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Eat up! 

Neighborhood restaurants on the rise

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS

In the past couple of years, I have fallen in love with the Triangle all over again. When I first arrived back here almost three years ago after spending three years in New York, I was less than enthusiastic, missing New York for many reasons, but mainly for its food. I missed the fact that somewhere in the city, you could get the best of just about any dish you craved that day. I missed the ethnic restaurants, the quirky little neighborhood restaurants, the street food, and even the mind-blowingly expensive restaurants that aimed so high with their food that the experience was almost unattainable.

In a couple of weeks I will leave the Triangle to take a job in Atlanta as the restaurant critic and food editor for the alternative weekly there, Creative Loafing. That's given me the chance to look back and take stock. As the restaurant writer for the Independent for the past two and a half years, I have seen a lot of changes to the Triangle dining scene, and now that I am leaving, it seems that the topic of conversation keeps coming back to the same issues. I keep finding myself in conversations debating the state of the Triangle dining scene. Is it getting better? Is it unique? How do we compare to larger markets? Are our best restaurants as good as the best restaurants in other cities?

From a food and restaurant lover's perspective, all of these questions get me worked up. I find myself getting excited and passionate and grumpy, and I have to admit that on many of these questions, I have some very conflicting feelings. I want to believe that we have something special here, but when I look hard, I have to admit that we have a ways to go. I've also come to the conclusion that the real question is, What does the average person want and need in a restaurant anyway? And are any of the restaurants that are opening at breakneck speed catering to those wants? In other words, who are we as a restaurant community, who are we becoming, and what do we have to look forward to?

If we were to have asked these questions three years ago, the Triangle still would have had a lot to boast about on the restaurant front. Durham has long had world-class restaurants, fueled in part by the area's fantastic produce as well as the money and expense account dining that Duke brings to the city. Places like the Magnolia Grill, Nana's and Four Square had thrived for years. Chapel Hill had its own tradition of great dining, with longtime occupants like La Residence and Crook's Corner paving the way for Elaine's and then Lantern. Raleigh was better known for old standards like Angus Barn, but innovation had started to break through in restaurants like Enoteca Vin and Frazier's. And while chain restaurants were often the mainstays of strip shopping centers in suburban Raleigh and its surrounding Wake County bedroom communities, there were signs of new life there, too: Fins, in North Raleigh, serving amazing Pacific Rim cuisine, as well as Tasca Brava and Cosmo in Cary, to name just a few.

What the Triangle lacked back then certainly wasn't quality, but perhaps quantity. The Triangle has had nationally acclaimed restaurants for 30 years. But I wanted more—more variety, more excitement. I certainly got what I wished for—in the past three years, dozens of restaurants have opened, many of them with the glossy promise of excitement at the forefront of their concept.

Restaurants are notoriously risky investments, in part because it is so hard to figure out what people want and so easy to come up with ideas that sound great but don't really cater to the dining community. In recent years, all over the country, the trend has been big money, concept-driven restaurants with the food almost taking a secondary role, the real point being the surroundings. Like any marketing plan, the idea is to sell you the kind of person you want to be and make you believe you are that person if you frequent a particular restaurant.

On a national level, some of these high concept restaurants have done exceptionally well. Take Bed, a restaurant that originally opened in Miami, where the draw is the fact that you get your dinner in—you guessed it—bed. The restaurant has done so well that it now has outposts in New York and Atlanta. I have heard a lot about Bed, but very little about the food. It's the concept that's selling.

