At the end of a long, winding road carefully landscaped to echo the surrounding woodlands, fledgling houses aimed at suburban, upper-middle-class families rise from raw clay in various states of completion.
Briar Chapel, the mega-development that has become the poster child of Chatham County's explosive residential growth, opened for business last month. Though the economic downturn may delay its full build-out, eventually these 1,500 acres abutting U.S. 15-501 halfway between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill will fill up with houses.
Five days a week, like most Chatham residents, new homeowners will commute at least a half-hour each way to jobs in Orange, Durham and Wake counties.
Seven days a week, like residents of bedroom communities all over the Triangle, they gotta eat.
Throughout our growing region, but particularly in Chatham and Wake counties, with annual population increases of 2.7 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively, independent restaurateurs have figured out that many people who live in one place and work in another don't want to get back in their cars to commute to a "destination dining" spot after work or on the weekends.
Be they subdivisions like those sprouting in Chatham and across North Raleigh or small towns like Pittsboro and Apex that are revitalizing historic downtowns, burgeoning bedroom communities are proving fertile ground for culinary commerce.
"There are a lot of great restaurants in strip malls," says Barry Shuster, the editor of Restaurant Startup and Growth magazine. "They can be a good value in terms of space, there are fewer parking problems, and you're not paying as much in infrastructure [as a free-standing restaurant would]."
Shuster points to two examples in his hometown of Cary: Maximillians, a very successful American fusion restaurant on Chapel Hill Road, and Connolly's Irish Pub and Restaurant in Cornerstone Shopping Center. The latter recently overcame one difficulty inherent in strip-mall locations—lack of expansion space—by pouncing on an adjacent storefront when a Subway sandwich shop closed.
Connolly's owners knew that a large tract of land across the street was destined for development, Shuster says, and wanted to enlarge the dining area and create a more family-friendly section in addition to its traditional bar. The space next door opened up just as a new retirement community began to draw large numbers of potential diners within walking distance.
A deep knowledge of the market is one advantage local restaurateurs have over corporate chain competitors who may have deeper pockets to withstand hard times like the current climate, says Shuster, whose magazine provides education and networking for independently owned restaurants.
"If they take advantage of their knowledge of the community, contacts with local leaders and media, they can leverage that to track where growth is going," Shuster says.
Independent restaurants provide an economic benefit for the bedroom communities, as well, Shuster says, especially in small towns that attract a critical mass of locally owned restaurants.
"Knickknack shops and antique stores—people don't come downtown for that. They come downtown to eat and drink," he says. "Fuquay, Cary, Apex ... my belief is that the salvation for these little towns, as far as bringing people down there, is food and entertainment."
He points to Apex as one successful example.
"Downtown Apex has done a beautiful job of maintaining its architectural look and that old Southern town feel, while Main Street has been very successful in attracting cool little independent restaurants and a great coffee shop."
Following is a closer look at a few of our favorite non-"destination dining" spots you might not know are within easy commuting distance. See "On the beaten path" below for additional recommendations, and give us your faves by commenting on this story.
In Chatham County, where subdivisions and strip malls have begun to fill in the highway corridors between Pittsboro and its more urban neighbors to the north and east, several local restaurateurs have seized the opportunity offered by the county's projected population growth of 14 percent by 2012.
In 2006, Chatham County had 92 restaurants, according to permits on file with the state. By May 2008, that number had grown 14 percent, to 105 establishments.
New downtown restaurants include Virlie's, a mom-and-pop diner, which replaced the old Scoreboard grill, and City Tap, a bar and live music venue. At the same time, some established restaurants are growing: In April, the locally owned General Store Cafe just off the courthouse circle tripled its footprint, adding extra dining room and performance space for live music.
One of the larger new restaurants in Chatham is the Triangle's second Carolina Brewery, a casual dining restaurant and microbrewery that's been a mainstay of Chapel Hill's West Franklin Street since 1995.
Owner Robert Poitras wasn't planning to open another restaurant. About three years ago, when his Chapel Hill brewing facilities were operating at maximum capacity, Poitras found himself turning down new wholesale customers. Needing more manufacturing space, he looked in Chatham because it was close to Chapel Hill and offered good value per square foot.
