Food & Drink

Here are the Triangle’s best rated restaurants in 2019 — so far

Awarding stars to a restaurant is the hardest part of my job.

Dithering over the difference between a half-star one way or the other has kept me awake at night on more than one occasion. That said, I have developed guidelines over the years that help me arrive at a rating I believe accurately reflects my experience.

Of the three key elements of that experience — food, service and atmosphere — food is for me the most important factor by far. Only if service is especially good or bad will that have a significant impact on the star rating. And that’s a rarity; overwhelmingly, I find it to be merely average. Same goes for atmosphere, which I consider primarily in the context of how well it matches the menu.

Beyond that, I’m reluctant to give much weight to dining room decor and vibe, which in my opinion are a matter of personal taste.

That said, a restaurant has to deliver the goods in all three categories in order to earn a rating of 4 stars or higher.

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So far this year, eight restaurants have merited that rating — an unusually high number, largely because four of them are revisits to restaurant that rated four stars or higher in years past. I’ve rounded them all up here, briefly addressing each of the three key elements.

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The Best Restaurants of 2019 ... So Far

ELAINES on Franklin
Elaine’s on Franklin, located at 454 W. Franklin St. in Chapel Hill, serves inventive updates of French classics. Juli Leonard

Elaine’s on Franklin

454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. 919-960-2770 or

Rating: 4 stars

Food: Inventive updates of French classics have maintained Elaine’s status as a prime Franklin Street destination for fine dining since 1999. Pan-seared duck foie gras served on banana-walnut French toast with Vermont maple syrup comes to mind, and grilled filet mignon with garlic-escargot butter and a crispy potato cake.

Service: well-trained, reserved

Atmosphere: white tablecloths against a colorful contemporary backsplash of jewel tone walls and paintings of produce

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Guglhupf 2
Guglhupf’s fall menu last year featured Hochrippe, which is red wine and herb marinated grilled ribeye, browned onions, potato dumplings and charred alium demi. Pascal Monmoine


2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham.

919-401-2600 or

Rating: 4 stars

Food: Guglhupf’s menu has evolved over the two decades since it opened, each change bringing new surprises while continuing to live up to a high standard for traditional and contemporary German cuisine. After you’ve feasted on a mussels steamed in Hefeweizen and a superb pork schnitzel, be sure to stop by the adjacent bakery for some of the best European breads and pastries in town.

Service: welcoming, knowledgeable, and attentive

Atmosphere: Weather permitting, one of the most beautiful patios in the area is an irresistible alternative to the open, two-story dining room, which can get quite noisy.

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M Tempura

111 Orange St., Durham.

919-748-3874 or

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

111 Orange St., Durham.

919-748-3874 or

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Food: Who knew tempura could be this good? M Tempura’s omakase style multi-course presentation, each item delivered immediately from the fryer to your plate, elevates a dish often relegated to the appetizer list at Japanese restaurants to a truly memorable experience.

Service: exceptionally well-trained and eager to please

Atmosphere: American urban meets Japanese austere

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The Ceviche Los Cabos is a cylindrical high-rise of shrimp, octopus and tuna served at Mariscos Los Cabos in Durham. Juli Leonard

Mariscos Los Cabos

4020 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham.

919-748-4290 or

Rating: 4 stars

Food: Lobsters are flown in overnight from Maine for the star attraction on the Langosta al Gusto platter, a seafood feast that also includes fresh shrimp, calamari, mussels and other goodies. You don’t have to shoot the works, though, to delight in a seafood bounty will hook you, whether you go for a humble coctel de camaron or an eye-popping Ceviche Los Cabos tower.

Service: friendly and attentive

Atmosphere: over-the-top nautical motif, with live music most nights

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310 E. Main St., Carrboro

984-234-0054 or

When Oakleaf relocated to Carrboro it changed its decor to a cool sophistication of bold abstract paintings and porthole mirrors on midnight blue walls. Juli Leonard

Rating: 4 stars

Food: The inventive contemporary fare that made Oakleaf worth a drive to Pittsboro on the outskirts of the Triangle has survived the move to Carrboro with flying colors. Last time I was there, a presentation of pan-seared scamp grouper, sandwiched between a cloud of shaved fennel and a fragrant pool of saffron-shellfish jus was particularly impressive.

Service: solid, if sometimes smug

Atmosphere: cool sophistication of bold abstract paintings and porthole mirrors on midnight blue walls.

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O-Ku Sushi

223 S. West St., Raleigh

919-792-3777 or

Rating: 4 stars

Food: This casually elegant newcomer feeds downtown Raleigh’s ever-growing hunger for a topnotch Japanese restaurant with impeccably fresh-tasting and expertly prepared sushi, and a concise but equally appealing selection of robata yaki and other specialties from the kitchen. The nigiri sampler, showcasing a “mystery box” of fish flown in from Japan, is a must for sushi aficionados. Really, though, it’s hard to miss no matter what you order here.

Service: well-trained and welcoming

Atmosphere: plank floors, honeyed oak ceilings and polished wood tabletops set a warmly inviting mood that’s at once earthy and dramatic.

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2200 W. Main St., Durham

919-286-9712 or

Rating: 4 stars

Parizade’s Grilled Portuguese octopus is served over stewed chickpeas, chorizo with shaved radish. Juli Leonard

Food: The flagship restaurant in prolific restaurateur Giorgios Bakatsias’ fleet of restaurants, Parizade’s fresh take on Mediterranean cuisine has been winning fans since 1990. Try the bacalao fritters or lamb keftides, or grilled whole branzino — or pretty much anything, for that matter — and you’ll understand the restaurant’s enduring popularity.

Service: welcoming, attentive, and well-trained

Atmosphere: upscale, contemporary and dramatic, with tropical greenery wallpaper, Euro-style love seats, and oversize crimson barrel shade pendant lights suspended over tables draped in white linens

Zanyu Asian Noodles

8450 Honeycutt Road, Raleigh

919-803-1340 or

Rating: 4 stars

Food: It’s the rare counter-service restaurant that earns a four-star rating. Zanyu achieves the feat with a short but varied pan-Asian menu of cold and hot noodle dishes and izakaya plates, all expertly prepared. Kao soi noodles, pork belly ramen, steamed buns, ebi sunomono, and sesame-spangled green beans are some of my favorites. You won’t have any trouble building an equally lengthy list of your own.

Service: An eager-to-please wait staff go the extra mile, at times even making this counter service eatery, feel like you’re getting full table service

Atmosphere: A sheltered patio with a view of the Lafayette “village lawn” expands the seating possibilities of Zanyu’s narrow dining room.