I think back on my mid-to-late 20s as my "power" years. Not because I was a formidable force in the New York publishing world, but because I thrived on the power lunch. And I do mean thrived: That midday meal was my primary nutrition.
A bagel and schmear on the morning train, a $2 cheese slice after work, but in between, around 1 p.m., it was the lobster tail in saffron citrus beurre blanc following a starter of endive, truffled Sottocenere and fleur de sel. And then the cayenne-dusted chocolate ganache bombe. And the glass of Sancerre. And, OK, a cappuccino, if I must.
So when the Indy sent me out to investigate where Triangle bigwigs go to conduct business, I cleared my calendar, dug around for a pair of heels and loosened my belt a notch. This was going to be fun.
Who knew I would have been just fine in my Danskos? Business in North Carolina gets done a little differently. Most people in the Triangle have adopted a refreshingly understated view of the art of lunching.
Take N.C. Rep. Ty Harrell (D-Wake). He is just as likely to be seen at The Roast Grill, known for its chili dogs, as he is at Wild Ginger or 18 Seaboard, where lunch can run $30/ person.
And if you ask Joan Siefert Rose, former general manager of WUNC and a mover and shaker in both media and business, where she typically takes a meeting, she'll say the delicious but modest Irregardless Cafe in Raleigh, or the equally unprepossessing Thai Cafe in Durham.
Even in the rarefied art world, moderation abounds. Tom Rankin, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, usually strolls down to Ninth Street's Blue Corn Cafe for a chipotle chicken salad when he's hosting a guest for lunch. Occasionally he'll head to the Federal, "if it's a filmmaker or an artist or somebody I'd really think wants a sense of what the scene is in Durham and what's going on."
But Rankin doesn't see a need to get much more formal at lunchtime than Piedmont or Watts Grocery, even if he's recruiting someone. "I don't necessarily want somebody who wants to be wined and dined; I want someone who wants to be here, first, and wants to see Durham, second."
And how about master chef Ashley Christensen, the James Beard Award winner who has sent three restaurants (Enoteca Vin, The Raleigh Times and Poole's) soaring to the top of the local restaurant scene? Surely she doesn't just grab a burger.
OK, Christensen does go upscale. For her, it's Fins, William and Lisa D'Auvray's high-concept, high-design California-Asian oasis in the first floor of Raleigh's Progress Energy II building.
"I always get the hot pot, which I think is an awesome lunch option," says Christensen. "But also if you're really lucky and you ask really nice, sometimes William will do the sashimi plate."
D'Auvray's sashimi plate is magnificent, an artist's palette of color and flavor, an apt meal for a culinary perfectionist. After speaking to Christensen, I dropped by Fins for a quick dinner in their bar, which is a humble term for a room with a 25-foot slab of granite and a wall of water coursing behind the liquor shelf.
The sashimi was a steal at $26. It came with luxurious cuts of sake, hamachi, toro and the best tuna loin I've had, garnished with a pile of ginger, a seaweed salad that was not too oily, and (as our server was careful to point out) a lovely pale-green tower of real wasabi.
But let's slip that gold card back in its slot and get back to Harrell. There's obviously an incentive for a politician to be seen out and about, like a regular guy. And as the representative for District 41 in Wake County, he needs to keep up with constituents. Besides, with rules on funding and gifts, it might be easier on everyone to keep the bill low.
"I just have to pay for my own, when it comes to the lobbyists. Apparently they used up all the funds before I got here," Harrell says, laughing.
When he's not buying himself lunch at 18 Seaboard, there are "the standard burger joints like Char-Grill and Cook Out," says Harrell. "Powerful folks, and some highbrow folks too—they'll say, 'Let's just go get a burger.' . . . People for the most part want to be able to have a good meal [that will] allow them to get their work done, whatever that may be. Where you can shed [your] airs."
Well, there's nothing like a 68-year-old hot dog joint to knock off some airs, with its 10-seat lunch counter and a line out the door to make everyone feel equal. There's no "best table," no tab, no maître d' to fawn over you. At The Roast Grill, there's only cigarettes, beer, glass-bottle Cokes and the signature no-ketchup dog, preferably ordered all the way (chili, onions, mustard, slaw) and burnt.