"We started looking around, and realized that with all this new residential development coming, Chatham County was really underserved in the casual dining market," says Poitras, who is also a member of the executive committee of the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, which gives him a statewide perspective.
Poitras considered leasing space in Chatham Mills, a retrofitted historic building downtown that also houses a new organic grocery co-op, but opted instead to buy a new building in the Bellemont Station shopping center mall at the intersection of U.S. 15-501 and the U.S. 64 bypass.
The location offered a lot of advantages: convenient truck access and parking for the wholesale beer business (the Pittsboro brewery cranks out 62,000 gallons of beer a year, which are used on-site and distributed to restaurants within a 30-mile radius and a few on the Outer Banks); plenty of outdoor patio space, where the restaurant offers live music on summer Saturday nights; and a captive audience of customers frequenting other businesses in the shopping center, including its anchor, a Lowe's home improvement store.
From the open, high-ceilinged bar, patrons can observe the brewing process through glass walls that showcase the enormous stainless steel vats while enjoying one of the award-winning beers those vats crank out. On the menu, spicy Buffalo wings and burgers are consistent standouts, especially the Smoky Joe Burger with bacon and gouda currently featured on the seasonal fall menu and the house-made veggie burgers.
The dining room offers plenty of room for intimate dates or large celebrations, and Poitras says that's one of his goals. "We want to be the multi-use, high-frequency, multi-occasion restaurant," he says.
Carolina Brewery-Pittsboro celebrated its first-year anniversary in August, a key milestone, just as the town's first McDonald's opened in the same shopping center. The fast-food chain's arrival is a huge validation of an independent restaurateur's choice of location, says Shuster.
"That's a great sign. It's basically signaling to other businesses, 'Hey, this is going to be a good place for business,'" he says. "McDonald's doesn't put down a store where there isn't traction."
There are pluses and minuses to locating an independent restaurant in a shopping plaza. You benefit from traffic flow but lose out on visibility. You benefit from lower utilities and safe, uniform building codes but lose some points on charisma and style.
If you're a chef/proprietor, you run your own kitchen, design your own menus and spend hours sourcing just the right products, but ultimately, you're just a tenant, subject to the temperament and intentions (good or otherwise) of your landlord. If management hasn't kept nearby storefronts fully leased or maintained the facility, it may not matter how luscious your crab bisque is.
Since shopping plazas provide the bulk of commercial zoning available for North Raleigh restaurants, their options are limited. But three small, celebrated restaurants in North Raleigh, all family owned, say they're mostly happy with their locations.
Fourteen years ago, when they moved to Raleigh from Chicago, Marvin and Carla Swirsky, owners of Zest Café and Home Art in Six Forks Station, had a crash course in zoning.
"When we first looked to open, we looked all over the place. Zoning is a lot more difficult here than in a lot of other parts of the country. You know Foster's Market, the original one, they bought an old motorcycle place and they had the herbs growing around, and it was homey, and we wanted to do something like that. And nothing was zoned like that around here. The only places there were, were strip malls. Even now, I don't know of any place that's opened [like that in North Raleigh] ... there's nothing in a charming old home," says Marvin Swirsky.
It was a shock at first.
"The area we came from, people couldn't believe, first of all, we'd moved to Raleigh," he says. "And then we'd say 'We're in a strip mall,' and they'd say, 'Ugh!'"
This year, Zest is celebrating its 13th birthday in that spot, and during four recent visits, it was consistently filled with customers.
"The growth has been phenomenal around here, the growth of residential but commercial too," Swirsky says. "That helps our business a lot." Surrounding businesses greatly affect them. The first year Zest was open, there was a Food Lion anchoring Six Forks Station. When the grocery moved, though, the huge space stood empty for a year, until a savior arrived.
"Borders came in, upfitted the place, and it was awesome. So many of the same clientele [as ours], educated people, people who shop. I would see a lot of Borders bags in here," remembers Swirsky.
Zest's style works well with Borders' "browsing" mentality. One could easily make a morning of book buying and free Wi-Fi and then stroll down to Zest for a "zestwich" or "pizzesta." But browsing doesn't stop at the door. Zest is half cafe, half retail store. It sells what the Swirskys call "home art," which ranges from shabby-chic picture frames to gallery-worthy ceramics and glass bowls, from vintage-fabric baby bibs to children's cup-and-bowl sets.