While the Triangle doesn't yet have anything as outrageous as Bed, we are getting a lot of expensive, concept-driven restaurants. In the past year, particularly in North Raleigh, a slew of places have opened, hoping to capture the lifestyle aspirations of diners. In North Hills, JK's and Mura have opened—JK's serving upscale seafood and steaks, and Mura, an Asian bistro with a stylish dining room and some very high-end offerings on the menu. In Chapel Hill, Bin 54 is a modern steakhouse with a beautiful dining room and high-quality steaks they serve for as much as $60 a portion (with no sides—that costs extra). Also in North Hills, there's Savannah, low country fine dining and one of the most impressive design concepts we've seen in the Triangle, with a grass wall and breathtaking bar area, but which lost its young and ambitious chefs within a month of the restaurant's opening (JK's also lost its chef very soon after opening). Word has it that the problem at Savannah and JK's was a conflict between ambitious cuisine and management that believes the food should be more straightforward—some would say dumbed down—in order to please a wider audience.

You can understand the nervousness of these folks. They have a lot of money invested and too much on the line to take a gamble on the creative whims of chefs whose ideas are unproven in the business sense. But I'm not sure that the Triangle has the audiences to fill all these large, high-end restaurants, particularly if none of them are willing to take a risk and do something truly notable with their food.

This is not to say that all high-design, big-money restaurants are worthless. It's quite possible that after the kinks have been ironed out, any one of these places could turn out to be fantastic, and there are examples of places like this that are bringing something truly distinctive to the area. Jibarra, on Six Forks Road in Raleigh, is the area's first Mexican fine dining. The restaurant has a tequila lounge and dishes like duck breast with deconstructed molé, and fois gras over a corn gordita with Chablis salsa. Giorgios Bakatsias has practically given us a case study in what works and what doesn't when it comes to high-concept restaurants. His restaurant Spice Street was one of the most ambitious design concepts around when it opened a few years ago, but it has never really made it off the ground in terms of food or service. On the other hand, hiring Matt Kelly as the chef at Vin Rouge in Durham saved that restaurant, turning it from a French bistro in concept to a place where the atmosphere matched the food.

But with all these openings in the past few years, we have still been missing something. It's as if the restaurant business in the Triangle was able to completely skip over one of the hallmarks of any great eating city—the true neighborhood restaurant.

In Durham at least, that may all be about to change. Durham has already provided a location for a couple of successful neighborhood restaurants—City Beverage and Federal come to mind—and there are a few more on the way. Someone recently asked me to define a neighborhood restaurant, and I suppose in many ways the Magnolia Grill could be defined as a nice neighborhood joint. But I am talking about a restaurant that provides everyday meals to people, a place where the people making the food have a connection to the neighborhood they are serving, somewhere casual but distinct, somewhere that represents the town it inhabits and serves the needs of the people who live there. Plans are in the works for three such places to open in downtown Durham this summer.

Interestingly, two of these places have sprung from the success of Federal, a restaurant that is first and foremost a bar. I get the feeling that the owners of Federal were almost taken off guard by the level of enthusiasm the restaurant has drawn. Without knowing what is going on there, no one would walk into Federal expecting house-made fresh pasta or daily specials like sweetbread terrine. Here is a place serving thoughtful, fresh food at affordable prices from late morning until late night. What could be more accommodating to a neighborhood than that? The response has been practically jubilant on the part of Durham diners, and I hear that the place is raking in money.

Much of the praise for this success has been heaped on Andy Magowan, the chef who took over the kitchen at Federal in 2004. Magowan has now left in order to open his own restaurant in downtown Durham along with two partners, his wife Abby Pearce and co-chef Drew Brown. (Magowan's sous chef at Federal, Brian Avery, has taken over as chef there. Magowan has long given Avery much of the credit for the food at Federal.)

Drew Brown, Abby Pearce and Andy Magowan in the downtown Durham space that will soon be their new restaurant, the Piedmont. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Drew Brown, Abby Pearce and Andy Magowan in the downtown Durham space that will soon be their new restaurant, the Piedmont.

Piedmont, which is slated to open in early June, is a natural progression from Federal for Magowan and for Durham. It was Magowan who said to me during an interview for the article I did on Federal last year, "I just don't think everyday food has to be crappy." When speaking about his new restaurant, he talks about how cool it was to see how receptive people from all walks of life were to Federal. He now plans to take that mold, put it downtown, make it non-smoking, and put more emphasis on the food and the dining experience. (One thing Federal has not been known for is great service. As one waitress there was recently heard saying to a customer, "What do you want—it's a bar.")

