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?
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
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.