Less than 500 miles from Columbus, this city in North Carolina's Research Triangle is in the midst of a culinary breakthrough.
For an introduction to Raleigh, North Carolina, look no further than Brewery Bhavana, a microcosm of the city’s burgeoning culinary scene. The taproom features a mix of Belgian-style beers and Chinese dim sum, and—in an equally improbable pairing—a flower shop and a bookstore too. It has gained national recognition, and along with other nearby restaurants and bars, it has helped breathe new life into a section of downtown once begging for attention and investment.
This is the city and its cuisine; it’s a story of cross-cultural exchange, of mixing old and new, of a region experiencing dramatic growth. Raleigh is the second-largest city in the Tar Heel State, and like Columbus, it’s a state capital. According to USA Today, it’s the ninth-fastest-growing city in the United States.
With all those mouths to feed, it’s no wonder Raleigh is becoming a culinary hot spot—and the world is beginning to notice. In 2017, Zagat named Raleigh among the nation’s most exciting food destinations, ahead of New York, Nashville and Miami.
Growth isn’t just about numbers here. It’s about the diverse food and drink places springing up across the city, a collection of timeless classics and ambitious new concepts. Whether you enjoy traditional Southern fare, modern Laotian cuisine or a taste of nearly every beer under the sun, Raleigh has something delicious to offer.
Southern Style and Comfort Food
In the same section of downtown Raleigh near Brewery Bhavana and the state Capitol building, chef Ashley Christensen found the site for her new restaurant in an unlikely location: an old Piggly Wiggly grocery store. According to Kaitlyn Goalen, the executive director of Christensen’s AC Restaurants group, the space sat vacant for several years before Christensen discovered it. The surrounding neighborhood had seen better days.
Christensen’s goal was to “reactivate that part of downtown,” says Goalen, so she took a chance and bought the property, opening Beasley’s Chicken + Honey in 2011. That decision proved insightful, as the neighborhood continues to experience a resurgence of energy and growth. The restaurant’s convenient location attracts a wide array of customers, including business people, conventioneers, families and even those who seek Champagne with their fried chicken.
There is no doubt that the fried bird is the star of this joint. According to Goalen, Beasley’s sold upwards of 49,000 fried chicken and waffle meals in 2018 alone. Its popular version of this Southern comfort food pays homage to Christensen’s parents: The fried chicken honors her mother’s Memphis roots, and since her father was a part-time beekeeper, her mom drizzled honey on her fried chicken to lend a sweet/salty contrast, says Goalen. That’s why Christensen does it, too.
And it’s not just chicken either. Christensen transformed the old Piggly Wiggly into three separate establishments: Beasley’s, a burger and sandwich joint called Chuck’s and the craft cocktail lounge Fox Liquor Bar. Along with two other downtown ventures—an original comfort food restaurant, Poole’s Diner, and an upscale eatery, Death & Taxes—Christensen has built a mini Raleigh empire.
She’s also received top honors for her Southern cooking, winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2014 and finishing as a runner-up for the James Beard Outstanding Chef Award in 2018. It’s proof that comfort food and haute cuisine can be one and the same.
Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, 237 S. Wilmington St., ac-restaurants.com, 919-322-0127. No reservations.
Old-School Taverns and Diners
Taking a step inside The Raleigh Times Bar is like taking a step back in time. That’s because it’s housed in the building that was once home to The Raleigh Times, the city’s defunct afternoon newspaper. The paper was churned out at that location from 1906 to 1925, and many vestiges of the work are incorporated in the restaurant’s décor and menu.
When owner Greg Hatem bought and renovated the space in 2006, he was determined to retain the charm of the structure. Aged newspaper clippings and images line the walls, while a display case shows off relics of the newsroom of yesteryear, including old printing press letters, newspaper carrier bags and even reporters’ notebooks. Unsurprisingly, the bar attracts a certain crowd.
“We’re known as a journalist’s hangout,” says Hatem.
The tavern and eatery changed from a reporter’s watering hole to a mainstream destination on a fateful day in 2008. “That’s when we went from recording history to making it,” he says.
A U.S. senator named Barack Obama stopped in while campaigning in Raleigh, and back then he didn’t have security with him, says Hatem. Diners walked up to shake his hand. Photos of the man who would become president appeared in publications across the country, including The New York Times. That day helped put The Raleigh Times Bar on the map, Hatem says.
For those looking to eat like a president, or at least someone on the campaign trail, the restaurant’s most popular dish is its house-ground burger. It also offers locally produced cheeses and breads, while its salads feature vegetables grown in local greenhouses.
