures of chocolate factories like Escazu and Videri? And where we went heavy on the condescension while picking the Best Reason to Go to Cary ("to get to RDU") back then, perhaps now some of the Triangle's best restaurants could serve as an ample lure: La Farm, Bella Mia and the delicious pan-Asian fusion of an.

The same holds for Best Late-Night Drink, an award that went to Humble Pie not only for the cocktails but also for the rock 'n' roll wait staff. Humble Pie's patio is still a great place to have a beer (especially on Tiki Tuesdays), but the wealth of specialty cocktail bars and local breweries has superseded it.

There's certainly one thing that hasn't changed, though: In 1998, we had the good sense to recognize the Wake County Speedway, noting that its fried bologna sandwiches and rich smell of burned gasoline and melted rubber could proverbially "cut the wheat from chaff." To my knowledge, no better way to spend $20 and a sticky summer Friday night in the Triangle exists; hell, before too long, they might even serve vegan bologna. —Grayson Currin


1999 In late March 1999, despite having won a then-record 37 games in a single season, Duke University's male Blue Devils lost the NCAA championship in a close contest with a fast, husky Connecticut.

It stung. Not only had Duke been remarkable that year (the team soon sent four first-rounders to the NBA Draft), but it had also been nearly a decade since Mike Krzyzewski brought consecutive banners back to Durham. They'd been so close.

Published just nine days after that defeat, the Independent's 1999 Best of the Triangle reflected more pride than hurt in those Devils. Though co-captain Trajan Langdon led the team neither in points, assists nor rebounds, he toted home two awards—for playing through the pain of seven fresh stitches in a rout versus Clemson and for having the Triangle's Best Body: "That chest, which his cruel jersey offered mere hints of, expanded and contracted with supple motions that would make DaVinci weep," we wrote, elevating the fair-faced emperor into a demigod of desire. Even artist Paul Friedrich, who illustrated that issue with his omnipresent Onion Head Monster, winked Trajan's way.

That regional obsession with basketball hasn't changed a bit, evidenced by the current juxtaposition of talks that the ACC itself is dying with the buzz that, this year, the Triangle might produce three national contenders.

Other priorities didn't change, either, though the particulars might have: Back then, Mama Dip's ham-heavy collards walked with their savory award, but that was before Zely & Ritz and Beasley's offered their own meatless-and-indulgent greens. The need to sop hangovers with grease hasn't disappeared, but Time-Out and IHOP—the Reader's Choice winners in 1999—have been surmounted by a small army of places with mind-healing brunches, from Acme in Carrboro and Watts Grocery in Durham to Tir na nOg's weekly all-you-can-eat spread of wealth in downtown Raleigh. And if Mac McCaughan was indeed the Best Local Rock Celebrity 13 years ago, it's a fair argument that—after a Grammy for the label he co-founded, a great Superchunk comeback, a recent spate of strong solo shows, and his record of local political action—he's yet to abdicate the claim.

But that tawny newsprint does reveal some fundamental shifts in attitude, as well as some missed treasures. dillard's is gone from Durham, as is VisArt and the newsstand then honored for its "wrestling and kung fu mags ... guns and ammo rags." But in 1999, we thought the Best Way to Meet Local Farmers was to fall in tow with the Piedmont Farm Tour. Those treks are still great, but between the abundance of tiny farmers markets and urban gardening plots appearing across the area now, the farms come a lot closer than a weekend drive.

And, sure, Raleigh still gets its comeuppance from neighboring vertices, but in 2012, you'd have to fight hard to convince anyone that Raleigh's arts scene deserved an award for Best Survival—or, relatedly, that the Best View of Downtown Raleigh, or Mayor Fetzer's fuck-up, is "from an airplane." From a new amphitheater and bustling art walks to abundant rock clubs and emerging cultures of bikers and designers, culture in downtown Raleigh (and Durham, of course) is doing much more than surviving.

We're sure that was the goal of the condescension, anyway. —Grayson Currin

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