I promised myself I’d never write these words. They’re a cliche, invariably uttered when someone is about to announce the winner of some subjectively chosen award.
But here I go: Choosing this year’s Restaurant of the Year was especially hard.
Really, I mean it.
To show you just how hard it was to land on the winner – Crawford and Son – and two unprecedented honorable mentions – Brewery Bhavana and The Cortez – I’m going to do a few things differently this year.
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For starters, I’ll share the process I go through to select the Restaurant of the Year, something I’ve never done before.
I’ll also explain why I decided to select Honorable Mentions for the first time – two restaurants that came oh-so-close to becoming Restaurant of the Year. Just how close should become evident when you see the pros and cons I considered in making my final decision.
Here’s how I’ve done it since 2007, when the now-closed Bonne Soirée in Chapel Hill earned the inaugural honor.
I start by making a list of every restaurant I’ve awarded four stars or higher to in the previous year. In 2017, there were 10 – the highest number I’ve ever awarded in a single year. No restaurant earned a five-star rating, though, and only one – Crawford and Son – rated four and a half. If it were a simple matter of a star rating, naming the Restaurant of the Year would have been a piece of cake this year.
But it isn’t. As I see it, the award is not simply a measure of how good a restaurant is, though that of course is a major factor. It should also reflect the restaurant’s contribution to the community in a broader sense.
In 2011, three restaurants earned higher star ratings than Bella Mia, which got the nod in part because its coal-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas raised the bar for pizzerias in the area. In 2016, I chose Death & Taxes as much for owner-chef Ashley Christensen’s overall contributions to the local restaurant scene, and for her tireless support of worthy causes, as for her newest restaurant’s designer decor and excellent wood-grilled fare.
With that guiding principle, I was able to whittle this year’s list of candidates down to three. As it happens, all are in and around downtown Raleigh, yet another sign that the City of Oaks is rapidly catching up with its more gastronomically famous neighbor, Durham, and all are eminently worthy. In fact, as I’ve exhaustively considered their merits, each has been a slight favorite to get the nod at one point or another.
The only other year I struggled to pick a winner was in 2013, when I couldn’t decide between Oakleaf in Pittsboro (which will soon open the doors of its spiffy new digs in Carrboro) and Yamazushi, superlative practitioner of the Japanese ritual meal, kaiseki. That year, I named co-winners.
This year, though, I ended up with Honorable Mentions. Fans of Crawford and Son will know what I mean when I say it came down to some warm sprouted wheat dinner rolls.
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
Crawford and Son
618 N. Person St., Raleigh. 919-307-4647 or crawfordandsonrestaurant.com
▪ Owner/chef Scott Crawford is indisputably one of the area’s most talented chefs. A five-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef: Southeast, Crawford has left a trail of Mobil Five Star awards at luxury resorts across the Southeast – including the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, where he also earned my Restaurant of the Year selection in 2010 for his work at Herons.
▪ At Crawford and Son, the chef shed the posh settings and fancy presentations he was known for and had the courage to simplify. The result is honest, affordable food, presented in a seasonally evolving menu that showcases flavors and textures cleanly.
▪ The wait staff is well-trained, as anyone who has dined at a Crawford-run restaurant would expect. But they’re not fine-dining formal, instead setting a casual mood that makes the 60-seat dining room feel like a cozy neighborhood restaurant.
▪ Those warm smiles on the faces of the staff are no doubt at least in part because of how they’re treated by the owner. Crawford has been known to provide optional pre-shift massages and chiropractic treatments for the entire staff. What’s more, he clearly values the importance of their contribution to the restaurant’s success. Invariably, when I’ve complimented him, Crawford’s response has been something along the lines of, “It’s not just me, it’s my team.” And he sounds like he means it.
▪ Crawford’s generosity of spirit extends beyond his own restaurant’s walls. After sharing his story of drug and alcohol addiction last year (he has been sober for 13 years now), he started a local chapter of Ben’s Friends, an organization dedicated to helping people in the restaurant industry (where the rate of addiction is notoriously high) recover and stay healthy.
▪ As I mentioned, I gave the Restaurant of the Year award already to a restaurant where Crawford was chef – Herons. In an area blessed with so many talented chefs, recognizing the same person twice goes against my natural inclination to spread the honors around. But it is not without precedent. Chef Andrea Reusing, a James Beard Award winner, got the nod for Lantern in 2009 and again last year for The Durham.
