Restaurant to open in Raleigh’s old Varsity Theater

The Varsity Theater on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh upon completion in November 1941.
The Varsity Theater on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh upon completion in November 1941. News & Observer file photo

Updated 9 a.m. Nov. 4 with fuller statement from chef Adam Rose.

A new 240-seat, casual, full-service restaurant is going to open next year in the former Varsity Theater on Raleigh’s Hillsborough Street.

The new restaurant is the work of Gary Bryant, a longtime Raleigh restaurant executive known for starting the Bear Rock Cafe chain of fast casual restaurants in the late 1990s.

Bryant, 52, has a deep connection to N.C. State University and affinity for its main thoroughfare. He graduated in 1984 and worked as a student manager for the basketball team under coach Jim Valvano. His father, Charlie, was president of the Wolfpack Club.

Bryant wants his as-yet-unnamed restaurant to help revitalize Hillsborough Street for not only students, faculty and alumni but also the neighborhood. “The idea is to celebrate the energy and vibrancy that the street once had and has been lost,” Bryant said.

Over the past five years, the city, NCSU and developers have invested millions remaking much of Hillsborough Street. A key focus of that effort has been to add more apartments, nonfood retail and sit-down style dining options along the street.

Bryant said he was approached by developer Michael Sandman to put a restaurant in the former 505-seat Varsity Theater. The theater, which opened in 1941, was designed by Hendersonville-based architect Erle Stillwell, who used a modernist style for the theater’s facade. The theater closed in the 1980s and was converted to a McDonald’s and later a bookstore.

Nothing of the theater remains but the ceiling’s bowed wooden trusses, which the remodeling has revealed. “None of this has been exposed for 75 years,” Bryant said, pointing to the vaulted ceiling.

Bryant explained that the restaurant’s design will include a bar, open kitchen and lots of seating on the first floor. An 800-square-foot mezzanine will be built to create a private dining area where the projection room used to be, as well as two outdoor patios.

A key amenity for any business on Hillsborough Street is parking; Bryant will offer valet parking to customers. After 5 p.m. on weekdays and on weekends, Bryant said, street parking and the campus parking lots are free.

Bryant has brought on Chapel Hill chef Adam Rose as the culinary director. Rose came to the Triangle in 2006 and has worked at Jujube, Elaine’s and the Siena Hotel’s Il Palio restaurant, all in Chapel Hill. Last year, he opened Black House restaurant at Straw Valley Food & Drink in Durham.

The latter restaurant received high praise from critics and attention because one of Rose’s business partners was his brother-in-law Fred Dexheimer, one of only about 140 master wine sommeliers in the country. The ambitious project, located in a mid-century modern former artists’ compound off U.S. 15-501, included a cafe, as well as a fine-dining restaurant and a beer garden. The other business partners closed the project in March.

Bryant and Rose describe the food at the new Raleigh restaurant as simple American fare done well. The prices will be $8 to $18, although dinner entrees may crack $20. Some highlights include Howling Cow milkshakes (with and without alcohol), smoked turkey pot pies, fried chicken and tomato soup, pierogies, spaghetti with meat sauce and chicken ramen noodle with 44-minute egg and crispy chicken cracklings.

Rosed added: “The food will have integrity, but won’t take itself too seriously, it will be sourced with great care, prepared with thought, served with a gracious hand, simple, comforting and real.”

Bryant has a long history in the Raleigh restaurant scene. He opened the first Bear Rock Cafe in the Lake Boone Shopping Center in 1997. At its peak, there were 33 cafes in nine states. In 2004, Bryant brought in a private equity firm to help with financing during what was hoped to be a large expansion via franchising. In 2008, he resigned and went to work for Empire Eats, which owns The Pit, The Raleigh Times and other restaurants, and later for the company that owns Tribeca Tavern.

Starting last year, Bryant said he was on the lookout for projects he would do on his own. He said he was excited by this project and working with many N.C. State alums, including the developers, contractors, engineers and vendors.

“They want to see this happen,” Bryant said.

Business editor David Bracken contributed to this report.

Andrea Weigl: 919-829-4848, @andreaweigl