Pulling from the strengths of both Magowan and Brown, the food at Piedmont will be rustic Italian and French, with an emphasis on, as Brown puts it, "Food you would want to eat with wine." They will cure their own meats, make their own pastas, and try to keep the prices friendly enough so that it can still be called a neighborhood restaurant. It will be open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, as well as Sunday brunch and breakfast on Saturday to cater to the crowd right next to them at the Durham Farmers' Market.

While Magowan has stepped out on his own, the owners of Federal have a few projects up their sleeves, as well. A couple of the owners plan to open a Federal-style bar and restaurant in Carrboro, in the old Temple Ball spot, across the street from the Cat's Cradle and the ArtsCenter, which are about to undergo their own transformation.

Another owner, Fergus Bradley (who also owns the James Joyce), plans to open a European-style bistro at the other end of the same block that Federal is on, in the old Bull City Bikes space across from Brightleaf Square. While the restaurant, which is slated to open sometime this summer, is still in the planning phase, Bradley has spoken of plans to have it serve as a coffee bar in the morning, with lunch, dinner and late night to follow. And as much as the word "bistro" has been co-opted by the fine dining crowd in this country, Bradley is speaking about a bistro in the European sense, a place that can be as casual or as fancy as you want to make it, according to your dining needs as a customer.

click to enlarge Durhams downtown restaurant scene is going through a major expansion. Pops owners John Vandergrift, Chris Stinnett and Matt Beason amid construction of their new bistro, Rue Cler. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Durhams downtown restaurant scene is going through a major expansion. Pops owners John Vandergrift, Chris Stinnett and Matt Beason amid construction of their new bistro, Rue Cler.

This interpretation of the bistro is also what the folks at Pop's, the successful Italian bistro in Peabody Place, are aiming for with their new project. They are planning a French influenced bistro slated to open in May or June just up the street from Piedmont in downtown Durham at 401 E. Chapel Hill St. The new restaurant, tentatively named Rue Cler after the Parisian open-air market, will serve French bistro classics as well as market-driven seasonal dishes. Pop's has been running a bakery that sells bread wholesale to many Durham restaurants, and the bakery will be moving to the space next to the new restaurant and will offer bread and other baked goods to the public. Owner Christ Stinnett says, "It will give people another reason to come downtown, to eat and maybe buy a fresh loaf of bread."

When speaking to the owners and chefs involved in the Rue Cler project, you hear a lot of the same goals that Magowan, Brown and Pearce have set out for Piedmont. All of these folks have realized that there is a market for people who love food, who want to go out, but who don't necessarily have the resources to eat at the fancy restaurants in town. You will also hear a huge amount of enthusiasm for the possibilities that downtown is offering young, ambitious business people, as well as the possibilities for a real community downtown. Spaces in downtown Durham are still relatively cheap and are owned by people who are invested in seeing these businesses thrive. Downtown Durham has been on the verge of a renaissance for years, but with the American Tobacco campus bringing jobs and visitors, West Village expanding its renovation of the Liggett & Myers factory to create hundreds of new apartments, and places like Federal proving it's possible to make money downtown, it looks like that renaissance may finally be here.

All of this isn't to say that Durham is the only place where anything interesting is going on in the Triangle restaurant scene. It's true that Durham can offer real estate at prices allowing projects that simply could not come about in Raleigh. Chapel Hill isn't exactly cheap either, although it has always been a place where restaurants with personality thrive, and good cooking has won out over big money and concepts. Both Raleigh and Chapel Hill have projects in the works that are worth being excited about.

