With more trendy restaurants than there are braces at a Clay Aiken concert, there's no doubt that the Triangle is a happening place. But if you want a break from all the tapas bars, sushi bars and martini bars, then head south of the Beltline. In Garner and Clayton, even new restaurants lean to traditional flavors, many of them with a Southern accent.
The tour begins at Oak City Diner just off South Wilmington Street at 335 Tryon Road -- technically, that's still Raleigh, but somehow it seems like Garner. The restaurant is one of three retro shiny diners in the Triangle, the other two being Rockin' Comet in Clayton and Gypsy's Shiny Diner in Cary.
In fact, Oak City Diner is run by the same folks who brought us Gypsy's (the restaurant was named for the now-defunct Oak City Diner on Old Wake Forest Road, but there's no management connection).
The menu is classic Southern diner fare, starting with a full breakfast menu that ranges from egg white omelets and corned beef hash to biscuits, grits and country ham. Lunchtime options include a wide assortment of diner classics (meatloaf, diner-style chili, onion rings and root beer floats, to name a few) and blue plate specials ($6.95, including two sides). Tuna melts, BLTs, grilled cheese and a dozen other sandwiches are all served with homemade chips.
Oak City Diner keeps traditional Southern diner hours, serving daily from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (All you Northern transplants accustomed to 24-hour diners, consider yourselves forewarned.) On the other hand, the diner's no smoking policy is a welcome break from tradition.
Just a mile or so further down U.S. 70 (Wilmington Street's alias at this point) is Carolina Barbecue (773-0222). You'll know the place by the parking lot full of pickup trucks, a pretty reliable indicator that the food inside is worth stopping for.
Eastern-style pork barbecue is the specialty. The barbecue is whole hog with a vinegar-based sauce, though like most modern barbecue joints, Carolina Barbecue has yielded to "progress" and cooks over gas rather than hardwood.
But barbecue is hardly the only attraction. A sizeable percentage of owners of those pickups parked out front are there for the fried chicken, which owner David Batchelor proudly proclaims the best in town. Some come for the homestyle vegetable plates, and some are here to check out the barbecued beef ribs, which have recently added to the menu. And some hardy souls are even here for the chicken gizzard dinner.
You can see what all the fuss is about any day of the week, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sedans and minivans are welcome, too.
Keep heading south, all the way to Clayton. There, tucked into the far end of one of the many strip malls on the right side of the road (11155 U.S. 70 West is the address), you'll find a new little soul food eatery called A Taste Above (359-0089).
I haven't sampled the food yet, but the menu covers the soul food repertoire thoroughly. If you've never tried chitlins, neck bones or pigs feet, here's the place to remedy that situation. Say you'll take a pass? Then choose from the likes of meatloaf, chicken and pastry, pork chops, turkey and dressing, and fried trout.
The atmosphere is decidedly eclectic, with a pool table and bar at one end of the room, black and white photos of vintage locomotives on soft gray walls, and a family-friendly attitude. Drop in any day of the week for lunch or dinner.
Next, head into downtown Clayton, where you'll find The Pink Teacup (550-9600) at 335 E. Main Street. It's only a five-minute drive from A Taste Above, but in culinary and cultural terms, it's on the other side of the world.
As the name implies, The Pink Teacup is an old-fashioned tea room, complete with cozies, doilies and tables draped in pastel floral patterns.
The menu runs to tea sandwiches (chicken salad, pimento cheese and, of course, cucumber, to name three), fruit and veggie salads, and pastries. An assortment of black, green and herbal teas is available by the cup or pot.
The Pink Teacup is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Don't forget to raise your pinkie.
Greg's Hot List: Irish Pubs
'Tis that time of year again. St. Patrick's Day is next Thursday, March 17. If you're looking for a place to celebrate the wearing of the green with a pint or three of Guinness, and maybe a plate of corned beef and cabbage, look no further.
Cornerstone Shopping Center, 1979 High House Road, Cary
Atmosphere: vintage New York Irish pub
Best bets to soak up the Guinness: boxty, curried chicken, fish and chips, bread pudding The Hibernian
311 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh; 1144 Kildaire Farm Road, Cary
Atmosphere: cozy Irish pub with a fireplace
Best bets to soak up the Guinness: fish and chips, anything with curry James Joyce Pub & Restaurant
912 W. Main St., Durham
Atmosphere: traditional narrow Old World pub with high backed booths and lots of bric-a-brac
Best bets to soak up the Guinness: smoked Irish salmon, beef and Guinness stew, Gaelic chicken O'Malley's Tavern
Oak Park Shopping Center, 5228 Holly Ridge Drive, Raleigh
Atmosphere: neighborhood tavern
Best bets soak up the Guinness: Parnell pasties, corned beef & cabbage RiRa
126 N. West St., Raleigh
Atmosphere: four pubs in one, from rustic country inn to Victorian theatre pub
Best bets to soak up the Guinness: potato cakes, smoked salmon, mussels, shepherd's pie Tir na nOg
218 S. Blount St., Raleigh
Atmosphere: Disney Irish, from thatched roof hut to stone fireplace Best bets to soak up the Guinness: Irish smoked salmon, shepherd's pie, Gaelic steak W.B. Yeats
306-G W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Atmosphere: Countryside tavern with a courtyard patio Best bets to soak up the Guinness: more Guinness (make sure you have a designated driver)
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