An encore is never easy, and the Triangle’s 2017 is a tough act to follow.
Last year seemed to be something of a coming out party for our dining scene, the culmination of a decade of locked-in-a-room ambition, passionate farmers, creative chefs and space for big ideas. The rest of the country found us and marked Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill not just as some Southern shining star, but one of the great places to eat in America right now.
The spotlight is fixed and bright and everyone’s watching.
Here are some of the projects to keep an eye on, ones that will help shape how we eat in the years to come and those hoping to make a mark in the Triangle’s big moment.
Food halls – finally!
Last year was supposed to be the year of the food hall with some announced projects expected to open. Plenty of things happened in 2017, but food halls have not opened yet in the Triangle. But with multiple projects weeks or months from opening, we’re confident in declaring 2018 the Official Year of the Triangle Food Hall.
County Fare in Durham, though not strictly speaking a food hall, looks to be the first to open. The daily food truck rodeo in Durham’s Lakewood district plans to open in March. County Fare at 1920 Chapel Hill Road looks like a big ole red barn and will offer seating and a beer garden to patrons dining from the handfull of food trucks parked there daily.
The Morgan Street Food Hall in downtown Raleigh’s Warehouse District hoped to open last year, but is now eyeing an unveiling later this year. The project is led by Niall Hanley, owner of the Hibernian Irish Pub and Raleigh Beer Garden. It will feature up to 65 vendors, the most of any area food hall. The 22,000-square-foot space at 411 W. Morgan St. (which once housed the Jillian’s entertainment complex) has contracts with Cousins Maine Lobster (The food truck will open its first brick-and-mortar location), Carroll’s Kitchen, Raleigh Raw and City Sushi, among others.
The 48,000-square-foot Transfer Co. food hall is on pace for a summer opening, said Nick Neptune, who works with the project. Jason Queen, one of the leaders of the Transfer Company project, aims to bring healthy and affordable food to a stretch of East Davie Street deemed a food desert. The food hall’s main component is the Saxapahaw General Store, adding a grocery store to the area. It will be joined by Boulted Bread and Jubala Coffee, Locals Seafood and a Videri Chocolate factory. The space is still looking for a restaurant anchor to fill a 5,000-square-foot unit, as well as three other smaller spots.
In Chapel Hill off Franklin Street, the Blue Dogwood Public Market will open this spring, possibly as early as March, with 12 food stalls for local vendors. There are still a few more openings, but so far the market will include a wine and beer vendor, Chocolatay Confections, juicer Cold Off the Press, meat counter Left Bank Butchery and other small businesses.
The Durham Food Hall, originally planned for the city’s Lakewood neighborhood, announced it will move instead to downtown. The project by Durham native Adair Mueller and her partner Andrew Smith, will now open in the Liberty Warehouse Apartments in Durham’s Central Park area near the farmer’s market.
The western half of downtown Raleigh feels like a construction zone as the Dillon steadily moves towards opening this year.
The tallest point in Durham is the crane atop One City Center, the 27-story building that’s remaking the city’s skyline. A decade of invention, of gambles, of downtown success has attracted major development to previously forgotten blocks. These projects are moving in because the cities have changed, but will also be a major part of whatever comes next.
Both the Dillon and One City Center will bring thousands of square feet of new restaurant and retail space. Durham especially is running out of new places to put restaurants, and both markets remain hungry for new concepts. While anchored and mostly financed by luxury apartments, the success of these high rises will depend on the restaurants and shops that call them home, that draw residents and diners to darken their doorways.
So far the Dillon has announced an encouraging mix of projects, the homegrown coffee shop Heirloom and the latest location of beloved local grocer Weaver Street Market. But there also will be higher end restaurants aimed at the new downtown residents and those coming in from the suburbs, Barcelona Wine Bar and celebrated O-Ku Sushi.
There are few projects attached to One City Center’s ample square footage. One tenant will be Bulldega, the specialty market and grab-and-go purveyor that opened a block over two years ago. If the development of the Unscripted hotel next door is any indicator, the new skyscraper may offer more room for local voices. The Jack Tar diner, Pour Taphouse and a forthcoming Neomande Deli occupy Unscripted’s ground floor.
Ashley Christensen’s next project
For all the restaurants and food halls, cocktail bars and breweries slated to open in 2018, the stage is set once again for Ashley Christensen.
This year, the James Beard Award-winning chef opens her first restaurant in three years, jumping into the increasingly crowded pizza game. Pooleside Pie, named for its next-door proximity to Christensen’s flagship Poole’s Diner on South McDowell Street, is slated to open later this year, slinging fire-kissed Neapolitan pizzas.
The concept has been on Christensen’s radar for nearly three years, but between opening two other concepts, traveling the country cooking at events and collecting national acclaim, she’s just now getting to focus on Pooleside. Look for Christensen’s pizzas this fall.
There’s been a recent pizza boom in the downtown area, with openings like Pizza La Stella, Oakwood Pizza Box, Brookside Pizza, Pizza Times and Benny Capitale’s.
