Raleigh has traditionally been lumped with Durham and Chapel Hill as part of the Research Triangle – the land of science, technology and, in the runup to NCAA men’s tournament, college basketball. But this geographic shorthand has become increasingly outdated in recent years, as each city has developed a distinct personality. Today, North Carolina’s capital is awash in entrepreneurial energy from homegrown clothing labels and converted art galleries to craft breweries and ambitious restaurants. More than merely one of the Triangle’s three vertexes, Raleigh is now defining itself as a destination worth exploring on its own merits.
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To get a sense of the youthful spirit that has reinvigorated downtown, check out the shops of small local clothing and accessory labels that have recently opened there. At Lumina Clothing (123 E. Martin St.; 919-977-0130), browse the American-made menswear: selvage denim, mustard-colored twill chinos, cotton camouflage-printed ties. Around the corner, get your monogram embossed onto a hot-pink acrylic pendant at Moon and Lola (208 S. Wilmington St.; 919-322-4277), a shop that specializes in candy-colored statement jewelry. A block away, High Cotton (19 W. Hargett St.; 919-817-8319) is filled with handmade bow ties (and headbands and cummerbunds) in an array of patterns, from paisley to pink seersucker.
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TOASTING THE TOWN|
The city’s entrepreneurial bent also fueled an explosion of new craft breweries last year, so take a tour of their on-site taprooms to find your new favorite beer. At the cavernous Raleigh Brewing Company (3709 Neil St.; 919-400-9086), try the cheekily named Hell Yes Ma’am, an easy-drinking Belgian golden. At the sleek bicycle-themed Crank Arm Brewing (319 W. Davie St.), which has beers like Unicycle Single Hop Pale Ale and Pumptrack Pumpkin Porter, old gears and chains are integrated into the industrial décor and wall-mounted art installations. And at the cozy Trophy Brewing Company (827 W. Morgan St.; 919-803-4849), flavorful small-batch beers like the rosemary-scented Rose Gose are poured from trophy-topped taps.
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The most exciting food being served in Raleigh right now is at Stanbury (938 N. Blount St.; 919-977-4321), which opened on a quiet block north of downtown in September. The décor is unfussy – wooden tables, a few votives, an open kitchen – but the spot’s take on modern American cuisine is adventurous. The seasonal, ingredient-driven menu, which changes daily, recently included Chadwick Creek oysters ($3 each), pan-fried North Carolina triggerfish ($12) and a scrumptious plate of crispy pig’s head with beluga lentils, arugula and an oozy 63-degree duck egg ($12). Desserts don’t disappoint, but consider going next door to Escazu Artisan Chocolates (936 N. Blount St.; 919-832-3433), where chocolate is made on-site and the truffles with clove-scented caramel are almost too pretty to eat.
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Dance off your dinner at Kings (14 W. Martin St.; 919-833-1091), a quirky live-music venue where the judging thumbs of Statler and Waldorf (as in the Muppets) are always in attendance in a private balcony box. On stage, there might be a local folk band or indie act. If the music’s not to your liking, an alternative awaits two floors below at Neptunes Parlour, a thumping bar and dance club with DJs, a dimly lighted dance floor and classic arcade games.
MEET THE SCIENTISTS
How to encourage students’ interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) has generated national discussion recently, but the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences (11 W. Jones St.; 919-707-9800) already has one idea to address the issue. The museum’s Nature Research Center, an 80,000-square-foot wing that opened in April 2012, seeks to inspire the next generation of scientists by demystifying the research process. Three floors are packed with interactive opportunities: modeling storms, testing DNA samples, shadowing scientists at work in the glass-walled laboratories. In-depth “Meet the Scientist” lectures from area researchers presenting their work will fascinate all ages. Free.
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PORK, PAST AND PRESENT
For a throwback lunch to a rapidly vanishing era, sidle up to the counter at Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque (109 E. Davie St.; 919-832-7614) while you still can. The establishment will serve food in the same building where it has barbecued since 1938 until March 30; it will reopen early next month around the corner at 313 S. Wilmington St. The vinegar-splashed barbecue tastes best on a chopped pork sandwich ($3.25) with tangy slaw, a side of hush puppies and a sweet tea. Or go nouveau – or rather, nuevo – at Jose and Sons (327 W. Davie St.; 919-755-0556), a slick new restaurant that draws on the owners’ heritage to produce a mashup of Southern and Mexican cuisine. The culinary fusion seems natural when you bite into pimento-cheese-topped tostones ($6) or the belly-busting entree called Chicharrón and Waffles (corn-masa waffles, a pile of pork belly cracklings, sriracha sauce and a poached egg; $11).
