The Triangle area of North Carolina encompasses the region’s three main university towns – Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. It has also become a true epicurean heaven, boasting some of the best restaurants and chefs in the country. Ranging from high-class fine dining to innovative gastronomy and down-home Southern comfort food, these ten must-try restaurants in the Triangle area make the best of local produce and tradition.
Located within the growing foodie scene of Wilmington Street, at the heart of downtown Raleigh, bu ku serves up a unique dining experience with an innovative, international twist. Launched by acclaimed local chef William D’Auvray, who grew up in the Philippines, bu ku is inspired by street food from all over the world and serves up a dazzling array of flavours. Now run by executive chef Amanda Haisley, the eclectic menu features dishes such as Thai papaya salad, Polish pierogi, Argentinean short rib and Morrocan sea scallops – all lovingly presented. Don’t miss the famed sashimi and sushi selection either, which, like the rest of the ingredients, is local, sustainably sourced and super fresh. And the intriguing name? It’s a play on ‘beaucoup’, as in ‘merci beaucoup’.
Herons at the luxurious Umstead Hotel is a Forbes five-star and AAA Five Diamond restaurant, and has been called a ‘culinary gem’ by Condé Nast Traveler. The team behind the restaurant all have years of experience in prestigious restaurants across the United States, and have come together to create a refined, masterful take on Southern cuisine that makes the most of North Carolina’s homegrown produce – some of which was grown on The Umstead’s own farm. Expect creative and seasonal delicacies such as foie gras torchon with pickled raspberry, poppy seed and Greek yogurt, and border spring lamb with barbequed artichokes and rice grits. The restaurant itself is also a cut above the rest, with a sophisticated design, relaxed atmosphere and beautiful views of the lake and surrounding gardens.
Clyde Cooper’s BBQ
A visit to North Carolina would be incomplete without some authentic BBQ. There are a few famous BBQ joints in the Triangle area, such as Allen & Son and The Pit, but Clyde Cooper’s BBQ, in downtown Raleigh, has been serving the stuff since 1938, when Cooper opened it with only fifty dollars in his pocket. And it still retains its old-fashioned charm to this day. Tellingly, this joint attracts a mixed crowd and serves NC-style BBQ, using only the lean shoulder meat and hams, with the meltingly tender meat chopped up and eaten with a homemade vinegar sauce. Regularly named among the top ten BBQ restaurants in America, this lovingly made grill has also featured in Destination America’s BBQ Pitmasters series.
Clyde Cooper’s BBQ, 109 East Davie Street, Raleigh, NC, USA, +1 919 832 7614
The Fearrington House Restaurant
Nestled in the peaceful and quaint community of Fearrington Village, just south of Chapel Hill, Fearrington House Inn is a small, five-star hotel that is regularly cited among the best in world. The restaurant is similarly acclaimed, and is the only AAA Five Diamond restaurant in the USA that is Green Certified. The attraction is clear – situated in a beautiful white-columned house, the restaurant exudes refined, rustic charm and epitomises idyllic Southern luxury. Talented chef Colin Bedford has created an exceptional fine dining experience, taking farm-to-fork gastronomy to new heights by seeking out the best local produce. The ingenious menu draws from a fusion of cuisines and features such delectable treats as snow crab with vanilla crème fraiche and elderflower and lemon gelee, and vanilla seared duck with cucumber and pecan-smoked cauliflower.
Mateo Bar de Tapas
Housed in the former Book Exchange in downtown Durham, with a warm and inviting ambience, Mateo serves up a vibrant and intriguing combination of Spanish tapas and Southern soul. It is the brainchild of Chef Matthew Kelly, who previously cooked at another popular local spot, Vin Rouge, and was nominated as a 2013 James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. Since then it has become a favourite on the foodie scene. Try their unusual fusion of Spanish and local cuisine, in dishes like bocadillo, BBQ pork with piquillo cheese and pickled cabbage, and roasted bone marrow with oxtail marmalade and spring onion. Another plus is the extensive Spanish wine list and selection of sherries, which claims to be one of the largest in the country.
