As North Carolina's capital city, Raleigh has it all: a thriving downtown, several notable music venues, sports teams for days, an exploding arts community and, as of late, a growing culinary scene that rivals its neighboring Southern cities—going way beyond shrimp and grits, biscuits and pimento cheese.
Most visitors tend to sandwich Raleigh and Durham into one area simply because of the airport's name, “Raleigh-Durham International Airport," but let it be known that Raleigh has a shining personality of its own—and quite frankly, some of the most notable chefs in the South who continue to pave the way. "It's such an amazing time for food in Raleigh," says chef Ashley Christensen. Poole's, Christensen's first restaurant situated in downtown, will celebrate its 10-year anniversary on December 13. “In that time, we've seen a real boom of new restaurants with unique perspectives that have really enriched our community," she adds. “It's been tremendously energizing as a chef. We used to look beyond Raleigh for inspiration—to big cities like New York or San Francisco—but these days we have so much to inspire us right within our own city."
If that's not enough to prompt a quick trip to Raleigh, well, here's a 48-hour eating and drinking guide that will.
With so many direct flights into RDU daily, you should have no problem arriving shortly after noon, if not earlier, to start the weekend off right. Head directly downtown for one reason only: Christensen's hyped fried chicken and a glass of Champagne at Beasley's Chicken + Honey (237 S Wilmington St.). Whatever you do, don't forget to order a side of pimento mac-n-cheese custard—it's worth every calorie consumed. Just around the corner is 42 & Lawrence (134 E Martin St.), a science lab-meets coffee shop, where a pick-me-up is in store. The draft latte, crafted with locally sourced milk, cold brew and house-made vanilla syrup, resembling the “creaminess of a milkshake," is all the rage—or sip on a refreshing coffee soda if the weather permits. A brisk stroll downtown is mandatory to survive the remainder of the day.
Brewery Bhavana (218 S Blount St.) is anything but an ordinary brewery. Co-Owner Van Nolintha and head brewery Patrick Woodson brought to life a beautiful space that serves as a brewery, dim sum restaurant, book store and flower shop, all in one. Sit at the gorgeous marble top bar and throw back a “Grove," the most delicious, cloudy Double IPA you'll ever taste. Order the scallion pancakes and don't share with anyone. Trust us, you'll want to slurp up every scoop of oxtail and bone marrow as you weep for joy (plus a few steamed buns and dumplngs). Nolintha also owns Bida Manda next door, one of the country's very few Laotian restaurants. If time allows, peek inside and order the best pina colada in the South. The secret? It's made with fresh juice and coconut cream.
Once hunger strikes, make your way to Death & Taxes (105 W Hargett St.), Christensen's latest outpost with a focus on wood-fired cooking. Roasted oysters, grilled North Carolina fish and embered veggies will leave you feeling giddy inside. Watts & Ward (200 S Blount St.), a swanky underground speakeasy, is an exceptional place for a proper Negroni and jazz music after dinner. Andust down the street, Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria (106 S Wilmington St.), North Carolina's first mezcal-centric bar, offers an award-winning list of rare mezcals and an innovative cocktail list.
Look no further than Big Ed's (220 Wolfe St.), a downtown staple since 1989, for a quintessential Southern breakfast. Salt-cured country ham and red eye gravy served alongside fresh tomatoes, eggs and a mouthwatering homemade buttermilk biscuit is a combination you won't soon forget. On the sweeter side, hot cakes (pancakes) the “size of a hubcap" made with cake batter exist and are everything you'd imagine.
For beer geeks, spend some time getting hungry again while making your way through Raleigh Beer Garden's (614 Glenwood Ave.) entire room dedicated to North Carolina beers. If you're lucky, they may even have Foothills Brewing's Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout, a beer that sells out in Winston-Salem the day it's released. And if the sun's out, the rooftop garden is the perfect place to throw back a few cold ones.
Tonight's dinner is a toss-up between Scott Crawford's Crawford and Son (618 N Person St.) and Steven Devereaux Greene's eight-course Kaiseki tasting menu at Herons (100 Woodland Pond Dr.). The decision making is simple; casual and cool or fine dining? We'll let you decide your dinner fate based on the below:
Scenario one. Venture to Raleigh's historic Oakwood neighborhood and post up at The Station (701 N Person St.), housed in an old Amoco gas station, for pre-dinner libations and a charcuterie board. Crawford & Son is just across the street, so mosey over when its time. Note that reservations are strongly recommended for this hotspot. Start with a “Lemongrass Gimlet" and order everything under the “raw" section. No, seriously, do this now. The Yukon potato chowder with crispy oysters and ham; Kabocha squash with mushrooms and farmers cheese; and cornbread pudding with onion marmalade and pecans showcase Crawford's seasonal and down-home approach to cooking. But save room for dessert, the olive oil cake with goat cheese is out of this world. Just next door, William & Company (616 N Person St.), specializing in locally sourced cocktails, will satisfy all post-dinner nightcap cravings.
Scenario two. Herons, located in the Umstead Hotel and Spa in neighboring Cary, is arguably one of the most immaculate dining experiences in all North Carolina. Executive chef Steven Devereaux Greene concocts whimsical, gastronomic bites that tell a story through taste and texture, so you'd be a fool not to explore his eight course Kaiseki menu. The 62-degree egg with grit chips and uni is a mainstay for obvious reasons, but each dish and presentation will delight and surprise every step of the way. Bonus: on the way to Herons, stop at La Farm Bakery (4248 NW Cary Pkwy.) to score a few of baker Lionel Vatinet's coveted white chocolate mini baguettes.
Rise and shine, as you've still got a few more spots to hit. Start strong with the “Pedro," a giant, fluffy biscuit filled with house made chorizo, egg, avocado, ranchero sauce and habanero cheddar from The Pharmacy Cafe (702 North Person St.), where you can also pick up your prescription drugs. It's wise to use the top portion of the biscuit as a vehicle for house made jams via the jam bar. Next, hit Videri Chocolate Factory (327 W. Davie St.) and sip on a frozen hot chocolate while shopping for the best edible souvenirs around.
A departure lunch at Garland (14 W Martin St.), helmed by James Beard Award-nominated chef and musician Cheetie Kumar, is a no-brainer. Sip on the “Dalai Palmer," Kumar's take on an Arnold Palmer, while noshing on flavorful warm hummus, a pork loin bahn mi and a spicy chili peanut cucumber salad. It's the most delicious and not-too-aggressive way to end any trip to Raleigh.