At Raleigh's Café Helios, everyone wants to know if you're having a good time, all the time.
The server and the cashier, the barista and the bartender, the cook and the busboy: Uniformly, they ask how things were, if you enjoyed yourself, how the drip coffee compared to its pour-over counterpart, if the food tasted good, or how the syrup-wrenched cocktail Lady Luna, like, felt. At first, it seems polite, a sign of professional decorum that the original Helios—which closed abruptly at the end of 2014 after a dozen years in business—often lacked, however beloved it may have been or how pivotal it proved for the revival of downtown Raleigh.
But soon enough, the act starts to feel desperate, like sycophancy, or a demand on my happiness, not an inquiry into its condition. For me, perhaps it was the second time the busboy looked me squarely in the eye before 9 a.m. to ask how everything had been. Or maybe it was during a recent Sunday brunch, when one owner—who loomed in the dining room like a scarecrow, meant to fend off his young staff's potential mistakes and failing—wanted to know what else he could get me. Nothing, but thank you, and for the third time in an hour, no less.
For a week, I lied almost every time, whether it was for the breakfast to-go or the drinks at the bar—managing a smile and a "good, thanks," all while allowing Helios II yet another chance. But now, after a half-dozen trips, I can answer honestly: It was awful, a superficially ambitious simulacrum of a place that had a few small, almost charming problems in the past and has a dozen fundamental concerns in the present.
In late 2015, the Tuscany Construction Group upended the Glenwood South real estate market when it purchased the Helios building for more than $1.5 million, a per-square-foot price that set a new precedent. And, as if under pressure to recruit a well-heeled clientele and make up the margins, the space is indeed more ostentatious, with shelves full of liquor, an automated dispenser full of bottled wines, and a glass case populated by colorful (if flavorless) macarons. Stained-glass collages decorate and dominate nearly every window, and a ladder that seems swiped from a Restoration Hardware catalog runs along a ceiling-side liquor shelf, like an invitation to buy better, to spend more.
The deep orange paint that once reflected the place's name so well has yielded to bold hues of purple and magenta, green and black. An enormous painting of a solar eclipse looms on a rear wall, like a two-dimensional representation of a Richard Serra monolith. It is, metaphorically, Helios's new mission statement—to serve as a coffee shop that greets the morning at 7 a.m. and as a well-stocked bar that stays open until, as one employee told me, "everyone finally leaves."
If that's the aim, Helios should immediately reconsider its entire drink program.
During my first visit, I asked about the beans they served—"Stockton Graham, locally roasted right here in Raleigh," the barista reported. Indeed, Stockton Graham is based in Raleigh, but it's a macro-roaster with enormous clients and the mantra "blending the art of business and coffee." It is, in industry parlance, gas-station coffee. It's kind of like going to a fancy restaurant, ordering a hamburger, and being served two frozen locally sourced patties. The beans are burnt and their flavor indistinct, save the bitter remnant that seems to follow every sip. Whether served through a large drip system or as a four-dollar pour-over, the beans fight to reveal any interesting notes at all.
Likewise, the espresso tastes like hot, thin mud, flavored with the charred remains you might scrape from a skillet after you've sautéed dinner's aromatics too long. The Kokulu, a "Turkish-spiced cortado," adds some distraction, at least, though every time I saw one made, it was presented with a nonchalance that seemed to proclaim, "Sorry, but this coffee just doesn't deserve nice things."
Don't dare allow that espresso to infect one of the mixed drinks at night, either. In fact, avoid Helios at night altogether, when straightforward cocktails sport master-mixologist price tags, and the kitchen is sealed off with a massive iron grate that suggests it's been very bad during the day. (To be honest, it probably has.)
Really, the Stockton Graham stock is so abysmal that one barista, Adrienne Guthrie, twice offered me beans from other area roasters, including Carrboro Coffee Roasters and Garner's Full Bloom. She tucks them away in a personal stash beneath the counter. She's a capable, enterprising barista, and, really, the one point of salvation from a half-dozen visits. Management would do well to follow her lead, to make such a private stock the only public option.
While you're not enjoying your coffee, the breakfast service is competent enough. Helios' egg-mustard-and-tomato signature croissant, The Early Rise, has been rebranded as the heavier, less zesty, but fine "Early Riser." The Tex-Mex-style "Energy Wrap" is filling, and a blend of sweet-and-russet potatoes in the side scramble benefits from the unexpected punch of roasted onions and red peppers.
Steer clear on the weekends, though, when brunch subsumes breakfast and Helios's overzealousness becomes, frankly, painful. On a menu filled with steak, duck, Eggs Benedict, and shrimp, even the humble French toast is hilariously bad, from bread and batter to decoration and delivery. Rather than fry the bread, the kitchen roasts it in the oven, which means the egg glaze on top tastes like grilled egg on toast. The "apple marmalade" was a spiceless mush that reminded me of a seasonal sexual lubricant I'd hope never to encounter again, and the accompanying raspberries had imploded into goop, as if embarrassed to be part of the enterprise altogether.
Served on a white rectangular platter, the pieces of bread and the dollops of alabaster cream peaked in a sopping, unseemly mess, a mountain of ill repute. Several days later, I can't decide if I'm more surprised that bad French toast exists or that I'd survived all these years in relative innocence, having never encountered it.
The "triple-grilled" Nutella-and-banana sandwich, at least, was decent, with slivers of banana and a layer of the hazelnut spread pushed between two pieces of average bread, grilled just until the chocolate began to melt, and sliced into triangles. I wondered if my niece, who is five, had ever made one. Had it cost her eight dollars? And had her fruit cup of melons and grapes been partially frozen, too? Maybe the melon came from Stockton Graham.
During the past few weeks, I've seen several friends arguing online about the new Helios. Some complain. Some praise (typically faint or qualified). Others simply say, "I don't care what you say. I'm glad it's back."
I took careful note of those people and, when visiting, always kept an eye out for them. I hoped to get their takeaway after a trip.
But I never saw them. When they do go, I hope their sense of nostalgia tastes better than the espresso.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ain't No Sunshine"