A look back at 2018: Triangle dining shifts after restaurant institutions close

Allen and Son Barbecue during a busy lunch hour.
Allen and Son Barbecue during a busy lunch hour. File photo

The food halls are open and tasty bites abound. But for some, 2018 may be remembered for what the Triangle dining scene lost rather than found.

The inevitability of restaurant closings seemed particularly cruel this year, claiming some of the area’s most historic, acclaimed and beloved spots. Restaurants tied to the thriving food and drink culture in North Carolina — chefs and bakers who helped make the Triangle a dining destination — retired or no longer could make their projects work.

A trio of closings, in particular, all from the era before the limelight, mark 2018 as a year of significant change.

In the summer, Durham pillars Nana’s and Scratch Baking closed within a month of each other, with nearly four decades of feeding the city and a handful of James Beard nominations between them. Earlier in December, famed North Carolina pitmaster Keith Allen closed Allen & Son, the Chapel Hill barbecue restaurant known for pork bridging the barbecue divide between eastern and western styles.

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Nana’s chef and owner Scott Howell closed his fine dining restaurant after 26 years, feeling the demands and expectations of white tablecloth dinners had fallen out of favor in the era of fast-casual. The restaurant remained steady, he told The News & Observer this summer, but the margins were always narrowing, while Nanataco, his house of tacos and burritos, boomed nightly across the street. He hasn’t left the dining scene altogether; he recently added a fried chicken restaurant, Dee Luxe Chicken, with partner Rick Robinson, and has other projects in the works.

Meanwhile, in January, renowned baker and chef Phoebe Lawless started the year by closing her original Scratch Bakery on downtown Durham’s Orange Street. (M Sushi chef Michael Lee took over the spot later on for his fried tasting menu M Tempura.).

Lawless had opened Scratch Baking in downtown Durham’s Orange Street in 2008, growing it from farmer’s market pies to one of the city’s busiest brunches and bakeries.

So it was even more of a surprise when, in July, she announced she was closing her second Scratch bakery, dubbed “Baby Scratch,” and the adjacent restaurant The Lakewood, with only a weekend’s notice for fans to say goodbye.

The Lakewood, open for just a year in the renovated Davis Baking Co. building, was her first restaurant, named for the neighborhood.

(In October, True Flavors Diner in Durham announced it would expand by opening a second location of its popular brunch restaurant in the former Lakewood spot.)

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Food halls take over

The promise of food halls was finally realized this year with the opening of Morgan Street Food Hall and the soft opening of Transfer Co. Food Hall, both in downtown Raleigh.

Chapel HIll’s Blue Dogwood Public Market claimed the title of the Triangle’s first food hall, opening in the summer off of Franklin Street. Together, the food halls signaled the arrival of more than a dozen new eating establishments, with many first-time concepts while others were expansions of food trucks.

The Durham Food Hall is scheduled to open next year in the Liberty Warehouse apartment building near Durham’s farmer’s market, having changed locations this year.

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Lula’s, located in the former Spanky’s in downtown Chapel Hill, has a casual setting with a warmly welcoming vibe. Juli Leonard

College favorites close

Perhaps the limits of nostalgia claimed Satisfaction in Durham and Spanky’s in Chapel Hill. Satisfaction started in the Lakewood area, but moved to Brightleaf Squarein the early 2000s, catching on as a Duke bar.

Spanky’s survived on Franklin Street for 40 years, opened by Mickey Ewell and later owned by the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group. While the Satisfaction space remains empty, the former Spanky’s has been revived by its owners as a fried chicken restaurant named Lula’s.

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Wahlburgers and other chains

Wahlburgers, long-awaited and somewhat controversial, opened this year on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh. The celebrity burger house from the famous Wahlberg family stretches coast to coast, representing new outside interest in a dining scene founded largely on local independent restaurants.

After seven months, however, the restaurant announced Dec. 28, that it had closed.

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CO in Raleigh’s North Hills has a menu focused on contemporary pan-Asian cuisine. Juli Leonard

Other regional restaurants also tapped Raleigh and Durham for locations, including O-Ku Sushi, Barcelona Wine Bar and Oak Steakhouse in the Dillon and CO in North Hills.

East Durham adds new restaurants

Last year, East Durham started to attract more new restaurant attention. Owners Ali Rudel and Ben Filippo opened East Durham Bake Shop in the spring after an extensive renovation of a historic building, serving sweet and savory baked goods all day, six days a week.

A couple blocks down, Sofia’s Pizza opened in a former cab stand in December. Owners Jorge Gonzalez-Pena and Emily Berkeley spent two years renovating the building.

Closer to downtown, Asheville’s Hi-Wire Brewing opened a satellite taproom in Durham’s Golden Belt apartment complex. The popular brewery’s grand opening in December attracted hundreds of drinkers and a few circus acts.

Chef Bill Smith and chef Justin Burdett in the dining room at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. Burdett will replace Smith, who will be stepping down as chef in January. Smith, who is working on a new book, will represent the restaurant at food festivals and special dinners. Juli Leonard

Local favorites carry on

Succession in a restaurant is a particularly harrowing task, sustaining the interest of chefs, owners and diners across decades and weathering the whims of taste and money.

The futures of two notable restaurants appear secure thanks to two deals this year. Historic and influential Southern food temple Crook’s Corner will soon be in the hands of its third chef in nearly 40 years. Founded by Bill Neal and Gene Hamer in 1982, Crook’s Corner has been captained by chef Bill Smith since 1992. In January, the kitchen will be handed over to chef Justin Burdett following the restaurant’s sale to local bartenders Gary Crunkleton and Shannon Healy.

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In May, The Mecca, Raleigh’s oldest restaurant, was sold by the Dombalis family to restaurateur Greg Hatem and his Empire Eats company. Floye Dombalis, 91, and her late husband, John, were the second generation of Mecca owners, taking over the restaurant from John’s father, Nicholas Dombalis, who founded it in 1930.

For the past 16 years, their son Paul Dombalis, 60, ran the restaurant, though Floye remained a fixture at the cash register, greeting diners as they came and went. Floye Dombalis retired from the restaurant late last summer. Hatem said then he is a longtime admirer of the restaurant and has vowed to change little about it.

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Durham’s drinking district expands

Count Durham among the cities of the world where one can drink and throw an ax.

Geer Street in Durham, the city’s drinking district, continued to fill in through 2018, adding new bars and restaurants, including Urban Axes, pizzeria and bar Hutchins Garage and the future Durham Boxcar Bar + Arcade.

The district is almost entirely former warehouses and garage spaces that have been turned into bars and restaurants, starting with coffeeshop Cocoa Cinnamon, Fullsteam Brewery and continuing through concert venue Motorco and a handful of other late night spots that have opened in the last decade.

The city’s continued addition of new apartment complexes suggests the district will continue growing.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.