When I moved to downtown Raleigh in 2005, people quietly warned me to buy a firearm.
Then, abandoned storefronts lined prime street corners, drug deals went down in the open and not much existed in the way of restaurants, save for the sports bar where I worked and a handful of other options.
Life in downtown Raleigh couldn’t feel much different now and yet, it somehow still feels like the same city to me every time I make the jaunt back. The City of Oaks has managed to hold onto its charming architecture, it’s blue collar feel and its beautiful, tree-lined streets— the best of its assets remain, while its dangerous overlay has been greatly diminished.
Still small, the 10-some square blocks boast lush city parks, an impressively diverse array of eating and drinking opportunities and a vibrant, lived-in feel at every time of day. I’ve seen many small city downtowns remade in this era of revitalization, but few as authentically and gracefully as Raleigh. The only proof necessary is how eagerly its residents have embraced the changes.
Here’s where you should eat, drink and play:
Chef Ashley Christensen is one of the biggest stars of Raleigh’s culinary turnaround. After making her reputation with the stellar Poole’s Diner — a modern diner featuring cocktails and reimagined classics — in 2007, she became one of the faces of change in town, debuting Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Chuck’s, Fox Liquor Bar and Death and Taxes.
Check out Poole’s Diner here.
North Carolina oysters? Don’t hate — these are not the big, tough bivalves they once were; a new generation of farmers are breeding these Southern delicacies to compete with those from the upper east coast. Really! This charming oyster shop features the main event raw or roasted (including options to order them barbecued or smoked with pimento cheese), alongside a lovely wine list, cocktails and a modest menu of bigger plates. Bonus: Tuesdays mean $1 oysters all night.
Check out St. Roch here.
Bida Manda, the Sanskrit ceremonial term for father and mother, was opened by siblings Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha to honor their parents in Laos. While the restaurant and menu are decidedly more upscale than many Laotian restaurants you’ll find in the country, the food is made with authenticity, and plenty of heat if you want it. Creative cocktails and wine and beer are also available. The space, meanwhile, is transformative, complete with bamboo walls and ceilings.
Check out Bida Manda here.
The Raleigh Times and The Morning Times
Housed in the former location of the now-defunct Raleigh Times, this bar and coffee shop neighbor duo fit snugly into a century-old building boasting exposed brick and old press clippings. The Raleigh Times offers an extensive craft beer selection and bar-style food; The Morning Times, excellent coffee, cozy nooks and breakfast sandwiches.
The location is new and fancy, but the barbecue is old-school and time-tested, a fixture in the area since 1938. If you’ve casually eaten NC-style barbecue across the country, you might be familiar only with the pulled pork variety. But in Eastern Carolina, chopped pork barbecue like they serve at Clyde’s is, in many circles, more beloved. (Pulled pork, chicken, ribs and brisket are also available.) Sides include fried okra, baked beans made with Cheerwine and collard greens. There’s no bar here, so get yourself a sweet tea or lemonade, both of which are sold by the gallon.
Check out Clyde Cooper’s here.
This second-floor mezcaleria knows what it’s doing with the smoky Mexican spirit. Besides a stellar list of cocktails ranging from refreshing to booze-forward, Gallo Pelon boasts an impressive list of mezcals and a handful of tasty bar snacks. When the weather is right, hit the roof deck laden with string lights and murals.
Check out Gallo Pelon here.
This Lebanese-owned restaurant, adopting the moniker for “grandmother” as its name, serves familiar Mediterranean dishes like falafel, Shawarma and kafta kabobs and large cuts of meat such as lamb chops with skill, and delves gracefully into contemporary/fusion territory, too, with a selection of pizzettes baked in a domed oven, among other things.
Check out Sitti here.
Fox Liquor Bar
One of downtown’s first new-wave cocktail bars, this basement establishment does the speakeasy thing without drifting into the cheesy zone. The dark, sultry environment, plush couches and modern and prohibition-style drinks, make it the perfect after-dinner locale, an a cravings-heavy menu of late-night snacks make it great for the end of a drinking evening, too.
Check out Fox Liquor Bar here.
This French-American mashup peddles crave-worthy dishes like foie gras mousse, octopus a la plancha, fried Brussels sprouts and steak tartare, and a nightly lineup of specials including beef Wellington (!), boullebaise and bottomless moules frites. Oh, and the burger is excellent, as both the French and the English-speaking would say.
Check out Royale here.
The other major barbecue option downtown, The Pit is much more modern and unabashedly pricier than Clyde’s, but still cooks some terrific whole-hog barbecue, and also offers a full bar and ritzier appetizers like fried Mac and cheese and deviled eggs. Meats range from chopped barbecue and pulled pork to turkey, fried chicken, blackened salmon and even a soy Vegan barbecue option.
Check out The Pit here.
Beasley’s Chicken + Honey
The name just about says it: biscuits are made in house and the chicken comes on them (with pickled green tomato and honey), by itself, on a potato bun or on top of a waffle. There are other snacks, too, as well as cocktails and a brunch menu that will make you drool before the food even arrives.
Check out Beasley’s here.
From the owners of Bida Manda, this micro brewery and dim sum palace is every bit as photogenic and lush as the Nolinthas’ original project, with incredible small plates (bao buns and crispy pig ears among them) and inspired, creative brews such as a mango-peppercorn Saison and a fig Dubbel.
Check out Brewery Bhavana here.
If it’s something sweet and gorgeous you’re craving, it’s best to stop by this coffee shop and modern patisserie, its counter case brimming with tarts, croissants, cream puffs and much, much more. Occasionally, ice cream sandwiches made with large French macarons are available; a handful of savory and lunch items are too.
Check out Lucettegrace here.