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Slice of Life

Besides an eclectic menu, Raleigh's Humble Pie—featuring live music, art and a staff culled from the area's music and art community—offers food for the soul

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Raised in New Orleans—where art, music and cuisine still hold sway over trends, private clubs and strip malls—Grover Williamson approached things a bit differently than many business owners in the Triangle. In September of 1989, he signed the lease on a roomy warehouse in downtown Raleigh and by the following St. Patrick's Day, the doors were open to Humble Pie. Twelve years later, amid the hustle and bustle of the "new" downtown Raleigh, his restaurant still stands as one of the few that can really be called an institution. There's really no place like Humble Pie—not here—not anywhere. It's an original.

At "49" (perpetually), Williamson remains committed to following the initial thrust of his idea: "Real food for real people, music that is civic-minded and homegrown, and a feeling of community." In the midst of seemingly endless urban sprawl, Humble Pie generously provides each of those ideals for a dedicated crop of regulars whose numbers increase each season. Southern Living magazine once called Humble Pie "one of the best kept secrets in the South" and it's often been said that the place has "attitude." In fact, for several years, a sign on the front door greeted customers with this bit of friendly advice: "If You're in a Hurry, You're in the Wrong Place."

What? A restaurant where diners are asked to slow down, relax, and enjoy their time out on the town? A place where you aren't rushed out for quicker table turnover and higher profits? A place to experience what live music and visual art used to be before the advent of dress-code clubs and gift-shop galleries? The restaurant has hosted weddings and Christmas parties, artist exhibitions, rock shows and Dixieland jazz (they even served lunch for a time). Which brings us to one of Humble Pie's signatures: Sunday brunch the old-fashioned way.

Despite the Saturday night rock shows, the staff is up and back to work by 9-ish the next morning to prepare homemade biscuits and pancake batter (no mixes of course—they're cracking those eggs one by one), following time-tested recipes scrawled onto paper signs above the mixing station. Unlike many other restaurants—including the ones this writer has worked in—the waitstaff and kitchen crew pitch in together for the Sunday morning cause, slicing potatoes and dicing tomatoes as they wake up to the bartender's musical selections du matin. It's a bonding experience, not unlike putting together a feast for a family gathering. By 11 a.m., there are usually a few folks gathered outside the massive sliding door, cracked open just enough to let the staff know how busy their morning will be. And it does get busy. If you're tired of waiting for more coffee, just get up and get some. If the music isn't to your liking, re-evaluate your tastes. If you're in a hurry, you're in the wrong place.

Though it lacks formal pretensions, Humble Pie does have attitude, and deservedly so. Not only is the food great but the Friday and Saturday night concerts boast some of the best regional talent around. Wednesday evenings the club fills with people dancing to the vintage jazz sounds of The King Rippers. And no one's in a hurry to leave because here—in this rustic, aromatic and nearly hidden downtown warehouse—they feel at home.

Humble Pie was first. That is, the first restaurant to open in downtown Raleigh's recently revitalized warehouse district. It wasn't easy building a clientele on a corner where there was literally no foot traffic, but Williamson persevered, offering diners a menu with a rare concentration on organic produce and farm-raised meats. Williamson was the chef during this period and has often returned to the role, taking time off from behind the line to bring in new faces and flavors. Local palate talents like Heath Holloman (Bistro 607) and Ashley Christensen (Notorious Pear Catering) have done their time at The Pie, while currently, Brian Mergenthaler is at the helm. The Pie's famously delicious homemade pies and desserts—many created by former managers Angie Theide and Vanessa Smith—are now being baked by Brian O'Hara. Another unusual aspect of Humble Pie is that staff members don't really resign so much as they take reprieves—many employees return to reprise their former roles. I've heard this practice referred to as "guest starring" and it's often true—in more ways than one.

It's no secret that artists and musicians supplement their incomes by waiting tables and bartending and, over the years, The Pie's attracted the cream of the crop. Nearly every staff member plays in a band, paints canvasses, and/or writes songs or stories, the results of which often turn up on the stage that Williamson added in 1997. Check out this short list of former and current employees who have helped to build (literally and figuratively) Humble Pie's unique aesthetic: Caitlin Cary and Skillet Gilmore (Whiskeytown, Tres Chicas), Bo Taylor (Motocaster, Bandway), Ray Duffy (Six String Drag, The King Rippers), Hunter Landen (The Bad Checks), Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine), Chip Robinson (The Backsliders), Chris Smith and Johnny Williams (Patty Hurst Shifter), and yes, even GQ and Vanity Fair-featured troubadour Ryan Adams, who was apparently a helluva dishwasher.

These days, Greg Adams (Pipe) has taken over the booking from musician Marc Smith, who splits his time between Snatches of Pink and 34 Satellite, who are frequently on the road. Humble Pie's music, like the menu, has primarily focused on alt-country flavors with added surprises of pop, punk, hip hop, and experimental sounds. "It's always a work in progress," Williamson says. As proof, an addition—an outdoor seating area of green slate and marble—is being added this year.

As an example of the communal environment that Humble Pie has created and nurtured, Williamson goes on to recall times that they and other small businesses in the area have called on each other to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar when needed. His staff feels free to call and be called on by Vertigo Diner for just about anything, and another neighbor once lent Williamson the cash for a sudden rent increase. Humble Pie has survived the arrival of new restaurants and bars, weathered rent hikes (it's tripled in the past 12 years) and increasingly complex restaurant legal codes, due largely to its community focus and willingness to adapt.

From its bar to its bread case, its ceiling beams to its intimately spaced tables, the warehouse has been modified (and added to) by some of the finest craftspeople in the area. Derek Hennigar and Bo Taylor have provided original fixtures and personal woodworking touches, Ben Galata added his wrought iron expertise, and the walls have and continue to feature newcomers and accomplished visual artists alike. Currently on exhibition are the gorgeously executed Transient Stills of Luke Buchanan—a series of painted-over photographic collages that pay tribute to the loneliness and isolation of the inner city. These are intimate interior/exterior studies that perfectly capture the aesthetic Humble Pie revels in: the old and new, the rustic and refined, the grungy and elegant.

It's within these juxtapositions that Humble Pie has forged its niche and found its voice—an artist's and musician's home that opens its arms to the public in celebration of three fundamentals: music, cuisine and visual art. And much in the way an artists' collective or band of musicians combine their talents, each ingredient enriches and feeds the others, each flavor adds to the pot, each lyric tells a story that evokes its surroundings. While not exactly New Orleans, The Pie is very close to what New Orleans is all about: See it, hear it, taste it.

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