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Replete with air-conditioning, plasma TVs and plush seats, the two hybrid-electric buses of Raleigh's free R-Line circulate through downtown all day and into the night. Whimsically shrink-wrapped in bright green and blue, the buses carry tourists and locals, pub crawlers and date-night couples. As they move counter-clockwise in a loop from stop to stop, the R-Line buses are also connecting some dots in the city's economic development plan.
Since its debut four months ago, the R-Line is proving a real boon to downtown eating and drinking establishments—and it may be just the missing link city leaders have sought to encourage downtown living and leisure activities.
"We were excited to use the R-Line," says Blair Hogan, 28, who lives in the Cotton Mill condos near the intersection of Peace Street and Capital Boulevard. "Six of us went to the Busy Bee for my birthday. And we used it for Beer Fest; we went on the R-Line to get to Moore Square.
"I just bought a new car, and now it's kind of funny. I keep thinking, why did I do that?"
Jason Smith, chef-proprietor of 18 Seaboard in the Seaboard Station complex off Peace Street at R-Line stop No. 3 (R3), has noticed a boost in diners.
"What we've seen are people doing pub crawls. We're their first stop," he says. "We'll have large groups come in that are going to three or four different places."
Customers also use the bus to link his section of town with the Center for the Performing Arts, the convention center and City Market's art galleries during First Friday events.
"We have a huge amount of parking that's very accessible, and people are parking here pre-theater. They leave their car, come in and get an appetizer or entrée, share a bottle of wine, then go to Broadway South and come back for dessert. We probably have 50 or 60 people who are doing that regularly, who have season tickets," Smith says.
"[Another] thing that's really been good is people from the convention center. I'd say we average about three convention-center parties a week, sometimes 20 people each. Then, on First Friday, our business is anywhere from 20 to 25 percent up."
All those patrons are bus riders.
Curious how public transit is influencing downtown Raleigh's restaurant culture and its patrons, I spent the month of May hopping on and off the R-Line, hailing rickshaws, walking, parking and riding the CAT bus. I moved from bar to restaurant to bar again—eating, drinking and listening.
Eating: Fayetteville Street District
One evening at 6 p.m., I hop on the R-Line to find a dozen floral-clad genealogists wearing convention nametags and clutching purses. One kindly explains that 700 of them are in town from across the country, learning how to use new technologies to more accurately plot their family histories.
They ask me where to eat an early dinner, someplace near the convention center that's easy to find and not too pricey or dressy. I send them to The Oxford (R16/R15), on Fayetteville Street across from the Wake County Courthouse. (Poole's Downtown Diner would be my first choice, just steps from the convention center, but it's closed this night.)
The Oxford is solid, well balanced. It is good for Raleigh. Open less than a year, The Oxford is a gastropub, a Britishism best summed up as a bar with cheese plates, wall sconces and leather-wrapped chairs. Traditional pub grub is represented in nouveau style: You'll find potato wedges ($5, with herb-infused sea salt and garlic aioli), fish 'n' chips ($14, battered in Newcastle with citrus remoulade) and top-notch bangers and mash ($12, with boar and cranberry sausages, garlicky potatoes and sautéed spinach). The interior is roomy enough to suit all moods: Sit bar-side for sports, up front for Sunday night trivia, in back for privacy, or outside for people-watching.
Tonight, a group of tired construction workers in dusty jeans and brown workboots walk slowly down Fayetteville Street's 28-foot wide promenade. They are passed on either side by two young women in red and yellow patterned tops, heels clicking quickly on the concrete.
I follow the women into sleek Sono (R16/R15), where they make high-pitched greetings at beer-clutching mates. The sushi bar is empty, so I walk past the sexy 30-foot wall art of a kimono-clad beauty reclining á la Grande Odalisque and order cold unfiltered sake, jalapeno hamachi ($9) and miso-crusted Chilean sea bass ($22). Sono's hamachi appetizer suffers from over-eager garnishing, with too-thick jalapeno slices and a puddle of ponzu. The sea bass, on the other hand, is crisped perfectly and accompanied by fearlessly hot wasabi potatoes and stalks of asparagus as big around as a sumo's pinkie.
