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Where to Eat in Raleigh, North Carolina

Bon Appétit logo Bon Appétit 5/25/2022 Brigid Washington

In our guide to spending an ideal day eating, drinking, and adventuring through a new-to-you city, Brigid Washington shares her picks for the best restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Raleigh is a city where opposites delightfully converge. There’s a robust industrial and entrepreneurial spirit here that naturally melds with longstanding agrarian traditions. North Carolina’s massive, year-round 30,000 square-foot farmers market — the lifeblood for hundreds of independent tradespeople — is just a stone’s throw from the research park and tech juggernaut Centennial Campus.

As a cookbook author and resident of Raleigh for some 20 years, I've found that this city is a place that satisfies all sorts of hungers. There’s a natural, warm ease in Raleigh that connects me to my childhood in Trinidad and Tobago. The shade from Raleigh’s majestic oak trees reminds me of the bountiful palms throughout my Caribbean — During the balmy summer months, that leafy covering is precious. The best restaurants in Raleigh opt for authenticity over pretense, and the sense of welcome and hospitality is palpable at all of my favorite spots, from Carolina barbecue to mouthwatering Laotian food. Raleigh is a city with real soul and heart, and these are the standout spots that make this place pulse.

The Essentials

  • The best time to visit is… during the late spring and early fall. The city is in full bloom, and the weather is mild and breezy.
  • Don’t forget to pack… great walking shoes and a water bottle. Raleigh is a very walkable city, with more than a hundred miles of greenways.
  • Don’t leave town without… Bee Blessed Honey, a local brand that specializes in small batch honey. If you’re looking for a sweet taste of the city to remember your visit, this stuff is a no-brainer. And if you’re in need of new jeans (of course you are), get a pair from Raleigh Denim—They’ll go the distance, long after your trip is over.
  • The best place to stay is… the Longleaf Hotel. It’s a modernized-but-retro motor lodge, featuring a lounge with great wine and vermouth-based cocktails.
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Longleaf Hotel

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A fried chicken sandwich from Big Ed's. © Photograph by Cole Wilson A fried chicken sandwich from Big Ed's.

A True Southern Breakfast, and a Slice of Humble Pie

Start your day with some country cooking classics at Big Ed’s. A fixture of City Market in downtown Raleigh since 1989, this restaurant is the place to go for a true southern breakfast experience — old school favorites like salty country ham with red-eye gravy and house-made biscuits with black-strap molasses. The recklessly large, buttery-crisp pancakes are equally delicious. Every visit, I vow I’m not going to order them — and every time I do, with zero regrets.

Fried chicken with sweet-spicy chipotle honey, sesame seeds, and rosemary from Humble Pie. © Photograph by Cole Wilson Fried chicken with sweet-spicy chipotle honey, sesame seeds, and rosemary from Humble Pie.

Humble Pie is a local staple for Sunday brunch, and dinner the rest of the week. With its large, breezy patio and buttoned-down ease, this restaurant generously welcomes the punk, the polished, and, well, me, someone who has never fit in particularly neatly with either crowd. And while fried chicken might be an obvious choice for southern food, here you’ll get a fresh take: crispy buttermilk-style with sweet-spicy chipotle honey, sesame seeds, and rosemary. The rest of the menu—featuring dishes like broccolini with miso butter and fried oysters with malt aioli and raspberry—is all about fresh food that’s meant to be shared.

© Photograph by Cole Wilson

Contemporary Art in the Warehouse District

Located in the warehouse district, directly across from Humble Pie, the Contemporary Art Museum is where “contemporary art, community, and culture converge,” says founding member Charman Driver. Through partnerships with emerging artists, the museum's exhibits highlight of-the-moment, non-traditional art. The museum gazes to the past (it’s housed in a repurposed produce warehouse from the 1920s) and into the future, as it traces the city’s cultural evolution.

© Photograph by Cole Wilson

Lunch on Freshly Baked Pita and Top-Notch Hummus

At Neo Monde, you’ll find some of the most consistently good, unfussy, and reasonably priced food in this city. Long before a “mediterranean diet'' was ever en vogue, the Saleh brothers — from the mountainous region of northern Lebanon — were steadfastly churning out stellar home-cooked Lebanese food from an unassuming space located in one of Raleigh’s strip malls. Today, they have multiple locations in adjacent cities, like Morrisville. For me and my little family, tearing apart a freshly baked pita and dragging the bread through a bowl of thick, aromatic hummus will always be our most favored (and predictable) pleasure.

Break For Some Shopping and Live Music

If you’re in need of a break from eating to do some shopping, Nashona on Hargett Street in downtown Raleigh, is the place to be. This jubilant clothing line was established by Lilian K Danieli in 2012, and is my go-to when I want an instant mood boost. By melding vibrant African prints with modern American silhouettes, Nashona — which translates to “I sew” in Swahili — joyfully reflects the richness of Raleigh. And if you’re lucky, you might be there on one of the multiple occasions throughout the year when Danieli creates an upbeat vibe in the store, offering wine and live music while you shop.

A Classic Steak Dinner, or a Tongue-Tingling Plate of Fish

Mandolin, an elegant neighborhood fave, is a two-minute drive from where I live in University Park, but it takes my husband and I on a new and deliciously unexpected journey every single time we enter the dining room. The menu features seasonal produce that’s sourced directly from proprietor Sean Fowler’s family farm. The pickled octopus dish will always be our go-to appetizer, featuring a peanut sauce that leans into the salinity of the octopus. And no matter how much I try to switch it up, there’s just something about a steak—exceptionally cooked, with farm-fresh veg and black garlic demi-glace—on a date night that’s always a match made in close-to-home heaven.

© Photograph by Cole Wilson

Another stellar dinner option is Garland. Before the pandemic, the nondescript, two-story building at 14 West Martin Street simultaneously housed the bar Neptune’s Parlour in the basement; Garland on the street-level; and in the attic, Kings, an upbeat music venue and gathering place for independent artists. These days, Garland is the only one in operation (though married owners chef Cheetie Kumar and musician Paul Siler are hoping to have the other two back open soon).

What I adore about Garland is the way this great food activates both my taste buds and my sense of adventure. The pan seared trout tingles with paanch phoron (a Bengali spice blend), and the slaw “chaat” soars with bright ginger-pickled carrots and cooling mango-mint chutney. These dishes consistently prompt me to think about the history of spice routes and the convergence of ingredients. It's good, exciting food and even better food for thought. There's a domino effect of creativity in the space that Kumar and Siler have made, where each aspect of entertainment picks up where the other leaves off. I can’t wait for Neptunes and Kings to reopen.

End the night with a drink at  C.Grace.  © Photograph by Cole Wilson End the night with a drink at  C.Grace. 

If, after all this, you’re still thirsty for more, walk to C.Grace — it’s an easy twenty minute stroll from Garland — for some impressive late-night live jazz and ambitious craft cocktails.

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