Mateo Bar de Tapas, 109 West Chapel Hill Street, Durham, NC, USA, +1 919 530 8700
This iconic establishment is based in the wonderfully restored Dodd-Hinsdale House in downtown Raleigh, close to a host of art galleries and museums. Second Empire Restaurant and Tavern has two dining spaces – the more formal restaurant upstairs is decorated in a classic, period fashion befitting the building’s Victorian history, while the exposed-brick tavern and atrium has a more relaxed, casual feel. Chef Daniel Schurr has also developed two menus: the main dinner menu is based on seasonal ingredients, and features gourmet meals such as pan-roasted Australian lamb rack, while the tavern menu is a more relaxed, slightly less expensive but still impressive affair, with dishes such as Downtown Savory Meatballs, served with garlicky greens, creamy polenta and dates, pork shoulder, pork belly and foie gras.
Bida Manda is one of the first Laotian restaurants in the States. The name is Sanskrit for ‘father’ and ‘mother’, which is fitting for this family-run venture where the menu is based on the traditional dishes they grew up with. This warm restaurant features the wedding portrait of the owners’ parents on the wall, and vibrant and nature-themed décor. Chef Lon Bousanga, who was born in Laos but trained primarily in Western fine dining establishments, combines earthy Laos flavours with exquisite presentation, serving dishes such as crispy pork belly soup, and green papaya salad with grilled flatiron steak. Influenced by colonial French tradition, Laotian food also has much in common with Thai and Vietnamese tradition– so prepare to be tantalised by this underrated cuisine.
Bida Manda, 222 South Blount Street, Raleigh, NC, USA, +1 919 829 9999
Poole’s Downtown Diner
Ashley Christensen, who has just won Best Chef (Southeast) at the prestigious James Beard awards, is the restaurateur behind Poole’s, as well as several other downtown establishments. The concept of the diner is simple – to offer the best of farm-to-table cuisine, inspired by the season. This thoughtful approach means that the chalkboard menus can change on a daily basis, depending on what is available from local growers and artisan producers. From the outside, the diner is somewhat understated, but inside it’s a charming, chic take on a retro diner, with bar seating. Expect hearty dishes such as cream of corn soup and crispy black drum fish; the mac and cheese is alsoa must-try. True foodies will not be disappointed.
Chef & The Farmer
Since it opened in 2006, Chef & The Farmer has become another Triangle foodie destination, helped not a little by being featured in the PBS show A Chef’s Life and receiving a whole host of awards. Run by chef Vivian Howard and her husband Benjamin Knight, the restaurant has a close relationship with a network of local farms. Chef Vivian works her magic with the fresh, seasonal ingredients, and combines the rich heritage of Southern cuisine with modern gastronomy. Everything is produced in-house, and prepared with care, with treats such as Newport River Oyster ceviche, and bourbon-braised bone-in pork chop with dirty faro and sweet and sour beets. Situated in a distinctive building in the centre of downtown Kinston, it has already helped revitalise the local cultural scene.
Chef & The Farmer, 120 West Gordon Street, Kinston, NC, USA, +1 252 208 2433
Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant
For a true taste of Northern Carolina, head to Big Ed’s in City Market. Being a local institution, it has a suitable back-story – it was established in 1958 by Big Ed Watkins, who learnt to cook by preparing meals for the workers on his family’s farm. The current Big Ed’s opened in 1989, and has continued to serve nourishing, affordable Southern breakfasts ever since. The menu features a great range of country-style breakfasts, with a choice of whole egg omelets, hot cakes, meat biscuits, burgers and sandwiches. The experience is completed by a plethora of Southern paraphernalia hanging from the walls and ceilings. The opening times cover morning and early noon, making it the perfect place to start off a day of exploration in downtown Raleigh.
Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant, 220 Wolfe Street, Raleigh, NC, USA, +1 919 836 9909