Like nearly all couples I know, my wife and I have this thrice-weekly game in which we try to come to some sort of agreement on where we want to eat. Sure, we have our regular haunts, most of which are close to where we live in Durham, but we also have favorite spots in Raleigh and Chapel Hill and Carrboro and elsewhere in the Triangle. And so we debate—"I had pizza yesterday." "Really? Mexican, again?"—and debate—"Can we go somewhere we can sit outside and bring the dogs?" "I'm not driving that far tonight; I don't care what you're craving"—until we give up and either get something from around the corner or make dinner at home.
A decade ago, the psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote a seminal book called The Paradox of Choice, in which he argues that the abundance of choices at our disposal overwhelm us and paralyze our decision-making processes. Increasingly, I think this applies to the Triangle's food scene. There are so many excellent restaurants, so many innovators doing magical and interesting and weird things with food, so many styles and cuisines and regions of the world well-represented, and so many options that settling on just one can seem impossible.
We can't offer a solution to this paradox of choice. Indeed, as a newspaper that prides itself on championing the best parts of local culture, we want our food scene to keep expanding, to keep getting better, to keep racking up James Beard nominations and national acclaim, to keep getting weirder and more experimental. This is a good problem to have.
But what we can do is provide a guided tour of what we believe to be essential Triangle dishes. From brussels sprouts to barbecue, pizza to pork brains, churros to chaat, what follows is a list of one hundred dishes and desserts and apps and accompaniments that we think you absolutely must try, arranged in alphabetical order. There are obvious choices (yes, Poole's mac and cheese) and Southern staples (yes, lots of 'cue), but we also have selections that reflect our culinary diversity. There are plates that are beautifully simple and others that are more complex; some from highbrow restaurants, others from food trucks; some from places that might be familiar, others that won't be.
The next time you and your significant other are having some difficulty figuring out where to eat, consult this list, find something new, and dig in. —Jeffrey C. Billman
Contributors: Amanda Abrams (AA), Jeffrey C. Billman (JCB), Katie Jane Fernelius (KJF), Curt Fields (CF), Lena Geller (LG), Ryan Haar (RH) Erica Hellerstein (EH), Brian Howe (BH), Layla Khoury-Hanold (LKH), Allison Hussey (AH), Debbie Matthews (DM), Meg Nesterov (MN), Hannah Pitstick (HP), Eryk Pruitt (EP), Caitlin Sloan (CS), Shan Stumpf (SS), Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme (MSL), Michael Venutolo-Mantovani (MVM), Iza Wojciechowska (IW)
Apple Honey Rosemary Pie
East Durham Bake Shop, Durham
I'd been waiting for the East Durham Bake Shop to open for quite some time, after getting to know baker Ali Rudel's pies at Ponysaurus and other pop-ups when she was still baking them at her house. So when the (very cute) shop finally opened earlier this year, I visited it on its first day, stared at the chock-full pastry counter indecisively for many minutes, and ultimately settled on a slice of apple honey rosemary pie.
It is, dare I say, the perfect pie. The crust, like in all of Rudel's pies, is delightfully flaky, and the subtle herbal flavor of the rosemary brings a plain old apple pie to extraordinary new heights. For me, apple pies are often too cinnamon-y, too sweet, or too syrupy, but there's none of that here. The honey does its part beautifully, but the pie as a whole isn't particularly sweet, which is pleasantly refreshing. I expect I'll be paying the East Durham Bake Shop many, many visits—the handmade morning buns, Videri chocolate croissants, and savory pot pies are tantalizing—but I don't think anything but the apple honey rosemary pie can ever take the cake. (IW)
Ninth Street Bakery, Durham
When we're on deadline, I'm not above eating a day-old light pastry left out on a counter in the newsroom to survive, and on a good day, I'll maybe grab a butter bagel from the Bagel Bar down the street. But every now and then, even masochistic editors need to treat themselves, which is why I keep my head on a swivel when I pass by Ninth Street Bakery in case they have the avocado toast that day. It's a pile of mashed avocado securely affixed to big, toasted slices of artisan country loaf, heaped with sticky, crunchy candied almonds and a masala spice blend. It's satisfying enough to be lunch, sweet enough to be dessert, and easy to eat while working. I can't even imagine how good it must be if you actually stop typing long enough to taste it. (BH)