218 S. Blount St., Raleigh. 919-829-9998 or brewerybhavana.com
▪ Brewery Bhavana is a joint venture of brother-and-sister restaurateurs Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha and brewer Patrick Woodson – and it’s much more than a restaurant and brewery. It’s also a flower shop and a small bookstore, all coming together in an airy, cosmopolitan space with a high gabled glass ceiling. If you find yourself having trouble picturing it, rest assured that it will make sense the minute you walk in the door and find yourself in such an organically inviting place; you’ll wonder why no one has ever thought of it before.
▪ The food – modern riffs on the Chinese repertoire from dim sum dumplings to Peking duck to yellowtail snapper steamed in a banana leaf – is as alluring as the setting and as fresh as the flowers on each table. It’s already earned national attention its short time open. Bon Appetit named it one of its Top 10 Best New Restaurants in the country, and Forbes calls it one of the 10 Coolest Places to Eat – in the world.
▪ The staff are exceptionally attentive, knowledgeable and accommodating. You get the feeling they’re as happy to be here as you are.
▪ Bonus points are given for the Nolinthas’ restaurant next door. Bida Manda, the area’s first Laotian restaurant, offers an entirely different experience – but one every bit as enjoyable as Brewery Bhavana. Both are worthy representatives of the Asian cuisines that have become an integral part of the Triangle’s increasingly vibrant and diverse restaurant scene.
▪ The place can be noisy. I mean really noisy.
413 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh. 919-342-8227 or cortezraleigh.com
Cuisine: seafood (contemporary)
▪ Fresh seafood! Not just any seafood, either, but a mouthwatering selection that runs the gamut from serrano-spiked lobster roll to torched salmon banh mi. And those are just sandwiches. Other temptations might include a precisely seared N.C. bigeye tuna, clam chowder amped up with serranos, or a mezcal-spiked riff on Oysters Rockefeller. Raw oyster fans can choose from three varieties, all irreproachably fresh and expertly shucked – and they’re just a buck apiece from 5 to 6 p.m.
▪ It doesn’t hurt that fresh seafood is a restaurant category that has been woefully underrepresented until recently.
▪ Or that The Cortez expands the very definition of “seafood” to include seaweed, which experts believe is destined to become a worldwide staple. You’ll find several varieties sprinkled throughout the menu, from the sea asparagus in a Peruvian-inspired ceviche to the nori that gives an umami boost to a medley of sautéed mushrooms.
▪ The owners. Brothers Charlie and Hector Ibarra are the second generation of a family that has been raising the bar for Mexican restaurants in the Triangle for more than a decade. Their best-known venture is Jose and Sons, whose menu combines the culinary heritage of both generations in a fusion of Mexican and Southern cuisines. It’s hard to imagine a restaurant that better sums up our evolving local culture – unless it’s The Cortez, in which the Ibarra brothers, in partnership with longtime family friend and chef Oscar Diaz, spread their culinary wings further still, and take us along for the ride on a round-the-world adventure.
▪ Service is very good, but not quite as consistent as at the other two finalists. Sure, I’m quibbling. But when you’re flying this high, even the slightest downdraft gets noticed.
Best New Restaurants
72 Chapelton Court, Chapel Hill
Alley Twenty Six
320 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham
218 S. Blount St., Raleigh
The Capital Grille
4242 Six Forks Road, Raleigh
413 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh
Cuisine: seafood (contemporary)
Crawford and Son
618 N. Person St., Raleigh
321 S. Blount St., Raleigh
St. Roch Fine Oysters & Bar
223 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh
Cuisine: seafood, Cajun/Creole
2130 Clark Ave., Raleigh
Cuisine: Latin American, Caribbean
205 E. Franklin St., Raleigh
335 W. Main St., Durham
Cuisine: Indian, English, fusion
Past Restaurant of the Year winners
For a little historical perspective, here’s the list of past Restaurant of the Year winners.
2007: Bonne Soirée, Chapel Hill
2008: Fins, Raleigh
2009: Lantern, Chapel Hill
2010: Herons, Cary
2011: Bella Mia, Cary
2012: Magnolia Grill, Durham
2013: Oakleaf, Pittsboro (soon to be Carrboro) and Yamazushi, Durham
2014: One, Chapel Hill
2015: Gocciolina, Durham
2016: Death & Taxes, Raleigh
2017: The Durham, Durham