As I re-emerge on Fayetteville Street, waiting at the crosswalk is an older gentleman pushing a red baby carriage. Peeking in to coo at the child, I find two bunnies, one black, one white. A dinner of raw leafy greens is scattered about them. The gentleman offers to let me scratch their ears, which they allow stoically.
Drinking: one loop, five districts
If my gaze could penetrate brick and steel, I'd stand outside 222 Glenwood, or Bloomsbury Estates, or the Dawson on Morgan, or the other new condos or apartments that house the 5,000 residents of the "city center," and on any given Friday I'd surely see pods of coiffed, tan young things leaning on matte granite countertops, R-Line maps spread out before them, glasses of Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka sweating rings into the paper.
With the recent confluence of savvy entrepreneurs, boutique drink menus and an eco-chic bus line, the pub crawl—once the purview of sloppy frat boys—has come of age in Raleigh as a fine, new yupster art (that's "yuppie-hipster").
Pub crawlers, yupsters and the rest of us social drinkers will find an embarrassment of riches to choose from on the R-Line. Starting at the top of Glenwood (R5), you'll find $5 wine by the glass Thursdays after 10 p.m. at The Globe; Rioja and tapas (the wild boar sausage is a must) on the patio at Tasca Brava; and bartender J.J.'s Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka cocktails at Brooklyn Heights. (Local trivia: Brooklyn Heights was previously the shoe boutique Firefly. Coincidence or synchronicity?)
Maybe you prefer rooftop caipirinhas at Solas (R5), checking the score at Tobacco Road Sports Café or catching a blues act and a scotch at Amra's (R7).
Or perhaps you are a virtuous sipper. At Zely & Ritz (R6), not only are the martinis $5 on Thursdays, but many of the products going into them are local and organic, thanks to Coon Rock Farm, which supplies Chef Sarig Agasi with produce, meat, eggs and honey, and the bar with herbs and edible flowers. Just when you thought you couldn't stand to hear one more food writer use the l-word, here comes a brand-new usage: the locavore bar.
J. Earley tends bar at Zely & Ritz. A postmodern bartender is neither therapist nor enabler. He's an artist, a craftsman...a mixologist. Try Earley's rose geranium mojito with wild mint. It's summery and sweet, gently floral without that soapy taste.
"It came to me in a dream," he says, prompting an eyebrow raise.
"My girlfriend wears rose geranium lotion to bed," he explains. When Coon Rock Farm mentioned having rose geranium that week, it all clicked.
Printed on the back of the bar menu are deep thoughts by J. Earley: "With each passing month, as new life flowers, buds and blooms across the region, you will find new flavors flirting with each other in bold new ways," which is a poetic way of saying: When rose geranium's all gone, so's the drink.
Maybe Earley's girlfriend will buy some white-peach lotion in July.
Leaving Glenwood South, the R-Line turns the corner at Morgan and skims the edge of the Warehouse District. Get off at R8 for the Flying Saucer's 80-plus beers and ciders on tap or 200-plus bottles, R9 for Wednesday poker night and a snarkily named cocktail at The Borough; or R10 to stroll back west along Hargett for a beer-with-a-view at Boylan Bridge Brewpub.
R11 will bring smoky small-batch bourbons at The Pit, drinks and DJs at Five Star or dueling fresh-citrus margaritas at both Jibarra and Humble Pie. (Best to have one at each and compare.)
Then the R-Line loops around south of town and up on over to the Fayetteville Street District.
Don't be alarmed: Though Foundation (R16/R19) really was excavated from beneath an existing three-story building on Fayetteville Street, there are numerous lime-green steel I-beams to keep you safe. And besides, as one companion sighed over his $8 Junipero and tonic, "I could just drink myself to death here."
