“Come rock with us on the front porch!” The invitation, on Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen’s Facebook page, is accompanied by a photo of a row of rocking chairs on the sidewalk near the entrance to the restaurant, which opened late last year in the Raleigh Marriott City Center.
If, after taking them up on the invitation, you should decide to mosey inside, you’ll find a dining room and bar that echo the down-home theme. Mind you, the decor isn’t nearly as folksy as those rockers on the “porch” might have led you to expect. In fact, the look is a fusion of urban and rural elements in muted tones: rustic plank walls, fireplace clad in gunmetal gray steel plates, vintage black and white photographic mural of a distillery, lounge area with modern club chairs and sleek round copper tables.
On a wall behind the bar is a display of whiskey barrel bottoms branded with the restaurant’s logo, and with the logos of brewers (a couple of locals among them) whose beers you’ll find among the dozen or so on tap. The bar also offers a respectable selection of its namesake whiskey, as well as a barrel-aged Manhattan made with Jim Beam rye.
Even after a couple of those Manhattans, you won’t forget that you’re in a hotel restaurant. That massive fireplace soars to 15-foot high tray ceilings, and the plank walls are divider partitions that can be moved to create banquet rooms for private functions. But the look does set an appropriate backdrop for Rye’s seasonally changing menu of contemporary Southern fare.
Drawing freely on the produce of local farmers and food artisans (a commendable number of them for a hotel restaurant) for inspiration, executive chef Michael Rigot has created a menu that offers a tempting variety of options while keeping the focus for the most part on the flavors of the South.
The kitchen’s execution of these dishes, however, is frustratingly all over the map. A appetizer featuring a crab cake on a bed of mustard-braised greens comes close to the mark, though the crab cake is so moist it falls apart before you even put a fork to it. Shrimp hush puppies – overcooked, and containing precious little shrimp – are doubly disappointing.
On a different night, the same deep fryer turns out panko-crusted, pimento cheese-stuffed deviled eggs fried to a crisp, golden brown turn. Go figure.
Entrees are likewise hit or miss. Or near-miss, as is the case with chili-glazed salmon when I sample it. Not on the menu by virtue of its Southernness, I suspect, but because salmon is obligatory on a hotel menu, the fish is pan-seared with a translucent, admirably restrained honey-chili glaze. It’s marred only by being a shade overcooked.
Sweet tea-brined chicken, on the other hand, is so dry that it wouldn’t pass muster at an all-you-can-eat buffet, much less as a $24 entree. Turns out no amount of brining can undo the effects of overcooking.
If sweet tea is defeated in its mission of producing moist meat, another sugary Southern beverage does the trick in the marinade and glaze for Cheerwine spareribs. And an impressive trick it is, providing a well-matched complement (at once spicy, savory and sweet without crossing the line into saccharine territory) to pork so tender it needs little effort to coax it off the bone.
Mills Family Farm beef short ribs, braised in honey rye whiskey, are also excellent – at least according to a server who raved about them one night, only to return to our table a few minutes after he’d persuaded me to order them, and inform me that they were sold out. As I would learn over the course of two visits, this experience is representative of a wait staff who are enthusiastic, by and large, but widely varied in experience and familiarity with the menu.
I can, on the other hand, personally vouch for the Beaufort Supper: local clams, shrimp, mussels, andouille sausage, fingerling potatoes and wheels of corn on the cob, all simmered together in Lonerider Shotgun Betty Hefeweizen beer. It’s served up in a galvanized metal bucket with toasted slabs of rustic locally baked bread, which you’ll want to use to sop up that briny, well-seasoned broth.
Feast that it is, even the Beaufort Supper comes with the choice of two sides that accompany all entrees. Except for the mac and cheese, which I’m told is popular but was dry when I ordered it, every side dish I’ve tasted is a winner. I especially like the charred carrots with honey and goat cheese, mustard-glazed collards, and a distinctive succotash that’s jazzed up with a little house-made pepper relish.
In fact, given the relatively high prices in the evening, the meat and three lunchtime special ($10 including nonalcoholic beverage) may well be the way to go. On Mondays, the featured meat is fried chicken, and Wednesdays it’s meatloaf. You can see the full list on Rye’s website and on a chalkboard at the restaurant – which you’ll find near those rocking chairs on the front porch.
500 Fayetteville St., Raleigh
Cuisine: contemporary Southern
Atmosphere: urban-rural fusion in a hotel setting
Noise level: moderate
Service: widely variable
Recommended: Beaufort Supper, Cheerwine spareribs, sides (charred carrots, mustard-glazed greens, succotash)
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street and in lots.
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.