Best restaurants of 2011

A perennial favorite sets the standard for all comers

CorrespondentJanuary 27, 2012 

  • Fearrington House

    2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro, 542-2121
    Cuisine: contemporary


    100 Woodland Pond, in the Umstead Hotel & Spa, Cary, 447-4200
    Cuisine: contemporary


    423 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 969-8846
    Cuisine: Asian

    Magnolia Grill

    1002 Ninth St., Durham, 286-3609
    Cuisine: contemporary Southern


    2514 University Drive, Durham, 493-8545
    Cuisine: contemporary Mediterranean

    Poole's Diner

    426 S. McDowell St., Raleigh, 832-4477
    Cuisine: American bistro

  • 18 Seaboard

    18 Seaboard Ave., Raleigh, 861-4318
    Cuisine: contemporary Southern, grill

    Angus Barn

    9401 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, 781-2444
    Cuisine: steakhouse

    Bloomsbury Bistro

    509-101 West Whitaker Mill Road, at Five Points, Raleigh, 834-9011
    Cuisine: contemporary


    4351 The Circle at North Hills, Raleigh, 789-0606
    Cuisine: French

    Elaine's on Franklin

    454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 960-2770
    Cuisine: contemporary


    3001 Cameron Blvd., in the Washington Duke Inn, Durham, 490-0999
    Cuisine: contemporary


    4100 Main at North Hills St., in the Renaissance Raleigh North Hills Hotel
    Cuisine: contemporary

    Four Square

    2701 Chapel Hill Road, Durham, 401-9877
    Cuisine: contemporary

    Frazier's Wine Bar

    2418 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, 828-6699
    Cuisine: wine bar

    Il Palio

    1505 E. Franklin St., in the Siena Hotel, Chapel Hill, 918-2545
    Cuisine: Italian


    764 Martin Luther King Blvd., Chapel Hill, 537-8167
    Cuisine: French, contemporary


    8111-111 Creedmoor Road, in Brennan Station, Raleigh, 846-9846
    Cuisine: contemporary, seafood


    8314 Chapel Hill Road, Cary, 465-2455
    Cuisine: contemporary Asian, Mediterranean, Southwestern


    100 Meadowmont Village Circle, Chapel Hill, 537-8207
    Cuisine: contemporary


    110 S. Churton St., Hillsborough, 732-6261
    Cuisine: contemporary Italian

    Saint Jacques

    6112 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh, 862-2770
    Cuisine: French


    107 W. Main St., Durham, 956-9999
    Cuisine: global

    Second Empire

    330 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, 829-3663
    Cuisine: contemporary


    4209 Lassiter Mill Road, in The Alexan, Raleigh, 787-7747
    Cuisine: Italian

    Watts Grocery

    1116 Broad St., Durham, 416-5040
    Cuisine: contemporary Southern


    Queen of Sheba
    1129-O Weaver Dairy Road, Timberlyne Shopping Center, Chapel Hill, 932-4986


    Allen & Son
    6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill, 942-7576


    Gourmet Kingdom
    301 E. Main St., Carrboro, 932-7222
    Super Wok
    1401-L SE Maynard Road, in Maynard Plaza, Cary, 388-8338


    Vin Rouge
    2010 Hillsborough Road, Durham, 416-0466


    J. Betski's
    10-120 West Franklin St., Raleigh, 833-7999


    Taverna Agora
    6101 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, 881-8333


    Saffron of Chapel Hill
    3140 Environ Way, Chapel Hill, 240-7490


    Udupi Café
    590 E. Chatham St., Cary, 465-0898


    Il Palio
    1505 East Franklin Street, in the Siena Hotel, Chapel Hill, 918-2545


    5910 Duraleigh Road, Raleigh, 783-1883


    Seoul Garden
    4701 Atlantic Ave., in Millbrook Collection, Raleigh, 850-9984


    Machu Picchu
    4500-100 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh, 526-7378


    Dos Perros
    200 N. Mangum St., Durham, 956-2750


    Los Comales
    2103 N. Roxboro Road, Durham, 220-1614


    137 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh, 239-4070


    Bella Mia
    2025 Renaissance Park Place, Cary, 677-3999


    Blu Seafood & Bar
    2002 Hillsborough Road, Durham, 286-9777


    Big Ed's City Market
    220 Wolfe St., Raleigh, 836-9909


    Bin 54
    1201-M Raleigh Road, Chapel Hill, 969-1155


    Zely & Ritz
    301 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, 828-0018


    1600-107 Ronald Drive, Raleigh, 790-1999


    Raleigh: 6204 Glenwood Ave., 3601 Capital Blvd., 781-7599 (Glenwood); 878-0049 (Capital)


    Sage Vegetarian Café
    1129 Weaver Dairy Road, Chapel Hill, 968-9266

According to the Chinese lunar calendar, Jan. 23 marked the end of the Year of the Rabbit and the beginning of the Year of the Dragon. After looking over the list of restaurants I reviewed last year as I was making my annual Best Restaurants selections, however, I can't help wondering if the calendar printers haven't made a mistake.