Never heard of Junipero gin? How about Tito's Handmade Vodka, or Ancient Ancient Age bourbon? Junior Johnson moonshine?
They're all boutique, regional or domestic liquors, made with the best ingredients possible, and if requested, stirred with Foundation's palette of housemade mixers—cola, strawberry, ginger, or red tonic—and poured over strangely beautiful, perfectly cubical ice.
The local art on the walls could be described as "post-apocalyptic municipal," with images of Raleigh overgrown by forests. When your bill comes, it will be in a vinyl folder by Stitch, Holly Aiken's local handbag company. It's likely that the music, varying from lazy bluegrass to ironic lounge lizard to sultry Euro, is partially local, too.
Back on the bus, heading north on Wilmington toward Peace College/Seaboard Station (R3), 12 people are riding the R-Line, most by themselves. It's 11 p.m. on a Friday, early enough to round out the night with a mellow doppelbock on the biergarten porch at J. Betski's ... if I were a stronger woman.
The fluorescent lights on the bus seem much brighter now—is it that I've been sitting in a dark bar or that I've been drinking in a dark bar? I'm glad for the green mesh shrink-wrap on the windows; I'm pretty sure without it we'd look like an Edward Hopper painting—pale and dissolute, hurtling through the urban landscape.
Eating: Hargett Street
At the intimate, newly opened Remedy Diner on Hargett Street, a block off Fayetteville (R19), long-haired bikers share the bar contentedly with waify vegans, eager food enthusiasts and professionals in business-casual dress.
Dave the bartender, who could be described as a Wolverine-in-miniature, likes a challenge: Name an alcohol and he'll whip something up. He's got an old pharmacy jar up on a shelf, steeping a concoction he calls The Remedy, a gin-based drink infused with mint and chamomile tea. (He credits the concept to a bartender he knew in Manhattan.) It's fantastically herbal and cool, like an Alpine spa. Perfect for summer—or winter, if you're feeling consumptive.
It's the dessert hour. A friend sits debating a dilemma: key lime pie or key lime martini? Dave advocates for both, but that seems excessive, so he gives extra love to her martini, drizzling spiced rum to simulate graham-cracker crust and whipped cream with lime to represent the innards.
On another visit to Remedy, though the much-anticipated loaded fries ($6.50) are merely OK compared to the transcendent ones at Raleigh Times (also R19), the rest of Remedy's menu (with all-day breakfast) is enticing, to vegetarians in particular. Between the vegan chicken salad, the veggie BLT with avocado and fake bacon, and the veggie meatball sub (all $7.50), even carnivores feel at home. The vegan Reuben is still a mystery—substitute what for Swiss and corned beef?—but it's worth returning for, especially if the warm Derby pie ($4.25) is on special.
A woman sipping a chardonnay hands me a business card; she teaches modern dance to toddlers. I'm 99 percent sure that's Paul Sedaris (David's brother, of rooster fame) a few seats down. I'm starting to understand this "downtown living" idea. It throws you into a mix of people you'd never meet otherwise.
To the left of the bar, the chalkboard lists one word: Hate. To the right, the four-panel plate glass window has big white Hollywood lights around it, creating the illusion that we're an invisible audience, the street scene mere theater for our enjoyment. Just then, a parade of rickshaws goes by. I'm almost at the end of my Stone IPA ($3.50 pints on Tuesdays), so I stick my head out the door and call one of them over.
He pedals me across town to Glenwood South, approximately 12 blocks, where I've left the car. It's my third rickshaw ride this spring, and it feels as invigorating as ever: wind in my hair, lights streaming by. I'm a kid on a carnival ride.
I tip $10, get in my car—and drive the rest of the way home.
Eating: Wilmington Street
New night, a Wednesday at 7 p.m. The bus has two passengers. The driver wears gloves—not driving gloves, more like winter gloves. "It sure is cold in here, huh?" I say to her. She laughs and agrees. Is the frigid air conditioning meant to discourage riders, homeless or otherwise, from lingering too long?
