Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen doesn't assault you with its Southernness. There are no "down home" witticisms on the walls, rocking chairs at the entrance nor "clever" misspellings on the menu. What you do find is a menu full of well-executed dishes served in a sleek setting.
The restaurant opened early this year on Fayetteville Street in the Raleigh Marriott and offers seasonal menus of Southern dishes featuring produce and meats from North Carolina farms. Michael Rigot is the executive chef. Rigot has stops in Birmingham and Nashville on his resumé so he should be well acquainted with Southern by now (true, there was also a stint in Cleveland but it was south Cleveland). The kitchen gets its ingredients from several local providers including Mills Family Farm, Boulted Bread, JJ Sweets and First Hand Foods. Rye keeps a current list available at the restaurant of local ingredients in use.
Of course, it doesn't matter where your ingredients come from if you don't know how to assemble them. Fortunately, based on the testimony of such items as Shrimp Hushpuppies ($11), Cheerwine Spareribs ($26) and Gumbo Ya Ya ($8), the kitchen knows how to put together a dish.
The Sweet Tea Chicken ($24) is a quarter chicken marinated in sweet tea and then roasted. It arrives with tea-darkened skin that opens to reveal the blindingly white juicy meat inside. Throw in some roasted sweet potatoes and scrumptious, crumb-topped mac 'n' cheese as sides and you'll be tempted to exclaim "Slap my head and call me Sally." But please don't. Rye isn't that kind of Southern.
Other dishes of note include a Southern Slaw (pickled cucumbers, onions, radishes, kale and cabbage all tossed together) ($5), a Chicken and Waffle BLT ($9) and a Beaufort Supper ($24) that consists of shrimp, clams, Andouille sausage, mussels and fingerling potatoes simmered in Lonerider's Shotgun Betty. (That's not the only use of Lonerider you'll find. The dessert menu boasts a float that uses it.)
There is a daily "meat and three" special worth noting. Depending on the day, the meat may be fried chicken, pork brisket, fresh fish, turkey, country fried steak, meatloaf or barbecue pork. For $10 you'll be happy and full.
Rye's preference for local extends to its beverage menu as well. While not exclusively local, there is an extensive selection of North Carolina craft beers, a few on draft and many more from the bottle.
The service is friendly. On one visit my server cheerfully went to check on a beer I was interested in—they had run out but he thought a new batch had possibly arrived that afternoon. It hadn't, so he then took time to suggest some similar tastes they had available.
Despite its positives, there are a few quibbles. The dining room is attractive with its fireplace and clean lines, but you never forget that you're in a hotel. I love hotels but I don't usually want a view of the front desk area when dining at one. (To be fair, you could negate that by getting a table on the patio.) Also, even on an evening when it wasn't especially busy, the noise coming down the hallway from the open kitchen occasionally peaked at distracting levels.
Those nitpicks aside, Rye should earn consideration when you're seeking a downtown lunch spot or dinner before venturing to an event at the nearby Convention Center. Just remember to use your good Southern Sunday manners.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mouth of the south."