The restaurant was too full to request another seat.
By the time I had settled onto a broad black stool early on a weekday night last week, I had already elected against a 20-minute wait at the door of the fourth and latest location of the quickly growing local Latino chain, Gonza Tacos y Tequila, directly across Hillsborough Street from the strip's central sigil, the Bell Tower. The line had pooled into a little portico at the lip of the new Aloft Raleigh, the chic boutique hotel owned by the same company that also controls the Sheraton brand. When it opened late last month, Raleigh became the last Triangle vertex to get an Aloft. Gonza has just launched the location's first restaurant.
In my two visits during its first two weeks of service, the tables were loaded and the list long, with hungry and smartly dressed professionals clutching bobble-headed figurines of superheroes that served as surrogates for their name or the little black buzzers with the red twinkling lights. But I put myself at the mercy of first-come, first-serve bar seating. Since there was barely room to get a drink at the bar without disrupting the service of the well, I counted myself lucky in finding a seat at all. When I glanced to my left to nod to my new neighbor, who immediately pulled his pint glass away from his waiting lips and picked up his cell phone to show me a photo before he could introduce himself, I knew this dinner would soon become about more than food.
"You ever seen this?" said the middle-aged man, staring at me from beneath a baseball cap emblazoned with what looked like the state flag. "Did you ever go here?"
He presented a photo of Sadlack's, the bar and sandwich shop that sat on this very corner until early 2014, when it and a neighboring strip mall that contained collegiate staples like a record store and a head shop were razed so the university could get nice, cross-campus digs for visiting parents. I told my neighbor I had been to Sadlack's many times, in college and afterward. And then I let him lecture me on its importance—and how he had "grown old while Raleigh grew up"—for the next hour.
During four decades in the same spot, Sadlack's had gone from being one piece of a street that was by most accounts wild and crazy to one of the strip's last vestiges of the weird and homey. Hillsborough Street has needed help in attracting students from campus and civilians from surrounding neighborhoods in recent years, but the strategy behind the recent boost seems to involve wiping out what's worked in favor of what's worked everywhere else.
In the name of city progress and economic revitalization, Hillsborough Street surrendered Sadlack's like so many of its nearby outposts—The Brewery, replaced by a canyon-sized set of student apartments, or The Jackpot, eaten to feed a big condo construction site. As with many collegiate rows across America, potential dens of iniquity—or certain hubs of personality, depending on your vantage—have moved out so that brightly lit, relatively clean storefronts can take their place. In Durham, see 9th Street; in Chapel Hill, see Franklin.