Even if you view the world from a glass-half-full perspective, there's no denying it: 2009 wasn't exactly a banner year. The financial roller coaster that began in 2008 continued last year, spilling frightening numbers of businesses over the side as it careened along its rickety track. Not surprisingly, the notoriously risky restaurant business contributed more than its share of victims. Locally, venerable institutions Anotherthyme, Joe's Place and Simpson's were among the many casualties.
By the end of the year, though, we were beginning to see a glimmer of light at the end of the Wild Mouse tunnel. The pace of restaurant closings appeared to slow down, and a number of promising new restaurants opened their doors. Some of the area's most experienced and savvy restaurateurs, among them Greg Hatem, Niall Hanley and Giorgios Bakatsias, expanded their restaurant empires.
Though the local dining scene undeniably took a hit in 2009, it was a stellar year from a quality standpoint. A record-setting nine new restaurants earned an N&O rating of four stars or better last year. You'll find them on this year's Top 10 Newcomers list (along with Busy Bee Café, which came oh-so-close to the four-star standard).
Three restaurants - Coquette, Cypress on the Hill and Chef & the Farmer - achieved a near-perfect rating of 4-1/2 stars. Herons soared over them all, earning the first five-star rating since the one-to-five-star rating system was implemented in 2007 - and along with it, selection as this year's Restaurant of the Year.
So here's a toast to this year's winners. Whether you choose to toast with champagne at a Top 25 selection, a draft microbrew at one of the Top 10 Newcomers, or sweet tea at a Best Bargains selection, you can be sure that your glass will be more than half full.
Note: You can find my full reviews of these (and hundreds more) restaurants at events.triangle.com/restaurants.
Top 25 Restaurant of the Year
100 Woodland Pond, in the Umstead Hotel & Spa, Cary
Herons' sumptuous contemporary setting lived up to management's "world class" billing the day the restaurant opened in the deluxe Umstead Hotel & Spa in January 2007. Service fell short of the mark, though, and the food could be hit or miss. Three years, three chefs and a rigorous wait staff training regimen later, Herons has finally shed its fledgling status and taken flight. The newly polished and warmly welcoming dining room staff raise the bar for service in the Triangle. And executive chef Scott Crawford, who came to Herons last year after earning national recognition at luxury resorts in Georgia and South Carolina, has quickly earned a place among North Carolina's culinary elite. Let's hope he likes his new home.
18 Seaboard Ave., Raleigh
Cuisine: contemporary Southern, grill
509-101 W. Whitaker Mill Road, at Five Points, Raleigh.
431-10 W. Franklin St., in The Courtyard, Chapel Hill
Elaine's on Franklin
454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
3001 Cameron Blvd., in the Washington Duke Inn, Durham
2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro
2701 Chapel Hill Road, Durham
2418 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
1505 E. Franklin St., in the Siena Hotel, Chapel Hill
10-120 W. Franklin St., Raleigh
Cuisine: German, Polish
423 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
1002 Ninth St., Durham
Cuisine: contemporary Southern
8111-111 Creedmoor Road, in Brennan Station, Raleigh
Cuisine: contemporary, seafood
8314 Chapel Hill Road, Cary
Cuisine: contemporary Asian, Mediterranean, Southwestern
2514 University Drive, Durham
Cuisine: contemporary Mediterranean
110 S. Churton St., Hillsborough
Poole's Downtown Diner
426 S. McDowell St., Raleigh
Cuisine: American bistro
6112 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh
330 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
2010 Hillsborough Road, Durham
4209 Lassiter Mill Road, in The Alexan, Raleigh
1116 Broad St., Durham
Cuisine: contemporary Southern
Zely & Ritz
301 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh