Eat it up: The 15 stories and trends that defined the Triangle's food scene in 2015 | Food Feature | Indy Week

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Eat it up: The 15 stories and trends that defined the Triangle's food scene in 2015

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The Triangle's food community continues to thrive and expand, as does its national acclaim. New spots seem to open every week, from pricey downtown digs to cheap strip mall eateries. National lists continue to broadcast the hottest spots in the area, while features in The New York Times and the like consistently regard the area with the glee of a naïve discoverer.

This growth, of course, brings glorious new spots, failed old favorites and curious scenarios that make us say things like, "Well, why would you name your restaurant that in the first place?" In 2015, these 15 stories fed, frustrated, delighted and disappointed us around the table.

Alternate empires

This certainly wasn't the year when the Empire struck back; Greg Hatem's trans-Triangle food operation, Empire Eats, stayed still as its architect argued for draconian drinking restrictions rather than open a new spot. But other area restaurateurs made big steps with their own empires. In a massive project just a few doors down from Hatem's flagship, Ashley Christensen opened the upscale Death & Taxes, while, on the other side of downtown Raleigh, Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha made plans to expand beyond Bida Manda. Angela Salamanca added the Southeast's first mezcaleria above Centro, while the proprietors of Taste and The Oak added a third, aptly named venture, more. Neomonde offshoot Sassool ventured into Cary, and Slim's proprietor Van Alston partnered with his employees to open a new bar. In Durham, Gray Brooks announced two upcoming places, Cocoa Cinnamon added a second location, and the culinary forces behind Toast went with high-end ramen (and, upstairs, exotic liquors) for Dashi. But with its sixth location set to open next year, Rise emerged as perhaps the region's fastest-growing enterprise—proof positive that the Triangle can help carry great chefs and their ideas far. —Grayson Haver Currin

Downtown creep

Anyone trying to live in or near downtown Raleigh or Durham knows the price to do so has climbed considerably. The same holds for the cost of business space. This year, especially in Raleigh, it seemed that new restaurants opening near the city center stemmed from already established businesses making a move to get into, or closer to, downtown. Past success, after all, makes a new business loan easier to come by.

Taverna Agora had long been a fixture on Glenwood Avenue near the strip of furniture stores and car dealerships, but it seized the opportunity to move downtown to Hillsborough Street. (The same group will soon open two new spots across from the PNC Tower.) While Lynnwood Brewing Concern is keeping its Grove Barton Road location, it has also commandeered the BlackJack Brewing spot to expand production and get closer to the city's craft-beer crowds. Gonza, Rise and Jubala all homed in on downtown spots, too—reversing urban flight while there's still real estate to be found. —Curt Fields

Final course

Growth entails some measure of failure, as real estate prices rise and either force pre-existing businesses away or cause owners simply to opt out and take someone else's offer to pay rent. And so, old standbys serve their final dish. In Raleigh, that happened throughout the year, from Helios' exit just before New Year's Eve 2014 to the departures of beer-heavy spots like Tir Na Nog, Tyler's, Brewmasters and Natty Greene's. Square Rabbit received its final notice. 518 West—once one of Raleigh's premier date spots—gave way to Google's need for a local headquarters, and certain corners of Glenwood remain revolving doors for spots that don't survive. In Durham, tax issues shuttered Fishmonger's, an institution whose quality had flagged but whose prime location suggested it would never actually fail. Now it's one of downtown Durham's most mouth-watering pieces of property, so long as new tenants can scrub away 32 years of noxious seafood smells. —Grayson Haver Currin

Tap lord

Is there a local bar owner with more gumption than Niall Hanley? The completion this year of Raleigh Beer Garden—a towering Glenwood Avenue pub that pushes his restaurant-and-bar total past the half-dozen mark—suggests not. In a meticulously designed if gaudy space, for which entire trees were cut down, sawed apart, carted in and reassembled and preserved, Hanley's Hibernian-honed team serves nearly 400 draft beers on three levels. In November, that total was enough to earn the Garden two Guinness World Records (and probably several jokes about an Irishman and his love of Guinness) for most beer types and most beer brands on tap. Before the Garden could open, Hanley spoke of expansions, franchises and next ventures—steps on his way, it seems, to becoming Raleigh's pub king. —Grayson Haver Currin

Order in

If you live here, the region's sudden upscale hotel blooming might not mean a lot, unless you need a reservation for a relative or a special occasion—or, well, if you just want to eat. From Andrea Reusing's ambitious breakfast-brunch-dinner-drinks-and-snacks program on the ground floor and rooftop of The Durham Hotel to chef Teddy Diggs' reinvention of Il Palio in Chapel Hill's Siena, many local resting places also include high-end restaurants. On UNC's campus, Carolina Inn's Crossroads got an overhaul and a fresh menu. In Raleigh, another iteration of the lackluster Gonza Tacos y Tequila in an Aloft hotel will soon by joined by the spectacular Jubala Coffee, while Durham earned a very good bar, restaurant, art museum and a waddle of pink penguins with 21c. If the rise of drab condo complexes has a real payoff, it's the same–—exciting restaurants at the bottom. —Grayson Haver Currin

On fire

When Michael Pollan wanted to learn about fire's culinary history, he came to North Carolina. Indeed, fire runs deep in these parts—beyond the blisters and into our souls. This year in particular, what was tradition has resurfaced as trend, with the fascination spreading like, well, wildfire. At Ashley Christensen's Death & Taxes, a custom J&R grill scents guests with smoke as they dine. Il Palio in Chapel Hill acquired its own wood-fired wonder from Aztec Grill to fuel grilled crostini and bistecchiera. At Tazza in Cameron Village, a wood-burning brick oven churns out crab cakes and nachos. And despite two separate fires of the bad variety, Pizzeria Toro didn't give up on its massive oven or burnt-edged, bubbly-crust concept. Burning wasn't limited to restaurants, either. At Wild Yonder's camp program for adults, participants gather around an open flame and cherish bourbon and scorched marshmallows. Maybe we were all raised to love char, and we're just remembering. —Emma Laperruque

Local yield

Triangle residents have started seeing new options that make buying and eating locally easier and more interesting. Farmers markets continue to pop up in shopping mall parking lots and empty suburban spaces. And after more than six years in the making, the Durham Co-op opened its doors in March, bringing North Carolina products and small vendors directly to consumers. Likewise, Standard Foods in Raleigh partners with local farms to ensure that its goods, from the meats to the herbs at the restaurant and in the small neighboring grocery, are fresh and sustainably sourced. Mobile groceries like LoMo Market and Relay Foods are increasing their impact, with Relay doubling its Triangle customer base this year. Bull City Cool opened as a food hub for farmers supplying produce to restaurants, and The Farmery—a cafe, farm and grocery that grows vegetables and herbs on-site—finalized plans for an RTP launch in early 2016. Local food for restaurants and customers isn't always easy, but it offers a welcome payoff on environmental, social and economic fronts when it happens. —Iza Wojciechowska

Up with empanadas

South and Central American dishes played large roles in the expansion of the Triangle's food scene this year, from the sprawl of the Gonza chain to the docking of longtime favorite food truck Captain Poncho's in Southern Village. Hell, even The News & Observer got around to surveying the area's taquerias, even if the tone was a bit embarrassingly tourist. Through it all, though, empanadas seemed to be the new star, with Calavera opening a second location in Carrboro and Luna Rotisserie cranking out imaginative combinations in downtown Durham. And just before year's end, Makus—a veritable empanada emporium—is expected to open in Durham. If you want to learn about these hand-held wonders while you eat them, local writer Sandra A. Gutierrez explored their history at length in one of two books she published in 2015. —Grayson Haver Currin

Farm to fundraiser

During the last decade, Farm to Fork, the annual picnic that pairs local chefs with local farms, has funded many educational programs. This year, the event expanded from a one-day picnic to a three-day festival; around the Triangle, nonprofit organizations are beginning to take notice. Leveraging the cachet of the fundraiser du jour, SEEDS created the Fork Less Traveled dinner series, which couples Durham chefs like Piedmont's Greg Gettles and Geer Street Garden's Andy Magowan with local farms to raise money for the nonprofit's garden-based programming. The Fiction Kitchen's Caroline Morrison sourced Raleigh City Farm's annual fundraising dinner directly from the farm, and next door, Scott Crawford of Standard Foods offered up fixings from his restaurant's garden in service of Alliance Medical Ministry. And in Saxapahaw, Isaiah Allen of The Eddy Pub hosted a fundraiser for Benevolence Farm with a menu of the farm's own herbs, vegetables and edible flowers. There's no telling how much shelf life "farm to fork" has as a term, but let's hope cooking good food for good causes is forever. —Tina Haver Currin

Pour me a cold one

First it was craft coffee, then craft beer. Now it's cold-pressed juice, the jewel-toned, in-vogue drink that boasts health benefits and a high cost. Cold-press juice is celebrated for its ability to pack five pounds of produce into one grab 'n' go bottle. It wasn't long ago that access to the stuff was limited to vending machines and a wooden box pulled by tricycle through downtown Raleigh. But this year alone, the area's first cold-press juice outfit, Humdinger, found itself on the shortlist for Martha Stewart's American Made Awards. Element Juice opened in Durham, Happy + Hale celebrated its second location, and Raleigh Raw announced a first storefront. You can have juice delivered to your doorstep in a specially designed cooler, purchase it in coffee shops or even practice yoga alongside your main squeeze. —Tina Haver Currin

State of beer

Craft breweries have infiltrated the Triangle like kudzu. And like that pervasive Southern plant, they're turning up in some places you wouldn't expect, ballpark included. Bull Durham Beer Co. started brewing inside the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, turning out a crisp kolsch and a malty wheat. The nanobrewery at G2B Restaurant and Brewery, which opened in January, creates excellent pairings for its small plates. While Ponysaurus had been brewing for a while in modest digs at The Cookery, its recently opened brewing space and taproom on Hood Street has become a big Durham attraction. Expect the same in Raleigh from the new Trophy expansion.

Also in the capital city, where you can't turn a downtown corner without running into a brewmaster, Compass Rose dodged the crowd and debuted in suburban North Raleigh. Closer to downtown, but still removed from the congestion, Neuse River Brewing found a spot in Five Points' burgeoning brewery district. Hillsborough got a new brewery in Regulator, while Fuquay-Varina—which may now have more craft breweries per capita than anywhere in the Southeast—got two. The trend doesn't appear to be ending yet, with new breweries already in the works for Raleigh, Apex, Carrboro and Durham next year. —Curt Fields

Bottle shop blues

Vanish, Triangle drinkers, into the void of infinite bottle shops. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Vanish, Triangle drinkers, into the void of infinite bottle shops.

Peace Street Market—a small convenience store with an inconvenient parking lot—has long been the go-to place to buy craft beer near downtown Raleigh, much as Sam's Quik Shop serviced Durham. Discovering an intriguing Trappist brew next to a can of baked beans had a grubby charm. But these days, there are so many bottle shops in the area that a Google search's red pins make the Triangle look like a chickenpox victim. To compete in this saturated market, many shops have taken up irritating events, from a fake "Taco Tuesday" where you can "taco 'bout your day" (this from a place named "Drink Drank Drunk," mind you) to noisy open-mic nights and pub quizzes. Isn't the primary purpose of a bottle shop to provide great beer while eliminating the antics of bars? It takes more than an ultra-rare, Randall-infused, cask-aged special reserve to get me to taco 'bout my feelings with strangers. —Tina Haver Currin

Artisanal upgrade

Across the Triangle, food artisans are scaling up operations and offerings. This goes for the craft beer and spirits niches, but far beyond them. Slingshot Coffee Company continues to expand the reach of its cold-brew product line, while Durham's Mati appears poised to reinvent the energy drink industry. In Apex, Tequila Dale's is making excellent, unfamiliar hot sauce, and you should spend $3 for a satchel of "bourbon-barrel smoked black pepper" from Robin's Kitchen Lab in Raleigh. This year, we saw new stock makers, pie cooks, chocolatiers, honey vendors, vegan bakers, spice providers and tempeh sellers. Many of them are after-hours, labor-of-love works; it's a welcome side-project economy, worthy of our taste and time. —Grayson Haver Currin

Stiffer drinks

October 1 marked a pivotal moment for distillers across the state, as a law that finally allows distilleries to sell products directly to customers took effect. Scott Maitland, the founder of Chapel Hill's TOPO Distillery, authored the bill and made the state's first in-house sale. Perhaps because of the change, this year saw huge growth of local liquor production. TOPO came into its own as a distillery, proving that it's more than just a nice restaurant on top of Franklin Street. Durham Distillery opened to acclaim, and its flavor-forward gins (and liqueur collaborations with Slingshot Coffee Company and Videri Chocolate Factory) are filtering into bars across the Triangle. Tyler Huntington, of Tyler's Taproom, began work on Two Doors, and Brothers Vilgalys, which makes spiced-honey Krupnikas, ran a successful crowdfunding campaign for a tasting room. Raleigh Rum, the city's first rum distillery, opened in May, and Pittsboro's Fair Game Beverage Company got in on the rum game by replacing sugar with sorghum. Such innovations seem only to be a beginning—to that, a toast. —Iza Wojciechowska

Politics, served fresh daily

Between area fast-food workers showing solidarity in the nationwide Fight for $15 strikes and Triangle citizens taking to social media to voice their grievances with area pub, cafe and restaurant owners, this year the Triangle's food and drink scene served as an unexpected protest outlet. During the summer, for instance, many Raleigh residents outed The Flying Saucer for its flippancy in featuring Bruce Jenner on its annual "father of the year" pint glass. The company removed the promotion from its social media accounts after distributing the glasses to 16 locations.

A whole lotta backpedaling happened in the Bull City, too. Not long after Durham restaurateur Gray Brooks announced he would name a forthcoming eatery "Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain," Brooks wrote an open letter admitting that the name could be construed as racially insensitive. He would change it. After Cocoa Cinnamon teamed up with the Durham Police Department for a "good" ticket system, the coffee shop penned a letter: "We understand how it could come off as counteracting the work we do to build a diverse community." A restaurant's character, turns out, hinges on more than a Yelp review. —Eric Tullis

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