Home art can't carry a shop long if the food isn't holding up its part. And Zest's food is light, fresh and flavorful (you can thank both chef James Castellow and Swirsky, both of whom attended culinary schools, for the enlightened menu). At lunch, try the roasted portabella mushroom cap with mozzarella, spinach and caramelized onion rosemary spread on homemade focaccia; or the peasant-crust pizza with lump crab, blue and asiago cheeses, toasted pecans and roasted red pepper sauce.
At dinner, you can't go wrong with the grill-smoked chicken breast and chipotle sweet potato dumplings or the catfish filet with roasted butternut squash hash and grilled kale tamales with jalapeño tartar sauce. Zest is much beloved for its brunch too, and rightly so, with dishes like homemade honey granola; crab and spinach frittata; and a French toast of homemade cinnamon-raisin bread topped with bourbon-roasted apples and fresh whipped cream. Mark your day planner now; Sunday brunch starts at 10 a.m. Or, time it promptly at noon for the mimosas.
When skies are blue, head to Zest for lunch, brunch or dinner and sit outside; it's one of the best outdoor seating areas of any strip-mall restaurant: a relatively large patio, with retro '50s-diner-style tables, the kind with colorful tops and ribbed chrome sides. A clever knife-fork-spoon-shaped picket fence and a landscaped area do well to set the patio off from parking lot distraction. Not incidentally, it was all designed with the landlord's blessing.
Bobby DeRome owns Cafe Capistrano with his sister Joni DeRome, formerly of the Cactus Flower Cafe in Pensacola, Fla. It borrows its menu and format from its predecessor, which is still enormously popular today.
The DeRomes chose Raleigh to recreate the Pensacola success because of the Triangle's dearth of California-style Mexican food, which emphasizes healthy oils, fresh vegetables, seafood and recipes made-to-order. They decided on Durant Station, a new small office and retail complex in a forested area north of Interstate 540 between Capital Boulevard and Falls of Neuse Road.
"We found a location that was low in rent and good demographics," says Bobby DeRome. He's hoping to expand his lunchtime business by attracting employees from the nearby WakeMed North Healthplex.
"I think because of where we're at, we haven't yet gotten the lunch crowd we're hoping for. ... Because we cannot put a sign out by the road, so many people drive by and they say, 'I've been driving down the road for a year and a half and I never knew you were here.'"
DeRome took a creative approach to attacking that problem.
"I have a little [catering] truck with our name on it sitting outside as close to the road as I can get," he says.
Locals are steadily discovering this little gem, returning often for its soothing indoor fountain, sunny California décor, and live music every Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m.
"We have a lot of regulars. Thank God for regulars! We have one family that comes with six kids at least once a week." (The cafe does offer four outdoor tables for parents tired of endlessly parroting, "Inside voices!")
When Cafe Capistrano opened two years ago, it received a glowing review from The News & Observer. Just this past summer, it was named Best New Restaurant in Wake County in the Independent's "Best of the Triangle" readers' choice awards.
The food is as healthy as possible. Canola oil is used for frying, and olive oil for sautéing. No lard in this kitchen, even in the refried beans, which are smashed pintos. Standouts on the menu are a fabulous tortilla soup; the enchiladas verde; the chile relleno; and mahi-mahi tacos (made irresistible by mixing the fish with a creamy lime sauce before pan frying). Where possible, opt for the hard flour tacos; they're lighter and flakier than your grandma's best pie crust.
"The enchiladas verde starts with a flour-based roux and three green chiles, which come from a little place in Hatch, New Mexico," says DeRome. (Order them filled with the slow-cooked pork tenderloin, even if you're not usually a pork lover.)
The only disappointment at a recent visit was bland shrimp on an otherwise tasty appetizer of mango-avocado tacos, but DeRome is happy to remedy this: "When we first opened, [everything] was spicier, but we cut back on all of our spices a little bit. If you'd like anything spicier, let us know, we'll kick it up. After all, it's made right then when you order it."
Capistrano's guacamole is the epitome of fresh; DeRome shares the secret.
"We use a whole avocado, crush it chunky and not pureed, add cumin, garlic, cayenne, salt, pico de gallo and cilantro."