The Roast Grill sells on average 200 hot dogs each weekday, 300 on Saturdays. A narrow house with a first-floor storefront, it dates from 1940 and is pure anachronism among the nearby quiet warehouses and edgy bars. It is most clearly marked by an old-style Coca-Cola sign out front reading "HOT WEINERS."
"The Roast Grill? My grandfather had that name dreamed up. And it didn't say enough about the hot dogs, so Grandma wanted a separate sign outside," explains owner "Hot Dog George" Poniros, the grandson of founders George and Mary Charles.
The Roast Grill might not have survived these many decades if it weren't located right in the thick of legislative territory, only blocks from the Capitol. Politicians, attorneys and lobbyists just about make quorum in the place.
"Gov. Hunt used to frequent there all the time," says Harrell. (According to Poniros, the former governor still comes in about every 10 days. Sometimes, "he'll see a line out the door and really be upset that he can't wait." Hunt, of course, is too polite to cut.)
I wonder aloud if the lunch counter is weighted more from one side of the aisle than the other. No, says Poniros.
"A lot of each. We try and stay unbiased, but we get a little heated here and there. On occasion, we've had five or six congresspeople of all walks at the counter, and lobbyists and the governor at the same time."
The general public is well represented too. I'm seated today next to a third-generation Roast Grill aficionado who lives in Clayton and drives in every couple of weeks for a hot dog with her dad, who lives in Wilmington. Her grandfather started the biweekly tradition when he worked at The News & Observer in the 1950s.
Down the bar sit two well-coiffed ladies in white summer blouses, their eyes downcast. They dab their mouths primly, but when George yells over to check in, they heartily agree to split a third dog between them before recommending to me the homemade pound cake for dessert. Poniros' mother makes the cake every day or two, along with a tray of decadent baklava.
"She's really tired of it," says Poniros. "But the public demands it."
A quick glimpse down the counter turns up a row of diminutive green glass Coca-Colas, though one gentleman in a heavily starched dress shirt has clearly sneaked in his own plastic 12-oz. of Diet Coke. (Beer is available, but only domestic, a handwritten sign reads.) The more Cokes you buy, the better the price, explains another sign over the register. There's also a price list for the food: 1 dog for $2, 2 for $4, 3 for $6, charted in a graph all the way up to 12 hot dogs, which are, in fact, $24.
Spending just one hour at the Roast Grill provides a snapshot of what life there has surely been like since 1940. When the door opens at 11 a.m., the grill is already hot. At 11:05 the postwoman drops off the mail (it turns out three of the four of us in the place know her already—"These are the people in your neighborhood ..." Harrell begins singing, channeling Sesame Street). By 11:25, the entire counter is full, and everyone's talking to everyone else. It's hard to tell if any deals are being made, but, clearly, groundwork is being laid, one chili dog at a time.
So what makes the art of power-lunching more understated in the Triangle than in other cities? Is it some sort of down-home hospitality, a reluctance to show off? Is it thriftiness, passed down through generations of Protestant forebears? Or perhaps with all these universities, there's a town/ gown effect: agri-pragmatism bred to a professorial suspicion of wealth.
Without psychoanalyzing the poor bedeviled South too much, we might find a simpler answer right in front of us. Start running through lists of high-end restaurants. How many can you think of that are open at noon? (That's a rhetorical question, folks; no need to e-mail me.)
I came up with a few, including Án, Bistro 607, Caffe Luna, Glenwood Grill, Herons, The Mint, Mura, Peak City Grill, Rue Cler, St. Jacques, Vivace and those mentioned already in this article. As a sampling goes, that's not many upscale venues for a combined metropolitan area of more than a million eaters, even if only a tenth of them are power-lunchers.
Most Triangle fine-dining favorites are not open until evening. Why? Maybe it's the lack of daytime waitstaff in college communities or the demanding realities of running a small farm-to-table kitchen. But as the Triangle continues to grow, I can't help but think: If you open, we will come.
Until then, lunchtime business will get done the Southern way, on its own time, at its own pace. Occasionally with a paper napkin or three.
And that's all right. Because sometimes you just want a hot dog.
For more information on the restaurants in this article, see our online Dining Guide.