In Raleigh, the high-end, big-money places will continue to open, hoping to capture that elusive Raleigh diner who packs into the Angus Barn every night but for some reason fails to show up elsewhere. Among other things, Nelsons will be opening soon in the old Foster's spot in Cameron Village, with a rooftop bar, raw bar and high-end steak and seafood concept. But there is also a middle-ground coming to light in Raleigh, and it comes in the form of a company that has the money to afford the space, but also has a commitment to downtown Raleigh and the community. Empire Properties has a number of projects aimed at strengthening downtown, and I believe they have done a lot of thinking about what people really want and need. I should say here that I have done a little work for Empire and am not totally unbiased, but I can honestly say I've been impressed by their commitment to the community. The company's head, Greg Hatem, and their head of restaurant development, Ashley Christensen (also the chef at Enoteca Vin), talk passionately about making Raleigh into a walkable, livable place, with restaurants that cater to that goal.

Ashley Christensen at the Raleigh Times Bar, one of many Empire Properties projects she has a hand in. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Ashley Christensen at the Raleigh Times Bar, one of many Empire Properties projects she has a hand in.

The company is just opening the Raleigh Times Bar in the old Raleigh Times building, and the goal is to have the space be a real neighborhood bar (see "Good Times: An evening to recall afternoons past" on page 22). Hatem and Christensen talk about the history of the building and its role in the community, and want to respect that history by having it remain a place that serves the community in some way. The space has been designed to honor the history of the city and the newspaper that once occupied the building. The space will also serve as a coffee bar during the day, and the menu will consist of classic bar food at night.

Empire also has plans to open a restaurant in September under Christensen's direction called The Kitchen, in the Heilig Levine building on the corner of Hargett and Wilmington streets downtown. They hope it will be a cool, friendly place that again caters to the community. The food will be Southern, and the main design feature is a long communal table stretching down the center of the room. The restaurant will walk the line between fine dining and home cooking, casual but catering to the foodie community. And hopefully, you won't have to drop a fortune to go eat there.

In Chapel Hill, the couple who were brought in to open JK's in Raleigh (but who left a few months into the project) are opening their own restaurant in the Courtyard on West Franklin Street, the space behind Penang that already houses SandwHich and 3 Cups. Tina Vaughn and Chip Smith hope to open Bon Soiree sometime in June, a 34-seat fine dining restaurant, but perhaps not the kind of fine dining we have come to expect in the Triangle. They hope to provide an Old World experience and have no hopes to be the new hot spot. Vaughn describes a small restaurant you would expect to find in the French countryside—a perfect, hand-crafted meal with personal service and a leisurely pace.

There is one area where many of the restaurants in the Triangle outshine the rest of the country, and that is in the move toward seasonal, local ingredients. No other major market is doing as good of a job of supporting local farms and farmers' markets, and in their commitment to a regional, sustainable cuisine. Because so many local chefs are passionate about supporting the farms and markets, we have some of the best farmers' markets in the country, a fact that has made my quality of life while I've lived here so much better. Events like the totally local dinners at Panzanella in Carrboro, and Lantern's monthly Lantern Table, where a farm and its produce are highlighted in a thoughtful and delicious meal, are incredibly special and unique to this area. There are certainly pockets of chefs doing this in other parts of the country, but I have yet to see a community commitment to it the way we see that here.

So maybe we are entering into a new era of Triangle dining, one where the smaller, more local or more thoughtful restaurant will take hold. We are seeing a new generation of restaurateurs, one that has absorbed the traditions of the great restaurants we have had here for years, committed themselves to local produce and good food, but also are aware that there's a real market for more casual, less stuffy dining. The goal should be diversity, and slowly but surely, diversity is what we are getting. From our amazing authentic Latino restaurants, to our pared-down version of fine dining like Magnolia Grill and Enoteca Vin, to newer, glitzier places, to the rise of the neighborhood restaurant, there is much to be proud of here, and much in the future to be excited about.

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  • A look at this year's openings, Besha's favorite foods and places, plus our newly updated Dining Listings.

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