I’ve tried three times since Manning’s opened last October in downtown Clayton to score a table on its rooftop deck, and I’ve struck out. Admittedly, one of those times was entirely my fault. I drove all the way to the restaurant (a 40-minute drive from my home in Cary) without first checking the hours of operation, and when I got there I discovered that they’re closed on Tuesdays. On another occasion, a group had reserved the entire rooftop area. On yet another, a sudden thunderstorm kept us indoors.
But I did venture upstairs for a peek at what the restaurant is billing as “the only rooftop dining in Johnston County.” And what I saw – sleek aluminum patio tables and chairs under crisp blue umbrellas, a treetop-level view of the quaint shops lining Main Street in downtown Clayton, and a separate covered area with its own bar – explained why the spot has become an overnight favorite with the locals.
Not that the downstairs dining room doesn’t have its charms, from the oriental rugs in the entry to the eclectic collection of framed prints and primitive paintings of local landmarks on the walls. The large, open space can get noisy, though, when the dining room is full (which it usually is, in my experience, by 6 p.m. – even on weeknights). If you’re lucky, you might snag a seat (and a modest reduction in the decibel level) at the bar, or one of the handful of tables and booths in the lounge area.
Upstairs or down, it’s the food that is winning Manning’s a devoted following. Owner/chef Howard Manning is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C., with more than 20 years of experience cooking across the Southeast. For his first restaurant, Manning has drawn on that experience to produce a something-for-everyone menu of regional American fare and fresh takes on comfort food classics.
A number of those regional dishes have roots in Manning’s native South Carolina. Fried chicken livers, seldom seen nowadays outside a Southern meat-and-three diner, here get the Sunday-go-to-meeting treatment: flash-fried, tossed in caramelized onions and country ham gravy, and served over toast with a garnishing sprinkle of chopped scallion. Country ham gravy adds earthy richness to to the chef’s distinctive riff on shrimp and grits, too – and somehow manages not to upstage the star ingredients.
Manning takes an excursion into bayou country (by way of Yancey’s, the now-shuttered Raleigh restaurant where he once worked as executive chef) for a first-rate chicken and andouille sausage gumbo.
“Carolina” crab cakes are in fact a melding of regional flavors, as the chef seasons them judiciously with both Old Bay and his own Cajun spice blend. Having tasted the result – thick, pan-seared disks of mostly lump and back fin punctuated with finely diced peppers and onions – I say he can call them whatever he likes. Maybe it’s the presentation – served with fried green tomatoes, sweet corn relish and a spicy remoulade – that earns that “Carolina” moniker.
From time to time, the crab cake makes a cameo appearance as a stuffing for trout in a fresh catch special, where it might be topped with a tomato cream sauce and served with a medley of sautéed vegetables. If it does, set your hook and reel it in.
Chef Manning frequently ventures outside the South to explore – and invariably, put his on twist on – all-American classics. His Clayton Cobb salad is served with a spicy avocado ranch dressing, and thick beer-battered onion rings come with a jalapeño bacon ranch. Buffalo sauce (one of eight sauce options for chicken wings) takes liberties with the traditional recipe, notably dialing up the heat to a level that makes you break out in a sweat at the mere thought of the Blazing Saddles sauce. On the other hand, the wings are so moist inside their crisp skins that they don’t really need a sauce.
The chef is justifiably proud of his beer-braised, slow-roasted ribs – so proud he calls them Howard’s baby backs on the menu. He names other dishes for family members who claim them as favorites: Jennifer’s filet, for his wife and partner; Hannah’s grilled chicken, for their 3-year-old daughter; and, in a sign of confidence in the future, Henry’s hand-cut rib-eye for their 1-year-old son. Having eaten the rib-eye – a 14-ounce cut, well-seasoned and expertly grilled, served with a loaded salt-baked potato and seasonal vegetables – I’d say Henry hit the jackpot.
Service is small-town friendly and eager to please, though food sometimes gets delivered to you in a New York minute. One night recently – and a busy one at that – our entrees arrived midway through the appetizer course.
Even so, we weren’t made to feel rushed. Our server apologized for her timing, and we thoroughly enjoyed the meal – even if we didn’t make it up to the rooftop.
406 E. Main St., Clayton
Atmosphere: upscale-casual, family-friendly
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: friendly, variably experienced
Recommended: crab cake, wings, gumbo, rib-eye, ribs
Open: Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Monday (closed Tuesday).
Reservations: not accepted Friday or Saturday after 5 p.m. (call-ahead seating available); otherwise, accepted and recommended.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection; rooftop patio; parking on street and in lot at Main and Lombard streets.
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.