Two final tips: First, even if you're full, don't leave without getting a to-go order of the superb tres leches cake with fresh cream and a hint of almond (called "wedding cake" on the menu). Second, and most valuable, don't rush your evening—sit back and relax. All this fresh, made-to-order service may come at a small price, but, hey, it's just time.
Half-brothers Marshall Smith and Peter Gibson are 21st-century chefs. They found their restaurant on CraigsList.
"It's actually kind of funny," says Smith. "And once we realized where the location was, we knew it was perfect for what we wanted to do. Main reason being, you don't have the competition you have downtown. And there are enough people in the North Raleigh area. Most people when they get home [from work], they don't want to go downtown and have a nice dinner and a couple of glasses of wine and drive home."
Gibson agrees with his brother, vaguely gesturing toward the roomy parking lot.
"Another big point: There's your car. You don't have to pay for parking, valet or whatnot, and you can walk to your car, it's well-lit."
Their first joint venture, Savoy—in the same storefront where Fins Restaurant did very well for many years, and Kin, recently, did less well—is still in its first year, an uncertain time in the life of a restaurant. But Smith and Gibson point to the wealth of customers a stone's throw away, in the subdivisions surrounding Greystone Village, off Sawmill and Lead Mine roads.
"Signage is poor," says Gibson. "But I've got 850 homes across the street and I've got another thousand homes behind me. That's within a two-mile radius.
"We've done things in the community. We've had the homeowners' association from Greystone up here for appetizers and things like that, just introducing ourselves to the community. We talk to the tables, and we've got Garland [Swann] out here as a maître d', as opposed to just a hostess. Garland gets to know these people on a first-name [basis].
"We believe: good food, good mood."
One can't help but channel a little Rosencrantz and Guildenstern over at Savoy. Asked to describe their style, the brothers talk as a team:
"Our focus is more on what it tastes like.It's not all about snazzy garnishes to confuse the diner, pull an illusion. It's pretty simple, straightforward good food," says Gibson.
"I'm not a big fan of getting into all the chemicals, like sodium alginate," says Smith.
"Marshall graduated top of his class" from New England Culinary Institute, Gibson chimes in.
"Our name stems from the Savoie region of France," explains Smith, where both brothers trained under Michelin-rated Jean-Michel Bouvier.
"We didn't think actually what it meant. The Savoy Hotel in London ... Gordon Ramsay's [Savoy Grill]," says Gibson.
Smith chimes in: "It's where Escoffier started course dining [over a century ago]."
"It's somewhat daunting sometimes," says Gibson.
Citing the legendary Escoffier is not an academic exercise. The concept at Savoy is very much course dining, with the dinner menu intentionally broken out into first, second and third courses. (The lunch menu more modestly offers appetizers, salads and entrées, all quite reasonable from $5 to $14. The magnificent Monte Cristo, like a croque monsieur but with Emmenthal replacing Gruyere, is a mere $8.)
"Ideally, [for dinner,] we'd prefer that everybody came and got the seven-course tasting menu. It's paired with wine. Marshall pairs the wines. It goes from a vegetable into the foie gras, and the flavors continue to get heavier," explains Gibson. The tasting menu is thoughtfully considered, and mildly decadent. ("It's got filet and scallops and foie. We put all the good stuff on the tasting menu.")
So, are these brothers locals? Is Greystone their neighborhood too, their little bit of Savoie in North Raleigh?
"Hey, this is Uptown!" corrects Gibson, poking a little fun at the newly christened "Raleigh Midtown."
This is Uptown. Not a bad slogan, for someone trained more in mise than in marketing. Savoy may have a long life yet—up there, Uptown.
As Raleigh's suburbs have filled in with subdivisions and strip malls, many families have fled even further out, embracing longer commutes in favor of small-town living in the outlying municipalities of Wake County such as Wake Forest, Knightdale, Apex and Fuquay-Varina. Restaurateurs have followed their customer base, moving into renovated historic buildings and experimenting with a variety of cuisines.
Say you're one of the 326,000 Wake County workers whose commute averages 25 minutes each way, and you live in Apex, Holly Springs, Wake Forest or Fuquay-Varina. After fighting traffic for what seems like most of the day, getting back in the car for another long drive is not an attractive option. But you're in the 'burbs. Your only option is Applebees, right? Maybe Outback if you're lucky.
Well, Kirk Hatzidakis may be your new best friend. He's the owner of Xios Authentic Greek Cuisine on West Williams Street in Apex's Peakway Shopping Center. Entering Xios, you wouldn't necessarily guess it is a Greek restaurant. There are no telltale Mediterranean maps on the wall, no postcards of searingly white buildings against startlingly blue sky. (Begone, you sunning cats!)
"I'm staying away from that, I want a very clean look," says Hatzidakis. The result is a sleek cosmopolitan feel, with soothing shades of gray and modernist cylindrical chandeliers. It feels upscale, but friendly.
"My wife and I sat down with an architect and told him what we wanted. If you look at the island of Xios, the shape the island is, and you look at the bar, the shape of the [white Corian] bar mimics the shape of the island."
Hatzidakis and his wife, Denise, opened the restaurant four years ago, after he dropped out of the IT rat race. He'd grown up among restaurateurs and missed that life; his father was a chef for 58 years, running two successful Greek kitchens in San Francisco.
It didn't take long to pick a name for this new one.
"It's actually the name of an island in Greece that I was born on. Myself, my dad, my mom—all of us were born there.
"Our menu is strictly Greek. It has not been modified in any way to accommodate people's taste here. Everything is made daily. I do not want to have something I serve for three days in a row. It's made by us, it's made fresh, and people like it," says Hatzidakis.
Chef Niko Stavrojohn has now taken over from Hatzidakis' father, who'd come out of retirement to train the staff and perfect the recipes.
The menu may be "strictly Greek," but it is very accessible, offering everything from the $22 arnisia paidakia (grilled lamb chops) to the $8 gyro (like the hamburger, the gyro can vary widely in excellence; Xios' is really superb). If you have a big group, it's fun to get a table full of mezethes, which are, like tapas, small plates for sharing. As the menu says, mezethes (meh-zeh-thes) means "to share, enjoy, and live life to its fullest!"
A balanced combination would be the dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), calamari (fried squid), saganaki (flaming cheese with brandy) and horiatiki (village salad). Or leave the decision-making to Chef Stavrojohn and order a Village Special ($20 per person, or $30 with wine sampler), which includes three appetizers, salad, entrée and pastry.
When the Hatzidakises were shopping for a space, they first went to Yahoo.com and researched demographics as part of their business plan. They initially looked at Cary, but felt it was "maxed out." Xios was only the second tenant to move into the new strip mall.
"I think it's a great location. Apex is booming. [When we opened,] the hospital wasn't there, the Harris Teeter wasn't there. We see things growing up around us now."
Their catering business is a big part of sales, supported by local demand.
"It's started to pick up really well now . . . probably two to four times per week: offices, businesses, birthday parties, weddings. We actually have a couple of weddings coming up in the restaurant. . . . Two weeks ago, we had a 75th birthday party of a gentleman, and they broke some plates on the patio!"
The patio isn't just for parties. Most nights it's a quiet, romantic spot for dinner. Xios seats 48 outside and 132 inside, and fills up quickly the first Friday of the month, when they have belly dancing (first dance at 7:30, second dance around 8:15).
Not a bad way to relax après-work.
Commuters from Fuquay-Varina don't have to drive to the Triangle to find a sticky bun or scone made fresh that morning, a French baguette or sourdough loaf straight out of the oven, or a decadent cake to take home, and a steaming cup of java made with just-roasted Larry's Beans.
Stick Boy Bread Co. owners Josh and Katie Dies do things the old-fashioned way in the bakery they opened on Main Street in January—a business that's as much about community as it is about food.
"We really were determined to be in Fuquay around the people that we knew and the community that we love," Katie Dies says. "There wasn't any place where people can come and hang out and meet their friends and talk. We made the conscious decision to put ourselves downtown. To be somewhere [for people] to come and feel like they were in their hometown."
Josh, who grew up in Fuquay, begins his overnight baking shift at 9 p.m. and finishes up at 6 a.m., with a precision rooted in his hands-on method that, as Katie explains, is what makes their breads truly artisan.
"Traditionally in a bakery, you're going to use your hands," she says. "Josh shapes everything by hand. We use a really large mixer, but that's really the only equipment we use."
Josh even "flashes the bread by hand," meaning he provides the texture or scoring of each loaf without using any extra tools. Each bread, cake or pastry is made with unbleached flour and with either organic or all-natural ingredients, free of preservatives.
A daily bread schedule (found in store and online) lets customers sink their teeth into freshly made loaves. The standard bread menu (sourdough, French, wheat and multigrain varieties) is sprinkled with unique varieties such as Fig Walnut Wheat, Blueberry Oatmeal, Apricot Brioche and Kalamata Olive. All can be sliced upon request. A take-home loaf of Pecan Raisin Sourdough proved surprising—the crusty shell gave way to a just soft enough interior. Even pre-sliced, it lasted about a week without any refrigeration. Desserts are good, too, with simple, pure taste.
Katie promotes the business by word of mouth, offering their help in fundraising efforts around town and inviting people to use their space.
Open since Jan. 31, the couple has settled into downtown Main Street, in an old space that they began restoring in July 2007. The Frappathingy at the coffee bar has already gained notoriety for providing a caffeinated sugar rush. When Fuquay-Varina residents show off Stick Boy to a visitor, they say things like, "My sister can't go most mornings without coming in for a sticky bun" or "Their chocolate torte is amazing."
Josh and Katie's relationship with bread, Stick Boy and each other started long before 2007. In college, she worked at the original Stick Boy in Boone, and he visited with owners Carson and Mindy Coatney during her shift. Baking piqued their interest. After moving back to Wake County, Josh and Katie realized they weren't fulfilled in their careers—industrial design and real estate, respectively. In talking to the Coatneys, they decided to partner up and open their own place.
Try throwing out the word "artisan" at your next outing in the 'burbs. The folks from Fuquay will know what you're talking about.
With a reputation that precedes her now-famous buffet, Joyce Staton recalls her family and friends' love of her cooking long before she even thought to do it for a living.
"One of my sons was in the military," she says. "He would say, 'Mama, I've traveled all over the world and I didn't realize what a great cook you are.' He said he was always chasing that taste. He would try something and think, 'It don't taste like Mama's.'"
Luckily for Fuquay-Varina residents and the surrounding community, they don't need to chase down any flavors. It's just a quick hop downtown to Joyce and Family Restaurant (or just Joyce's, as the locals call it).
Joyce's simple, made from scratch food has been earning high marks from the community since Staton began a small takeout business on Academy Street in 1997. Urged by friends and patrons to expand to a sit-down restaurant, she moved over to 135 S. Main St. in November 2004.
The place lacks any fancy décor, but the real show is toward the back. A small, fragrant, all-you-can-eat buffet welcomes patrons, as steam rises from brilliantly colored Southern favorites. The whole cast is there, and for only $7.99. Creamy mashed potatoes, with their homemade debonair, share the stage with their sweet, bright cousins, the yams, and popular friend, baked mac and cheese. Collards, turnip greens and flavorful cabbage round out the chorus of greens, while pinto beans with a velvety bite and simply seasoned butter beans represent the legumes. Carnivores are enticed by smothered pork chops, juicy baked chicken, a tender version of chicken pastry (or chicken and dumplings) and an occasional meatloaf.
But the homemade fried chicken definitely steals the show. Except, as Staton will tell you, the credit really belongs to her husband, Lewis. She's mum about his secret recipe, but admits that it's probably the most popular item on the line.
"I tried one day to leave it off [the buffet]," says Staton. "Oh Lord, that was a mistake. If I didn't have the fried chicken, I'd be in trouble."
You can order sandwiches too, although the menu is hard to locate inside, so it's best to ask at the counter. Staton lists the pork chop, meatloaf, fried chicken and fish sandwiches as favorites. They range from $2.50 to $3.
"We do food from scratch, and it's hard. It's easy to open a can, but you have to peel the potatoes, wash collards, wash turnip greens," Staton says. "But I can't imagine not doing this. I love what I'm doing."
"It's like I'm living in a dream world. I've met such great people. It's like I'm having company over for dinner, you know? It's just like family. And I love it."
A few of our favorite restaurants in suburban strip malls and small outlying towns of the Triangle. Add yours to the list by commenting on this article below.Bella Monica • Olde Raleigh Village, Northwest Raleigh • www.bellamonica.com