Commentary

Shaffer: Raleigh's gritty treasures skipped by New York Times tour

March 22, 2014 

What did The New York Times miss in its 36-hour visit to Raleigh? We asked columnist Josh Shaffer to share his must-see spots in the capital city.

RALEIGH - Ten years ago, nobody would have rhapsodized about Raleigh’s Laotian cuisine, on-site taprooms, Egyptian art collections or shops selling handmade bow ties – at least not The New York Times.

We’re a Southern college town, and despite our considerable charm, we’re not well known for restaurants serving triggerfish and beluga lentils, or bars serving rosemary-scented beer, or clothing stores selling selvage denim and mustard-colored twill chinos.

At least not until recently.

So as a semi-seasoned local, at least one who’s been here long enough to remember when Fayetteville Street was a deserted pedestrian mall, who recalls when the Rockford offered the only sandwich on Glenwood South, I offer this list of treasures the Times skipped over.

We may be “awash in entrepreneurial energy,” but we still like the 99-cent chili dogs at Snoopy’s, the $7.99 shrimp plate at the Farmer’s Market seafood restaurant and the 75-cent pool games at the Players’ Retreat.

I do, anyway.

For breakfast

For me, breakfast is all a variation of scrambled eggs and grits, home fries and biscuits, mixed up with cheese or gravy and perhaps ketchup. Maybe a tortilla and green salsa if we’re in Texas. But no hollandaise sauce, please.

You can get all this at a half-dozen places in Raleigh. Big Ed’s. Mecca. Pam’s Farmhouse. But I’m partial to Finch’s (410 W. Peace St., 919-834-7396), the Southern diner that spawned all Southern diners. Waitresses call you “hon,” and they mean it.

This place is doomed by construction of the new Capital Boulevard bridge, giving its greasy spoon a touch of last-days greatness. So hurry, and bring cash. No plastic taken at Finch’s. Get the big man’s breakfast, and read the newspaper the last patron left behind with the coffee cup rings on the sports page.

Then go home and take a nap.

For lunch

Larry’s Southern Kitchen (330 Tryon Road, 919-772-2900) doesn’t have a website. It doesn’t need one. Everybody knows what’s for lunch there: everything you want.

I always start with the vegetables on my all-you-can-eat buffet, just to prepare the stomach for the onslaught. Collards. Lima beans. Green beans so mushy you can squish them into a paste with a finger.

Then the country steak and gravy over rice. Then the chicken and dumplings. Then the fried chicken. Repeat as desired.

Look, I’m not a philistine. I’ll eat a spicy green-papaya salad. But here’s my rule: Don’t let me leave your restaurant hungry. If you’re going to serve me a puffy sweet potato hot cake, I don’t want to see any plate showing underneath.

Larry knows this. He lets me serve myself.

For dinner

Some of us in Raleigh have kids.

And though we appreciate the explosion of youthful energy, it is notoriously hard to get children to eat anything coated in sriracha sauce.

My family quit going to Tyler’s Taproom for one reason: They stopped handing out Wikki Stix, the wax-coated pipe cleaners for young diners to play with.

So now we frequent Bad Daddy’s across the street (111 Seaboard Ave., 919-747-9163). Sure, it’s a chain. But it’s a small chain.

It’s loud enough in there that your kid can throw a tantrum and nobody will notice – which, for a parent, is almost as good as total silence. You get crayons and coloring paper, so you’re practically guaranteed 10 minutes of adult conversation.

The shrimp sandwich is as good as any I’ve eaten. They’ve got something like 12 kinds of burgers, including one topped with pastrami. Plus, there’s a gluten-free menu, which I note as a gratuitous nod to healthy eating otherwise absent in this guide.

For fun

The Alley (2512 Hillsborough St., 919-832-3533).

Bowling lanes straight out of “The Big Lebowski.” Cheap beer in cans. Gutter guards for kid bowling. ’Nuff said.

In conclusion, I’m thrilled that our cultural boom is booming and that even boomier cities are noticing. But for all our hipness and ambition, we’re still a gritty town.

It’s OK if your denim isn’t selvaged. It’s OK if you like hush puppies. It’s OK if you bought your bow tie on sale at Belk. I did. It’s red.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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