I pull the cord to stop at Busy Bee (R16/R19), which has been open about 11 weeks now—or, more precisely, 1,540 hours. Located next to the Moore Square Transit Station, Busy Bee is open from 6 a.m. (7 a.m. on weekends) till 2 a.m.; it is a hive of activity, trying to be all things to all people and pretty well succeeding.
You'll feel like Alice in Wonderland deciding which door to enter: The one on the left leads to the ground-floor Busy Bee Café, a coffee counter/ sandwich shop/ full bar with Wi-Fi mezzanine, which has a neat, professional yet still independent vibe (what Starbucks wishes it were). The door on the right leads upstairs to The Hive, a long, dark bar with whitewashed brick walls and glossy pine floors.
Keep walking and you'll come to a roof terrace. A recent Tuesday night yielded preppy plaid shorts, flip-flops, halter dresses, boutique jeans, bare shoulders and a stunning array of gold hoop earrings. The outdoor speakers provide a soundtrack for a night on the town. On two visits a week apart, "Is This It" by The Strokes floated through the air.
The menu both upstairs and down is the same, created by chef Jeremy Clayman, previously of The Mint, which, thanks to www.godowntownraleigh.com, we know is exactly 266 steps away. At Busy Bee, Clayman has done a good job designing a menu that transitions throughout the day. Though concentrating on creative salads and sandwiches ($6-$9) like frisée with melon and pancetta, chicken sandwich with pear and honey, and burgers topped with fried green tomatoes, Clayman also offers small plates ($4-$11) and five hot meals ($12-$14), including steak frites, tomato risotto and shrimp and grits for a little more sustenance.
The drink menu evolves too, with coffee drinks available all day long, a mini-fridge of Red Bull at the ready and two bars offering everything from Aviator on tap to a house favorite, The Sting, served in a bulbous-bottomed V-shaped glass with passion-fruit vodka, jalapeno and cilantro.
Just up Wilmington Street from Busy Bee are Dos Taquitos Centro, with superb higher-end Mexican food, and Sitti, the new Lebanese restaurant founded by Empire Eats' Greg Hatem and Neomonde's Saleh family. Stop in for some mezze, like baba ghanouj or lamb kebabs ($6-$8). Another Empire Eats restaurant, Gravy, is open next door to Sitti.
Eating: City Market and Moore Square
Not all of the nightlife on the R-Line is a result of the new "revitalization." For over a decade, the Moore Square area has been home to three independent-minded restaurants with devoted followings: Mo's Diner, Caffe Luna, and Vic's Ristorante Italiano.
Vic's (R17), across Moore Square in City Market, has a lively, energetic vibe perfect for groups, families or casual dates. Owner Mario Longo holds court at a table on the left, and servers (who seem to be siblings or cousins) call out pizza and pasta orders to each other in a brisk Northeastern brogue. If there's a soccer match playing anywhere in the universe, Vic's is sure to broadcast it on TV: an excellent diversion for fidgety kids.
One has to wonder if the kitschy painting of a cigar-wielding Longo, which hangs in the back, depicts him wearing a knowing look because he's lasted so long in a high-turnover market or because he's just eaten a plate of the extraordinary veal saltimbocca.
Mo's and Luna (R18) are both elegant spots, with proprietors who talk up the R-Line on their Web pages. They're well-known for pretheater dinners and often summon the door-to-door Showtime shuttle for their patrons.
Dinner at Mo's, a romantic 1886 cottage with a friendly front porch just off Moore Square, can be as complex as mussels Lyonnaise ($11), rack of lamb ($25) and bread pudding ($7), or as simple as grilled spicy shrimp ($7) and a knockout vegetable platter ($14).
