In the early '80s, the food scene in the Triangle had started looking up: A Southern Season had gone from minuscule to massive, Wellspring Grocery was selling such exotic items as unshriveled garlic, and a real farmers' market was thriving in Carrboro. If ingredients were becoming available, could cuisine be far behind? Yes and no. During my restaurant reviewing stint with The Independent, 1988-1998, I oscillated between lamentations and laurels. Lamented were the paucity of good eateries, the dearth of uncompromised ethnic foods, the scarcity of butchers, the blind cupidity of supermarkets, the evaporation of regional cooking, and all the bad bread and lousy coffee. I lauded the arrival of white-tablecloth restaurants that actually served good food, the butchers at Cliff's and Fowler's, the fish at Tom Robinson's and Earp's, the advent of decent bread at Wellspring, the sprouting of local coffee roasters, and Vietnamese restaurants in Raleigh and Cary. I grew optimistic, in a curmudgeonly way.
So, how now beige curmudgeon? A mixed bag. Wellspring is no more, replaced by a corporate simulacrum, its bread in decline and its apples from Chile. On the other hand, there's Weaver Street Market, which has great bread and more local produce. Glenwood South is reviving Raleigh, giving it a downtown. The great Hispanic influx has invigorated, in many ways, the local food scene at all points of the Triangle. How bad can things be, when I can get a tongue taco on the way to Home Depot?
Many more fine-dining restaurants have opened, though the average quality has gone down. There's lots of cooking-school "inventiveness" out there, but not enough cooking at the intersection of soul and skill. Chain restaurants still dominate the mid-priced arena.
We have the two butchers, but most meat cases have the same industrial products they had 20 years ago, with no real butchers on hand. Market farming is thriving--the Carrboro Farmers' Market is greater than ever and the Durham Farmers' Market, which re-opened for the season last weekend, is booming. We have very good locally roasted and ethically acquired coffee and even some places to drink it.
The great improvement over these two decades has been in the availability of local produce and cheeses, with only limited and highly sporadic availability of local poultry and meats. What hasn't improved is the audience for good food. Bad food is ever more pervasive; nowhere is this more distressing than in our schools. The next generation of eaters not only won't know how to cook, they won't know how to eat.
Among the schools' many educational failures is their abdication from taste education. The school lunch is dominated by delivery systems for fats and high-fructose corn syrup. Hope here lies in the nascent efforts to establish school gardens and to use those to reform the school lunch. Good food shouldn't be a niche product.
I'll report back on that in 2023.
David Auerbach is a food columnist for The Independent and was our restaurant critic from 1988-1998.