Last summer, the long-dormant marquee over the old Varsity Theater building on Hillsborough Street came to life again. Instead of movie show times, though, the sign bore the name of H Street Kitchen, the restaurant that was opening there. Beneath the restaurant’s name, the words “75 years in the making” paid tribute to the circa 1941 building’s history.
In that spirit, here’s a sneak preview of the featured attraction that’s now playing. (Spoiler alert: a legendary musician/movie star from a bygone era returns to life to make a dramatic cameo appearance at the end.)
Director: Gary Bryant is an N.C. State alum who, as student manager under coach Jim Valvano, was part of the Wolfpack men’s basketball team that won the national championship in 1983. After graduating, Bryant became a successful restaurant executive with credits including Bear Rock Cafe and the Empire Eats restaurant group. H Street Kitchen represents the realization of a long-nurtured dream for Bryant, who grew up in Raleigh.
Producer: Bryant’s partner, fellow N.C. State alum and diehard fan Jeff Brock, brings to the table a 20-plus-year career focused on investing in the restaurant industry.
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Cast: General manager Eric Harris met Bryant while working at Empire Eats properties The Pit and Raleigh Times Bar. Harris, a restaurant veteran whose credits also include Yard House and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, is working diligently to bring a wait staff with widely varied levels of experience and attentiveness up to standards.
The culinary tag team of chefs David Mitchell (formerly executive chef at Busy Bee Cafe) and Daniel Newsome are tasked with translating Bryant’s vision – a restaurant that celebrates a revitalized Hillsborough Street while at the same time honoring its past – to the plate.
Setting: The scene opens with a closeup shot of the bar, where a bartender is mixing an oak-aged riff on a Manhattan called the 1983 – a reference to that magical championship year. The camera pulls back and pans around the dining room: historic photographs and a large map of the Hillsborough street area on old exposed brick walls, open kitchen, college hoops playing on a large screen TV, a cozy nook in a front window with upholstered chairs around tables with Wolfpack-red tables. The same color is repeated in the H-shaped supports of a long communal table in the middle of the room, a cavernous space that was once home to a movie theater (and in intervening years, a MacDonald’s and a textbook store) – and has been transformed into a surprisingly warm and inviting venue.
Synopsis: Act One is an eclectic assortment of starters and salads that draws on the entire 75-year lifespan of the Varsity Theater building for inspiration. With options ranging from creamy tomato soup to chipotle lime hummus, the selection foreshadows a recurring theme that will continue throughout the meal.
The kitchen does a respectable job with the time-honored sports pub classic, chicken wings. A black and white sesame-spangled update of the Chinese classic shrimp toast has won such a strong following that it appears to have nailed down a permanent spot on the menu. But sometimes the reach into the past seems a little forced. A “shared starter” presentation of peas and mushrooms just comes off as an old school side dish (and indeed, the peas and mushrooms turn up again alongside a roasted chicken breast entree).
At the trendy end of the time line, fried Brussels sprouts are on the money. So is a Greek salad served on house-baked flatbread covered with an everything-bagel mix of seeds and spices, a shareable contemporary fusion of two long-popular American regional classics. Pimento cheese croquettes with hot pepper jelly can score a hit, too, though the darkness of the croquettes’ crust can vary considerably.
Act Two builds on the dual themes of nostalgia and novelty. Missing Mama, a cleverly named entree of roast turkey with stuffing, green beans, gravy and pickled cranberries, delivers the former in spades. Anyone craving the latter should find it in a bowl of pulled pork and collard green ramen – with the caveat that the soy broth can on occasion be too salty.
Chicken spaghetti, a chipotle-amped restaurant take on what Eric Harris describes as a “Southern mom’s casserole,” successfully combines old school and new school in a single presentation. So does pan-roasted North Carolina trout served over butternut squash puree and roasted root vegetables, garnished with toasted almonds and microgreens.
Separate sections devoted to burgers and sandwiches ranging from heirloom tomato BLT to banh mi offer intriguing subplots. The size and cooking style of the burger (five ounces, smashed) makes any request for medium-rare a hit-or-miss proposition, but that shouldn’t deter smashed-burger fans.
Act Three, the dessert, tantalizes with the likes of apple crisp, triple chocolate mocha cake, and coconut cake with lemon curd and spiced cashews. I can’t vouch for any of them, though, because my entire table of four couldn’t help falling in love with the Elvis Sundae: banana split ice cream churned by the N.C. State University Creamery, topped with crumbled peanut butter cookies and a couple of thick slices of crunchy bacon.
Critic’s review summary: That H Street Kitchen is a work of love is evident in the welcoming, well-thought-out decor and in little whimsical touches scattered throughout a menu that strives to embrace Hillsborough Street, both past and present. As for the future, if management succeeds in ironing out a few new-restaurant wrinkles, I’d say the chances of a long run with the name of H Street Kitchen on the marquee look good.
2420 Hillsborough St., Raleigh; 919-745-1983
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: large, open (and surprisingly inviting) casual space
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: spotty attentiveness is a weak link
Recommended: Greek salad on grilled everything bread, Brussels sprouts, pan-roasted trout, chicken spaghetti, Elvis Sundae
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; rooftop patio; parking on street.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.