Holly Mojaher, who owns Mo's Diner with her chef-husband, says, "I love the R-Line. It connects Artspace with Glenwood South and just about every other gallery that is part of First Friday. My friends who work downtown...[when] they want to go for lunch, they don't want to walk to the deck that could be four blocks away to get in their hot, steamy car, when they can get right on the R-Line. It suddenly opens up a hundred different restaurants for them to go to at lunch, and same with dinner, too."
The view from her front porch is a good one these days, says Mojaher.
"Nobody lived in downtown 12 years ago. For the last two years, there's so much more activity. I've seen people walking their dogs, pushing baby carriages, riding the rickshaws. The people from Raleigh (my mom's lived here since 1929) are the hardest clientele to get to go downtown! They have that stigma that you don't go downtown after dark.
"It's the younger people and the people coming from out of town that are down here."
Take your own tour
People who aren't familiar with Raleigh's downtown often repeat the same mantra: I wouldn't know where to park. I hate traffic. I wouldn't know how to get around. (And then, sometimes, sotto voce: Aren't there, you know, homeless people?)
There's no mystique to it: There are all kinds of people, going about their day. Traffic is a cinch compared to Six Forks at rush hour, and as for parking, free or metered street spots are almost always available, and prices in any of the 32 decks and lots are far more reasonable than most cities (Raleigh is generally $1-$2/hour; Washington, D.C., ranges from $8-$12/hour).
Residents in Durham, Chapel Hill and other towns served by Triangle Transit can catch a $2 ride to downtown Raleigh and hop on the R-Line from several stops within walking distance.
With a couple of landmarks under your belt, you'll feel well oriented. Look for the big green bus and take a free reconnaissance loop (approximately 25 minutes) or take a walking tour. Triangle Food Tour has three-hour tasting adventures on Thursday mornings and Saturday afternoons for $28 (www.trianglefoodtour.com).
Raleigh Ambassadors are also useful. Described by the Downtown Raleigh Alliance as "a cross between a hotel concierge and a neighborhood watch," these purple-shirted officers can help with parking and directions or walk you to your car between 6 a.m. and midnight on weekdays and 10 a.m. and midnight Saturdays. (To request an escort, call 368-7962.)
The landscape of downtown is changing daily. The capital city fairy keeps waving her magic wand, and evidently her favorite color is purple. Last month, I drove down Dawson Street and was startled by a sudden crop of large-print purple direction signs.
Now a purple information kiosk has popped up on Glenwood Avenue at North Street, directly in front of the unmarked door to a low-key local favorite, The Rockford (R6), which is nearly a gastropub with its gourmet sandwiches. The kiosk, like what you'd find in a mall or airport, features a colorful map with concentric circles that estimate distance in walking time.
Codifying a city into districts gives new meaning to them. Surely, Manhattan's Avenues A, B and C weren't as beguiling until packaged as "Alphabet City"—and the triangle below Canal Street was a collection of barren, windswept streets before an enterprising soul dubbed it TriBeCa.
Cartoonish or not, Raleigh's new map, color-coded by district, is visually arresting: Glenwood South is peachy peach; the Capital District, patriotic blue; the Warehouse District, racy red; the Fayetteville Street District, imperial purple; and the Moore Square District, leafy green. One missing feature on the map—a glaring one—is any mention of the R-Line; it must have been sent to press before Raleigh went all hybrid-electric.
Let's end our tour with the Bradleys. Though the Downtown Raleigh Alliance has never heard of them, and the City Council couldn't spot them in a crowd, they are the city's dream couple. A few months ago, they moved from Beaufort, sold their house and bought a downtown condo.
Mike Bradley works for a business development nonprofit on Hargett Street and walks to work. Corliss Bradley works from home. She's thinking of selling their car because they drive so seldom.
"Our idea of a city is you don't have to take a cab or rent a car. We've always tried to live where we could walk," he says.
Night after night, they dine out, ride the R-Line, explore their options. And nearly every dollar they spend is spent downtown.
Asked why they relocated to Raleigh, they say—and I am not making this up—"We moved here because of the R-Line, and the restaurants."