Last year's barrage of authentic Chinese restaurants was decidedly more like a dominant fire-breather than a timid hutch-dweller. When the dust had settled, their numbers had nearly doubled, and their variety multiplied even more dramatically.

The incendiary Szechwan fare at newcomer Happy China even had some of its customers breathing fire. The area got its first Taiwanese eatery (Taipei 101) in February, and its second (Taipei Café) less than a month later. Dim Sum House was the first restaurant in the area to offer its namesake specialty all day, every day. Able Bar & Grill introduced us to a concept few have experienced outside China: street foods and international karaoke. Bombay Beijing lived up to its name with a twin bill offering of Indo-Chinese and traditional Indian fare.

Even so, Chinese restaurants didn't have a monopoly on spicing up the local scene. Babylon serves Moroccan-inspired cuisine in a setting straight out of Marrakech, while G2B opts for techno-chic as a dramatic backdrop for its gastropub offering. The Pig offers an unlikely combination of barbecue and vegetarian fare, while Beasley's explores an offbeat Southern specialty of fried chicken drizzled with honey. Rosati's teaches us that there's not just one kind of Chicago style pizza, but three.

Meanwhile, the old-timers keep us sailing on an even keel through the turbulence of rapid change. After a brief absence, Hillsborough Street mainstay Frazier's made an impressive comeback - this time as a wine bar. Piedmont, a pioneer in the revitalization of downtown Durham, proved that it's still one of the now-booming area's main draws. And, nearly 15 years after it opened, Waraji still sets the local standard for a Japanese restaurant.

I've selected the granddaddy of all old-timers - not in terms of years, but in terms of its influence on the local dining scene - as Restaurant of the Year.

I've opted not to present a Top 25 list - an arbitrary number that in the past forced me to paint restaurants of sometimes widely differing qualities with the same brush. Instead, I'm sticking with last year's Gold Medal, Silver Medal and Best in Class categories. You can see those lists on the right side of this page.

Oh, and I'm adding a new category called Best New Restaurants. In a year with as many exciting newcomers as the one just past, how could I not?

Magnolia Grill

1002 Ninth St., Durham, 286-3609
Cuisine: Contemporary Southern

The first question I'm invariably asked when I'm introduced as a restaurant critic is some variation on "What's your favorite restaurant?" I never answer with the name of just one. Because my tastes are wide-ranging and my "favorite restaurant" can change depending on my mood, I always mention at least two or three - and not always the same two or three.

But I always include Magnolia Grill.

It's an obvious choice, I know. The restaurant has won two James Beard Awards, after all. And it's hard to imagine what the local dining scene would look like without the dozens of culinary proteges of owner/chef Ben Barker and his wife, pastry chef Karen Barker - many of whom now run restaurants of their own.

But my reasons for including Magnolia Grill among my short list of favorites - and for naming it Restaurant of the Year - go beyond the obvious. They date to November 1986, when the restaurant opened just a month after I moved to the area. It didn't take me long to discover this oasis in a culinary landscape that looked vastly different than it does today.

Fine dining options are much more plentiful now. There are plenty of restaurants with a more elegant dining room decor than Magnolia Grill's, and a few that can match the level of professionalism of its wait staff. But when it comes to the food, Magnolia Grill stands alone.

That the kitchen has continued to perform at such a consistently high level over so many years is impressive enough. That it does so with a daily changing menu that focuses on local produce (and did so long before it was fashionable) is even more impressive. And that Ben Barker and his crew are able, again and again, to surprise and delight with flavor combinations you'd never have thought of (and, unlike so many other "creative" presentations elsewhere, rarely come off as overwrought) is nothing short of amazing.

Magnolia Grill is, in other words, a foodie mecca in the purest sense. It seems especially appropriate to choose this year to name Magnolia Grill the Restaurant of the Year. A few weeks ago, the restaurant celebrated its 25th birthday. You could call this year's award a belated happy birthday wish, and a thank you from a grateful foodie.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service