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The downtown area known as the Warehouse District, once just a sector of dilapidated redbrick buildings, now houses art studios and galleries. Start an exploration of the neighborhood at Flanders Gallery (302 S. West St.; 919-757-9533), a bright space that exhibits varied contemporary art – a tractor covered in crochet, fantastical animal sculptures – with an emphasis on emerging area artists. Then head across the street to CAM Raleigh (409 W. Martin St.; 919-261-5920), the city’s first contemporary art museum, which opened in 2011 ($5). A recent exhibition showcased art made by using mapping technology like satellite imagery and Google maps. Then stop at Designbox (307 W. Martin St.; 919-834-3552), a gallery, shared working space and shop that sells, among other items, cartoon cards from the in-house illustrator Paul Friedrich.
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ROLL OR STROLL
College basketball and football tend to dominate the sports consciousness of central North Carolina, but other offbeat spectator opportunities also abound. Cheer on the players of the local all-female roller derby league, the Carolina Rollergirls, when they wheel into J.S. Dorton Arena (1025 Blue Ridge Road; 919-821-7400). After you learn the rules from the program, the bruising bouts with jammers whipping past booty blocks will be as entertaining as the skaters’ tongue-in-cheek sobriquets. If the teams are away, settle for a stroll through the peaceful botanical garden at the nearby JC Raulston Arboretum (4415 Beryl Road; 919-515-3132).
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SOUTH BY SOUTHEAST ASIA
The increasingly diverse dining options downtown are typified by Bida Manda (222 S. Blount St.; 919-829-9999), a new upscale Laotian restaurant where walls are lined with woven bamboolike sticks. Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha, the siblings who own the place, also incorporated personal elements into the décor, like a black-and-white image of their smiling parents in Lao wedding dress that greets patrons. Standout dishes recently included a rich pork-belly soup with coconut curry, vegetables and rice noodles ($16.90) and spicy green-papaya salad with ginger-and-garlic pork neck, peanuts, lime sauce and a basket of sticky rice ($17.90).
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Head underground to find the city’s classiest drinking dens. At the subterranean bar Foundation (213 Fayetteville St.; 919-896-6016), house-made colas and syrups are mixed into cocktails like the Sweet Home Carolina (Cruzan light rum, sweet potato simple syrup, an egg and autumnal spices; $10). Down a different set of steps is Fox Liquor Bar (237 S. Wilmington St.; 919-322-0128), a dimly lit lounge in the basement of a former Piggly Wiggly grocery. The discreet entrance and exposed brick walls are part of the Prohibition-era speak-easy theme, but it’s the cozy black leather couches and strong classic cocktails that keep the place packed.
The acclaimed Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen now oversees five ventures in the city (with more on the way). But the casual cafe Joule Coffee (223 S. Wilmington St.; 919-424-7422), which opened in September, may be her finest yet. The cheerful interior is punctuated with jolts of color from vermilion chairs and benches, while glassed-in alcoves flanking the entrance provide quiet nooks in which to peruse the Sunday paper. After choosing the beans for your pour-over coffee (all from Durham’s Counter Culture Coffee), focus on the excellent brunch menu. The puffy sweet potato hot cake ($12) is sure to recharge your batteries, as will the Hangover, a delectable bowl of grits, melted cheddar, bacon, pico de gallo, scallions and sour cream ($12).
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In 2010, the N.C. Museum of Art (2110 Blue Ridge Road; 919-839-6262) opened the new West Building, an angular modern structure built to house its permanent collection. The building, encased in aluminum panels, showcases diverse works from ancient Egyptian to contemporary. After exploring the spacious galleries, pause to admire the courtyard pond surrounded by Rodin sculptures. Then move on to the East Building, which now hosts a changing roster of temporary exhibitions. Admission is free to both the West Building and the lovely sculpture park that winds around the surrounding woods and grassy fields.