In a place that has both written history and made a bit of it, Raleigh’s past is so important to Hatem that he includes a class about the city’s history in staff training.
“My servers are so good at teaching people about Raleigh, we get asked if we are associated with the chamber of commerce,” Hatem jokes.
The Raleigh Times Bar, 14 E. Hargett St., raleightimesbar.com, 919-833-0999. No reservations.
Beer Gardens, Taprooms and Cocktail Bars
If someone visited the Raleigh Beer Garden every day for a year, she could imbibe a different brew each time and still not tap every keg offered inside this glorious haven of hops.
According to general manager Carlos Rivers, Raleigh Beer Garden’s extensive draft list helped it earn two impressive worldwide distinctions: the most beer taps of any restaurant in one location (402) and the largest number of breweries represented in one venue.
The beer garden’s offerings are ever-changing, so don’t expect something so simple as a draft list. “We don’t have a printed beer menu, because we change 30 to 40 percent of our beers every 30 to 45 days,” says Rivers. Instead, guests are invited to download Untappd, a free app that lets users track and share beers they’ve tried or want to try. Raleigh Beer Garden’s profile on the app details the day’s offerings.
To eliminate crowding, this taproom on steroids is housed in a three-level structure, with each floor featuring different beers. All 144 taps on the first floor offer North Carolina beers. Other domestics and some international brews are the draw on the second floor. The top floor features a rooftop bar with 12 beers. If you still need more variety, check out the old Airstream camper in the backyard, which was converted into a bar that features 24 more taps.
In addition to its vast beer offerings, the Raleigh Beer Garden features another unusual characteristic: a three-story tree in the center of the structure. According to owner Niall Hanley, the pin oak was lumbered from the yard of a Raleigh resident and reassembled inside the massive bar and eatery. Most of the bar’s counters and furniture are live-edge creations handmade using wood from trees that once grew on the property.
The beer-lover’s destination also serves bar favorites and Southern classics, from a smoked brisket platter and a cheese and charcuterie tray to brats and pulled pork sandwiches. Each April, the Raleigh Beer Garden hosts the revered Wing Fling, which pits local eateries in a wing cook-off for the crown.
Raleigh Beer Garden, 614 Glenwood Ave., theraleighbeergarden.com, 919-324-3415. No reservations accepted on Saturdays or on Friday and Sunday nights.
Though Brewery Bhavana is the shiny new gem for owners Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha, it’s not their first foray into the Raleigh dining scene. Next door, the brother and sister opened Bida Manda Laotian Restaurant and Bar in 2012 to pay homage to their parents and their hometown of Luang Prabang, Laos. The name Bida Manda is a Sanskrit term for father and mother, according to the restaurant’s website.
Lao cuisine includes a mixture of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese influences, filtered through the lens of French culinary style because of colonial rule. Bida Manda’s menu offers familiar items that have made their way into mainstream American dining, such as spring rolls, alongside traditional fare that may be a little less familiar, such as duck or beef larb (a meat salad with spicy lime, local herbs and fermented fish sauce) and thum mak houng (a green papaya salad with tomato, peanuts, spicy lime sauce and a choice of meat).
Peter Dawyot, who moved to Raleigh 10 years ago and manages a public relations and marketing firm, dines at Bida Manda frequently and says the food is incredible. His favorite dishes include the caramelized ginger pork ribs and the pho Lao—a pot of beef, broth, noodles, onions and five spice (popular in Lao food). He describes it as a tasty, warm soup ideal for a winter meal.
Dawyot also frequents Brewery Bhavana, which came about because of homebrewer Patrick Woodson’s chance dinner with his parents at Bida Manda, according the brewery’s website. He and the Nolinthas struck up a rapport and eventually brought floral designer Deana Nguyen and bookstore manager Monica Jon into the fold to form the enormous taproom/restaurant/flower shop/bookstore.
The accolades came quickly. Brewery Bhavana was named to Bon Appetit’s Hot 10 list of best new restaurants in 2017.
The Nolinthas’ two restaurants have helped contribute to the greater revitalization of the area, which will take another step forward in 2019 with the renovation of Moore Square across the street. The greenspace will include a stage for outdoor concerts, festivals, community gatherings and more.
Bida Manda, 222 S. Blount St., bidamanda.com, 919-829-9999; Brewery Bhavana, 218 S. Blount St., brewerybhavana.com, 919-829-9998. Reservations recommended.
Tami Kamin Meyer is a Columbus freelance writer who has enjoyed exploring Raleigh’s food and drink scene in the past.