The city’s ramen landscape is about to change. The team behind Kanki Japanese steakhouses just opened Tonbo Ramen as a downstairs ramen shop and upstairs izakaya following a quick renovation of its two-story Wilmington Street space.
Kaiju Bowl and Bao on Davie Street is in the midst of construction and is shooting for an opening by early March. Owner Ken Yowell, who is behind Oak City Meatball Shoppe and Calavera Empanadas, said his latest offering will trend more toward bao than bowl, specializing in the pillowy soft rolls rather than a fully committed ramen shop. But Kaiju will rotate various kinds of noodles bowls through its menu, sometimes pho, sometimes ramen, sometimes its own take on popular styles.
Pass the small plates
Maybe it’s a love of small plates, maybe it’s the further deterioration of our attention spans, but more and more, dinner is becoming a little of this and a little of that. Snack menus are popping up around town as chefs pay homage to the everyday cravings, making meals out of shared morsels.
When Piedmont in Durham reopened with a more casual vibe, it added a burger and made its own sour cream and onion chips, every bit the convenience store treat but taken to a place of crisp and crunch that Utz simply can’t match. Piedmont also added catfish corndogs, ducks in a blanket and even larger dishes meant to be grazed on by a group.
With a strong dining scene comes a general fear of missing out, of trying only one delicious thing among a menu of nearly a dozen, of making the most of trying a new restaurant or revamped menu. Restaurants continue to be happy to oblige, shrinking plates and adding options to pack more into a night out.
Wahlburgers is coming. Really.
Long-awaited Wahlburgers will indeed open in downtown Raleigh this year, sooner rather than later, said franchise owner Greg Prazzo. For a downtown dining scene that’s flourished over the past decade, mostly on the merits of its homegrown independent restaurants, Wahlburgers represents a two-footed plunge into largely uncharted waters.
Many diners have clamored for months on social media for Wahlburgers to hurry up and open on Fayetteville Street, while others and members of the local restaurant community have bristled at the high profile chain moving into downtown. Prazzo said Wahlburgers is fully staffed up, having put its staff in place over the last couple months and now awaits its certificate of occupancy from the city before it can officially open to the public. As of yet, there’s no word on Wahlberg brothers attending the grand opening.
Copa is on its way
Durham’s Old Havana Sandwich Shop is closing Feb. 18 after seven years on Main Street. Its owners will open Copa, a different take on Cuban food and a restaurant built from a place in time rather than a certain cuisine.
In the former Revolution space at 107 W. Main St., owners Roberto Copa Matos and Elizabeth Turnbull will serve the dishes of Cuba from the 1800s, which Matos says have been largely lost in what we typically think of as Cuban food today. Instead of a cuisine somewhat resembling the rest of Latin America, Matos said Copa will seem more European-influenced.
Over the past year, Old Havana has hosted special dinners called The Lost Dishes of Cuba that forged much of what Copa will become. Surprises like a cold cucumber soup or Cuban paella will join the beloved sandwiches of Old Havana in the new restaurant.
“Copa is the answer to many different things, many of my dreams coming together, coming to fruition,” Matos said. “We’ll continue to serve the sandwiches our customers have come to enjoy these many years, but we’re deepening our cuisine and influence.”
Matos and Turnbull bought the old Revolution space for Copa, wanting to have more control over their new venture after a series of landlords at Old Havana. Copa will be tapas-based and serve lunch and dinner.
“We’ll bring the best that Old Havana has and add a few items,” Matos said. “In the old kitchen we could only really cook pork, but now we’ll be able to do other kinds of meats, beef and chicken; we’re going to do that to enrich the offerings of Copa.”
The cocktail menu is also based on a moment in time, in this case the rum running days of prohibition, where Havana offered a nearby quench to American thirsts. Matos said cocktails will be heavily rum based and riff on the tastes of the 1920s.
Matos hopes to open by mid-March. Copa is currently raising money for renovations through a Kickstarter campaign. They have rasied 57 percent of the $20,000 goal. The campaign ends Feb. 28, and the money only will be released if the campaign is fully funded.
Wooden Nickel gets more space
After 14 years, Hillsborough’s Wooden Nickel Pub is moving out of its original spot in Hillsborough and into new digs three doors up the street. Renowned for wings and a great craft beer taplist, the new Nickel will be next to sister restaurant La Place in the former Bank of America building on Churton Street, Hillsborough’s main drag.
As anyone who’s fought for wing night elbow room can attest, Nickel owners Dean James and Matt Fox wanted a bigger space for their pub, including a bigger kitchen and beer cellar. The new spot will have much more outdoor seating as the Nickel takes over a brick alleyway next door.
As for the original Nickel, it’ll stay open until construction wraps up. The group will maintain control of the space and plans to open another restaurant concept with an elevated drink menu. But Dean expects it to be a detour from what they’ve done so far. The new Wooden Nickel Pub is expected to open later this year.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson