At some point in the course of our daily lives, most of us in the Triangle must drive to Raleigh-Durham International Airport, whether to shuttle a colleague there or back, join a faraway friend on a layover, hold a last-minute client meeting, or start and finish a voyage of our own.
RDU is the great unifier for our sprawling, beloved metropolitan area, a geographical common denominator.
With airlines scaling back their in-flight dining, eating a decent meal before or after a flight makes more sense than ever. Choosing the right restaurant can mean the difference between being early or late, calm or panicked, unruffled or irritable. It can even mean the difference between closing or losing that last business deal.
Here are the Indy's "Top 40 Places to Eat Near the Airport." This list does double duty as the "Top 40 Places for Lunch in RTP" and—even more handy—the "Top 40 Places to Meet Friends from Across the Triangle." The variety of restaurants within a 12-minute drive of RDU puts Heathrow's international concourse to shame: Bolivian, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese, French-Vietnamese, Chinese, Cuban, Mexican, Greek, Brazilian, Italian, Japanese and Lebanese—not to mention steakhouses, sandwich shops, sports pubs and tapas bars.
We've grouped restaurants into four regions for quick reference, using Interstates 40 and 540 as natural borders. Not that you should feel limited by that. A traveler coming from Durham might dip down into Morrisville for rigatoni at Babymoon Italian Cafe; a family from Apex might jump up to Brier Creek for samosas at Azitra. Like the hub of a wheel, everything is close together in the center.
We selected these restaurants because they are all within a reasonable range of RDU; see the map on page 21 for a geographical guide. What these distances mean for your drive time will vary; in the dead calm of early afternoon, a person can get from the intersection of Highways 54 and 55 to RDU in less than 10 minutes. At 5 p.m., when traffic can stop unpredictably? You might want to have that bite a mile or two closer to your terminal.
South of I-40, East of I-540: Morrisville and Cary
For menu, service and sheer radiance, nothing else in Morrisville-Cary beats Ãn New World Cuisine, which can be generally described as Asian fusion with a twist of French glamour (pull up Ãn's homepage and be hypnotized by a chanteuse crooning, "Ouvrir les yeux ... ne plus jamais dormir": Open your eyes/ sleep no more).
Opening your eyes to Ãn's luxe home at the Arboretum on Weston Parkway, it's tempting to compare it to something out of Las Vegas, but there's nothing gaudy or faux about Ãn (pronounced "ahn"). The servers are professional yet genuine; one, Meg, even takes time to petition the pastry chef for his extraordinary pecan-walnut bread recipe. (If you're the hoarding sort, put a slice in your carry-on for snacking over Kansas.)
The restaurant was spearheaded by Ann Goodnight and appears quite the SAS hangout. On a recent weeknight, two women were seen handing over laptops and roller bags to a hostess for safekeeping. "We have a lot of people who stop off before their flights home," the hostess explains, pointing to a nearby locked closet.
Across the restaurant, a cadre of gentlemen dressed in crisp executive-casual strolls in, stopping every few tables to greet colleagues.
Executive Chef Michael Chuong has trained his kitchen well. Every dish this night is flawless, from the zesty Carolina Roll ($10: fried oyster, shrimp, cucumber, avocado, tobiko, wasabi rémoulade) to the artful Farmers' Market Roll ($10, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, cucumber, tofu, wrapped in avocado) to an entrée of roasted duckling ($21) in moderately spicy tamarind sauce. (Locally, the only other contender at this level of Asian fusion is Raleigh's Fins.)
Ãn's sashimi sampler ($26, same price as Fins) is playful in design: On a long, thin plate, simply sliced tuna sits in ascetic righteousness next to a sculpture of lemon slices layered with pale, buttery escolar, its flesh stained pink by shredded pickled beet. Thin seared hamachi is balanced upright beside one sweet scallop in its shell, which itself leans on rough strips of salty snapper (a reminder that this is, after all, raw fish). Finally, a rosette of glistening salmon perches lovely at the end, a decoration waiting to be unraveled.
The echo of vaulted ceilings, the crowded bar, even the Euro instrumental music, each on its own potentially annoying, combine to create a pleasing whir of white noise, as if someone has pressed the "restaurant buzz" button. No one conversation stands out over any other, a blessing.
For those about to catch a flight, ask in advance about ordering Ãn's fresh-baked Belgian chocolate macadamia cookies (allow 15 minutes); at $8 for a half dozen, they are more affordable than any of the prepackaged junk at an RDU newsstand. How savvy you'll feel mid-flight, discreetly slipping one from your laptop case.
Trying to fit in one last meal with clients before your flight takes off? When strapped for time (or if I-40 is congested), try the traditional steakhouse grandeur of Capital City Chophouse, which sits right off Airport Boulevard, practically at the end of a runway.
With a few more minutes to spare, the elegant Herons, within the Umstead Hotel off I-40 at Harrison Avenue, will do nicely. Herons, an AAA four-diamond award winner, features a 2,500-bottle wine cellar and New American cuisine with Southern accents, including a $44 "wellness" tasting menu (Chilled Pea and Lemongrass Soup, White Tuna and Lemon Ice Box Pie) and a lunch menu ranging from light (the $10 Local Watermelon Salad featuring Chapel Hill Creamery feta) to lush (Cane Creek Pork Chop, $18, with pappardelle, fennel, vermouth, spinach and country ham).
The hotel also has a tranquil fireplace patio outside and cozy, art-filled corners inside; have two fingers of scotch or a cup of tea and clear your mind before entering the chaos of air travel.
Not too far south of RDU at Davis Drive and McCrimmon Parkway, Nikos Taverna and Saffron are handsome enough for a business meeting but not so extravagant as to raise the eyebrows of your CFO. Durhamites will recognize Nikos from its Brightleaf Square flagship downtown; the Morrisville outpost offers the same beloved Greek favorites, like Niko's salad, moussaka and gemista in a roomy, modern dining space.
Saffron is a newcomer to the world of upscale Indian food, competing with the slightly flashier Azitra in Brier Creek. Saffron's clay-oven lamb chops with mint chutney is a customer favorite for good reason; pair it with heady rosemary naan and a sweet mango lassi for a bright palette of tastes.
Cafés, bistros and the like
Babymoon Italian Cafe has it all: Less than three miles from the airport, with no conceivable traffic jam between you and your gate, it's a cheerful little café with a tucked-away shade garden, a sweetly quirky dining room and a kickin' kitchen. If the weather allows, sit on the small outdoor patio, hidden from view by thick trellised wisteria vines. Like many restaurants in RTP, Babymoon is under a flight path; with the sound of planes flying overhead (and Sinatra belting it out on the sound system), you'll swear you're starring in an Alitalia commercial.
The Rigatoni Babymoon ($11.95), one of more than 20 pasta dishes, is simplicity itself: rigatoni in a light white wine sauce with portobello strips, roma tomatoes, shaved parmesan and whole roasted garlic cloves (I counted seven.) Gourmet pizzas are another fine way to go, like the barbecue chicken pizza with house-made sauce, caramelized onions and mozzarella ($8.95 small/$13.95 large). Babymoon's kitchen is open all day Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.; Saturday is dinner-only.
Next door, the ambitious new Asian Aroma offers Thai and Chinese standards (and hotel delivery, as does Babymoon). Ask Danny, the friendly manager, for the "special" Chinese menu with the most authentic dishes, including whole roast duck for $25, clay pot curry chicken for $10.95 and salt-and-pepper squid for $8.95.
Carmen's Cuban Café, on a back road opposite the Airport Boulevard outlet mall, features authentic vaca frita, camarones en salsa verde and addictive moros and platanos, not to mention fresh mojitos and late-night dancing. (Carmen's is a longtime Indy favorite: See "Dance the calories away.")
Neomonde Bakery and Cafe is a Raleigh legend; surely a shout of joy rang across RTP when Neomonde opened a second café on Chapel Hill Road (Highway 54) in Morrisville. The beef and lamb shawarma sandwich on freshly baked pita with lemon-tahini dressing is a steal at $3.99 for a half portion; add a small side of hummus and tabouli for a huge lunch for less than $8. Order a single kebab and a side of baba ghanouj for less than $5 or a make-your-own platter for $7.99. The counter service is fast, the food is beyond fresh and we dare you to get out of there without a bagful of delicacies from the market. (Forgot to buy a souvenir for that special someone back home? Nothing says love like pistachio baklava.)
On the same stretch of Chapel Hill Road, you'll find Sol Azteca for fresh local Mexican fare and Asuka for sushi. Now in its ninth year, Asuka offers all-day buy-one-get-one-free on sushi rolls. A quick meal like chirashi don (chef's choice sashimi over rice) is $17.95, or try one of Asuka's many cooked entrees, like breaded pork katsu for $14.95, charbroiled hoisin tuna steak for $16.95 or seafood udon noodle soup for $14.95.
Taj Indian Cuisine, behind the Mobil station on Airport Boulevard, is built for speed. You're not much past Park-and-Ride 3, and if you're in a hurry, the lunch buffet ($9) can get you in and out with a hot meal in less than 20 minutes. On a recent Monday, the standouts were two versions of tikka masala (mild and hot), a tandoori chicken kept surprisingly moist under a blanket of onions and coriander, and Taj's flavorful tamarind sauce and spiced onion chutney. Though the naan was translucent with oil and the vegetable biryani dried out, the desserts made up for it: sweet, spongy gulab jamun and rice pudding with almonds.
Or maybe you need to kill some time. Watch a Bollywood film or sit back in a comfortable booth with your laptop and enjoy the gentle Indian music piped overhead.
Last-minute necessities? Stop in Oh'Mulligans on Airport Boulevard or Champions Bar on Chapel Hill Road for a final score-check of your favorite team. Fill up your rental car and your belly at the Exxon Station at the intersection of Airport and Chapel Hill roads ($3.99 subs by Capi: local workers swear by them); or jump off on Harrison Avenue for a gyro or falafel at the family-owned Baba Ghannouj.
For Italian cravings, grab a slice at Randy's Pizza (two RDU-area locations: Miami Boulevard and McCrimmon Corners), Original N.Y. Pizza or Lubrano's. Lubrano's is the most sit-down of the three, with a family-friendly flair. Booths have vinyl tablecloths, cut-glass candleholders and coat hooks on the end posts, which conjure up snowdrifts and school cubbies. Pasta and meat entrees all hover around $9 at lunch and $15 at dinner, though pizza seems the focus here: A large white pizza is $18.95; a small pepperoni just under $11. House wines are available by the glass ($4.50).
Though desserts are not made in-house, they're the next best thing: brought in by the owner's favorite New Jersey distributor. The tiramisu ($4.25) honestly tastes house-made, once you look past the eager plating of Reddi-wip.
South of I-40, West of I-540: Durham
Just outside Mez, three parking spaces are marked "hybrid vehicles only." Two are unoccupied, and a Toyota Highlander Hybrid fills the third.
Inside Mez, the sound of waterfalls bounces soothingly off the high ceilings and open floor plan, which is particularly nice if you've been in a tin can of a plane all afternoon. Mez is a new kind of restaurant. Located in a green-certified building, Mez takes the time and energy to compost; every few days a local farmer comes by to pick up the kitchen scraps. The restrooms have special flush toilets, carpet is made from recycled material and a water garden across the street helps manage rainwater runoff.
"Even the folks we use to clean our carpets and clean our stamped concrete go green," says general manager Jamie LaForce.
You can thus feel environmentally superior to everyone who's killing time down at the airport bar. Will their margaritas offset their flights to Chicago?
Eight dollars at Mez will buy a clear conscience and damn good drink, made with Milagro silver tequila, triple sec and fresh lime juice. Or try the $18 Patron tasting flight: Blanco, Reposado and Añejo with a chaser of sangrita. For a quick in-and-out, sit at the taco bar. Between 4 and 6 p.m., fish tacos are $3, all others $2. At $6.95, the chips and guacamole are as good as it comes: sweet corn chips with a healthy sprinkling of salt, the guacamole made-to-order with inch-wide chunks of avocado, tart chopped tomatoes, crushed jalapeno and onions with a bite. Get a side of mango habanero salsa, if you dare.
Steak lovers shouldn't miss the seared Rib Eye Adobado, beautifully marbled and rubbed with ancho chili, cumin and brown sugar (so spectacular it seems a bargain at $19.95). Mashed sweet potatoes help soak up the obscenely rich meat juices, as does the salad of local tomato, cilantro, green onion and chile de arbol vinaigrette. Vegetarians seeking a similar taste explosion should try the Roasted Chile Rellenos ($11.95), a fist-sized poblano pepper with arborio rice, raisins, cheese, black beans and almond foam. A wild combination, it dances close to the border of dessert—the second cousin, perhaps, of a sassy rice pudding.
Bistros, cafés and the like
You'd never realize it, but a quiet little sanctuary exists off Highway 55, just south of the intersection with Highway 54. Five lanes of cars zoom past nearby signs screaming "we buy gold!" and "loan center." Nearby dining options include a country diner and an eatery advertising "Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Greek and American" food.
The sanctuary in the middle of it all is Vit Goal Tofu. Inside, windows are shaded by dark wood shutters along one wall and obscured by golden Korean-print posters on the other. Wallpaper above the wooden booths resembles pulpy handmade paper, adorned with spidery characters.
The square room is intimate and relaxing, with ebony-stained trim and an Asian-style gabled roofline. Peaceful, spa-like music floats overhead. Chilled cups of complimentary thin green tea arrive with the menus.
First priority: Order the "stone pot bibimbap" ($10.99), even if you have no idea what you're getting. Inside the scalding-hot vessel are layers of food: a bed of rice, sautéed ground meat, shredded vegetables, and on top, a newly cracked egg. The radiant heat from the pot sears the food, starting with the rice on the bottom, which becomes fun and crunchy where it touched the sides. Add flavor as desired, from small bowls of red spicy paste or salty broth, and stir again with your sleek steel chopsticks.
Go with a group and try Korean barbecue ribs ($8.99/small); thin sliced beef ($13.99); or one of the many soup entrees. The tangy beef, tofu and kimchi soup ($8.99) arrives literally bubbling like a blood-red witch's brew. (It doesn't help that the tofu chunks look kind of like frog belly.) Though the soup comes out in 10 minutes or less, it's too hot to eat, so allow time for cooling or just go straight for the vermicelli in cold beef broth ($11.99). The young server, though attentive to tea refills, is too polite to bring the check, so ask for it when you're ready—if you can bring yourself to leave.
Serena must be the only sandwich shop in the world with a menu cap of $10 and a head chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America.
One look at Paul Rhoades' menu, and it makes sense. Open only weekdays, Serena caters to the white-collar RTP crowd and offers one menu straight through from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. At lunchtime, Serena is packed with office workers sitting down for $8 gourmet burgers (with roasted red pepper, melted fontina and garlic aioli); $9 tuna sandwiches (blackened tuna steak, grilled red onions, mixed greens and house-made tartar); or $7 salads (butter lettuce with fresh peaches, candied walnuts, blue cheese and warm peach dressing).
"On the off time, you can be in and out in 10 minutes, which is nearly unheard of for made-to-order, scratch food," says Rhoades. "[At lunchtime] we get people out of here in, at most, 40 minutes. We generally have four to five servers and do between 80 and 100 meals."
After the lunch rush, Serena's free Wi-Fi makes it a blissful alternative to Starbucks: get a coffee, a slice of cheesecake (a house-made specialty) or a glass of wine from the deep Spanish list (note: Wednesday's wine is half-price). The open, minimalist floor plan, with brushed pewter and maple tables, painted concrete floor and airplane-propeller ceiling fans, seems a welcome place to power up a laptop.
"We have a lot of people who come to the bar, don't want to be bothered, just want to do their work. That's fine with us," Rhoades explains.
At happy hour, Serena morphs into a tapas bar, with avant-garde jazz, friendly servers and 30 small-plate items between $3 and $10, perfect for after-work gatherings with colleagues or a "we hate our boss" vodka tonic on the side patio. Serena is a natural beacon for overnighters in town for business or for young singles living the condo life.
Rhoades names the Chili Beef Salad as his customers' favorite. At $10, it features grilled romaine, chili smoked beef, tomatoes, green onions and blue cheese with chipotle vinaigrette. "We actually smoke the beef in the back with wood chips and chili peppers," he says.
Chelsea Cafe and Lina's Cafe and Catering are both small, in-the-know, lunch-only cafés in South Durham. Lina's has an extensive menu of cold sandwiches, hot panini, hoagies and salads, and is also notable for a whopping 10 health-conscious wraps.
Chelsea Cafe is hard to find but worth it. Located on the ground floor of an office building in the Imperial Center business park (across from the Sheraton Imperial Hotel), it is owned and operated by David and Rhonda Jones and their son Michael, who trained in the kitchen of North Raleigh's venerable Saint Jacques.
Chelsea Cafe is an enterprise 30 years in the making. It began in the former European Health Spa as the Second Nature Café; the Joneses then expanded the concept at Olde Raleigh Village before finally settling down in RTP nine years ago. There, the family has found its niche.
"Our desire to prepare quality food, sometimes organic, local whenever possible, always without artificial ingredients, and fresh and healthy has caught on with the customers that have discovered where we are located," says David Jones.
"I go to the farmers' market every week to pick out tomatoes and produce. Rhonda loves to cook desserts, and our son has joined us and offers his special touch to our daily specials. [He] is known for his wonderful soups."
Jones is not exaggerating. The Lemon Chicken and Rice soup is extraordinary, and though it resembles Greek avgolemono, it feels more in line with the classical French technique that the young cook must have learned at Saint Jacques—a perfect balance of herbs, vegetables, rich house-made stock and light cream.
Reward your healthy salad with a fresh-baked dessert: The fudgy brownies are $2, moist banana bread $1.10, though given the choice, splurge your calories on a lemon bar, $1.85, which tends more toward a citrusy sweet shortbread than the sticky neon-yellow variety seen on church buffet tables.
Sarah Quiroga cooks enough each week to feed a small army.
For more than two decades, she's prepared more than 4,000 empanadas from scratch every week for the scientists, administrators, coders and entrepreneurs who soldier on daily in the Research Triangle.
When she traveled to Greece for a month two years ago, she made 20,000 empanadas before leaving. She hasn't taken a long vacation since.
Quiroga came to the Triangle from her native Bolivia more than three decades ago and opened Sarah's Empanadas in 1987 on Highway 55. Her empanadas are made in the Bolivian style, as she explains: "Bolivia has chicken and beef, and the cheese empanada for afternoon coffee. Columbians use different flour and different filling, and they fry. Mine are baked."
Her personal favorite is the plain chicken, though her biggest seller is the chicken and cheese. The beef and cheese is a worthy contender, complex and rich. A savory mushroom and cheese version is the best vegetarian bet; spinach and cheese, though slightly bland, is quickly enhanced by a dip of Sarah's salsa.
A platter of two empanadas and two sides is $7.50; choose from refried beans, rice, salad and a tart, almost creamy gazpacho. (There's speculation at our table about its recipe: Does she split the batch and puree half to make a silky base, then add the chunky half back in? Best to wonder and appreciate.)
The gazpacho is offered only in season, says Quiroga: "We use fresh vegetables. We don't use anything frozen." In other words, get over there soon or wait until next summer.
Desserts ($2.50) are house-made, and include flan, apple empanadas and sometimes churros. Fried plantains from the à la carte menu make a fine dessert, too.
The palm-sized empanadas are well suited to takeaway. Though open only weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sarah's is as fast as it is delicious, even for sit-down service. One server, when asked if the rice and beans could come out first, laughed good-naturedly, "Oh, I'll have all your food out in about 30 seconds! Well, the plantains will come out two minutes later...."
She made good on her word.
A few storefronts over from Sarah's is Papa Mojo's Roadhouse, a superb Cajun/ Creole option for a post-flight comedown, particularly if the live music is jammin'. Pair an Abita Turbodog with jambalaya and you have a meal worth lingering over. If you're entertaining out-of-town guests, they might enjoy the curiosities of blackened gator bites, crawfish étouffée or a muffuletta sandwich. Sunday brunch with live music starts at noon (no point in waking earlier if you can't break into the milk punch) featuring beignets, sweet potato andouille hash and bananas Foster.
Backyard BBQ Pit, just north of Papa Mojo's, offers quick cafeteria-style service with some of the best smoked-on-site meat-and-two and Brunswick stew you'll find around. (For more on Backyard BBQ Pit, see "Holiday home-cooking—but not at home.")
North of I-40, East of I-540: North Raleigh
Just put your baby on a flight back to college? Drown your sorrows (or celebrate!) at the wood-paneled, cowboy-kitsch Wild Turkey Bar in the Angus Barn. Forty years—or even 10 years—ago, the Angus Barn, which occupies a good-sized, cleanly groomed plot of land on Highway 70, would have been just about a traveler's only option for drinking or dining near the airport.
Since its inception in 1960, the Angus Barn has become a landmark in more ways than one. Iconic red barnlike facade aside, the restaurant consistently wins awards for its 30,000-bottle wine cellar, while its chef, Walter Royal, has been the subject of nationwide focus, particularly during his 2007 guest role on the Food Network series Iron Chef America (he bested Cat Cora in preparing ostrich).
Its landmark status is reinforced by the fact that so many people choose the Angus Barn for their most important happenings. It would be safe to say that more people have become engaged there (including my own parents, in 1967) than at any other restaurant in the last half-century.
Each year, at least 50 couples celebrate their big moment over a plate of well-marbled steak, says Van Eure, owner of the Angus Barn and daughter of founders Thad and Alice Eure.
"In fact, I had two tables last night who specifically called me over to tell me, 'This is where we got engaged.' My philosophy is that we are not just a place that serves meals or wine; the main thing that we serve people is something money can't buy—and that is memories. It is up to us to make sure that we make it a 'wow' moment in their lives, if it's your rehearsal dinner, or your grandmother's 80th birthday, or your son's just come home from Iraq."
Cafés, bistros and the like
For lunch or dinner in far northwest Raleigh, try Pizza Italia, a small, homey pizza parlor just off Westgate Road at Highway 70; Manchester's Grill on Leesville Road; the top-notch sushi at Waraji on Duraleigh off Glenwood; or Ben's Place next to CarMax on Glenwood.
Ben's Place offers casual family dining, an outdoor patio and live music on the weekends. Though many of the pub-grub appetizers, like loaded fries and fried green beans, spend most of their brief life in the freezer, side dishes like parsnip mashed potatoes and maple-glazed Brussels sprouts show greater promise, as do entrees like shrimp and grits ($13.99) and angel hair pasta with tomatoes and spinach in white wine broth ($9.99). The standout is Ben's fantastic grilled mahi-mahi tacos with lettuce, tomatoes, southwestern ranch and spicy black-bean-and-corn salsa ($9.99). This is the dish people flock here for.
Or it could be for the drinks. All bottles of wine are under $40, most glasses under $6. For beer connoisseurs, Hurricane Hefeweisen and Rogue Dead Guy are on tap.
For a quick breakfast, stop at Sunny's Diner, housed in an Eagles "superstation" overlooking I-70, just east of I-540, and surrounded by enough concrete to rival an airport runway. The highway hums along in the distance, but inside Sunny's, cheery Motown music bops through the room, punctuated by the sizzle of the grill.
"Sunny" is Sunny Pang, who opened the diner with her husband last year; he handles the grill while she greets the customers. This is their first full-service restaurant.
"Before, we had a convenience store with a grill in Durham. It was in front of Duke Hospital, a Stop-N-Go. We were there eight years, then they destroyed the building." The rainbow-hued sign in the front window, "Nearby & Neighborly," says it all; kids will enjoy Sunny's clown-face pancake, and anyone needing takeout will appreciate the portable country ham, egg and cheese sandwich for $2.99.
Jet-lagged? Sunny's caters to all time zones with all-day breakfast, from the $3.99 "2x2x2" special (two pancakes, two bacon/links and two eggs), to $3.99 slices of pie, including sweet potato and Dutch apple. Sunny's is open for all but your earliest forays, starting at 6 a.m. weekdays, 7 a.m. weekends.
North of I-40, West of I-540: Brier Creek-Alexander Drive
Brier Creek is, undeniably, inherently corporate. A vast planned community, it burst seemingly full-grown from farmland at the border of Wake and Durham counties less than a decade ago. With its golf and tennis clubs, big-box stores, luxury estates, condominiums and carefully designed marketplace "commons," Brier Creek isn't known for mom-and-pop shops.
But a few restaurants in Brier Creek defy expectations.
Azitra Authentic Indian Cuisine is one of them, tucked away inside an unremarkable storefront. Enter through a long hallway and be drawn into a blue, glittering mirage of Indian fine dining, with all the savory tandoori and top-shelf cocktails you'd expect. Come Saturday nights to be transfixed by local sitar virtuoso Viswas Chitnis.
A two-minute stroll away at Brasa Brazilian Steakhouse, 15 or so highball glasses are lined up behind the bar, each premuddled with half a lime and simple syrup. A shot or two of the potent Brazilian rum, cachaça (pronounced "ka-CHA-sa"), and they'll become the next round of caipirinhas.
Though an independent outfit, Brasa follows the format of other rodizio-style restaurants across the country, with silver, gold and platinum-level service, extravagant hot and cold hors d'oeuvres "salad bars," and Steak Theater, where "waiters pass by with swords of succulent meats for you to sample," as the menu explains.
That's all well and good, but the platinum dinner package runs to $54.95 per person, and there's a much less dramatic way to approach Brasa: Sit at the bar. You get first dibs on the caipirinhas, and if you're with a friend, one of you can order one trip to the salad bar ($10) and the other can order one trip plus three grill selections ($23). The grill selections come plated from the kitchen, so you miss the frisson of flashing knives, but your plate of meat will still contain more protein than two people should consume in a night (we estimated it at 20 ounces of meat). Picahna is the house specialty cut, with a thin layer of fat reserved; sometimes called the culotte, it's the cap of the top sirloin, and it's sinful. Other standouts were garlic sirloin and leg of lamb served fittingly with mint sauce.
Ironically, from the hot/cold salad bar, which features such very good delicacies as spiced cold shrimp and poached whole salmon with capers and hearts of palm, the best items were the most provincial: sautéed mushrooms, creamed spinach, and an amazing black beans, rice and sausage. With a basket of the complimentary pan de queso (addictive bonbons of starchy cheese bread), you've got a meal.
After dinner, take your coffee to the leather chairs by the stone fireplace and dream of Rio. Or tune into the live music acts and DJs that frequent Brasa on the weekends and dance like you're already there.
Cafés, bistros and the like
Around the corner from Brasa in Brier Creek Commons, look for Fratello's, owned by an Italian family from Brooklyn, settled now for two decades in the Triangle. (Though a Web search turns up dozens of Fratello's, this one is an unrelated venture—as the charmingly self-printed business cards of "Sonny D." imply.) The interior is warm and intimate: Roman busts, mahogany-stained wainscoting, red and golden walls, Tiffany-style sconces and cased magnums of wine combine with recessed lighting, close tables and bright bouquets for a nostalgic Mott Street look. Diners in a hurry will appreciate Fratello's new lunch buffet, and though there isn't much of a bar to speak of, tables open again at 5 p.m. for drinks or dinner.
One last independent hotspot: Don't miss Champa Thai and Sushi, a "shopping block" away, for satisfying pad thai or sushi.
For neighborhood ambience and pub grub, stop by the second location of Manchester's Grill on Alexander Drive or Trálí Irish Pub and Restaurant at Brierdale next to Brier Creek Commons, where chef-owner Tom Buckley claims to serve "the best shepherd's pie in North Carolina."
For a hybrid of fresh-made fast food, visit Jumpin' Jonny's Steaks & Subs, across Highway 70 from Brier Creek. Jonathan "Jonny" Munsell, surely the quickest-thinking sub-shop owner in town, dreams up specials no one could imagine: Bring in your Sunday bulletin and have 10 percent donated back to your church. Write a jingle—win a sandwich every day for a month. Jonny's leaving town—spy on his employees like a "secret shopper" for a free large fry and lemonade.
The Jumpin' Jonny's method for self-ordering beats even Char-Grill's. Strips of cardstock are color-coded by food; choose red for burger, then X-out any toppings you don't like, or add extras at no charge: hot cherry peppers, mild cherry peppers, grilled mushrooms, raw onions, etc. Fresh-cut fries? Check the boxes to have them loaded with cheese, bacon, ranch or blue cheese dressing.
It's worth a visit to comprehend the infinite combinations and to see if your company gets discounts: LabCorp, IBM, Glaxo and Qualcomm are a few that do. Incidentally, Jumpin Jonny's is extremely kid-friendly, with a promotion for them, too: Kids eat free every Tuesday (one per adult, please).
Northwest of Brier Creek, down an undeveloped section of Alexander Drive, is a generally quiet strip mall, though at 12:15 p.m. on a weekday, it feels like a Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands. Drivers troll for parking spaces, zipping in the moment one opens. Others park boldly on the grass. Groups of people all walk decisively in the same direction, toward the main event ... which in this case is a bowl of noodle soup at Pho 9n9.
The laminated wood-grain tables in this Vietnamese mecca (named for its hours, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.) are all occupied by believers slurping from oversize bowls. Twenty-five numbered tables, an inch apart, seat two or four customers each, totaling approximately 70 diners of all races and ages. In the center of each table is a condiment tray with hoisin and two varieties of Sriracha. CNN reporters chatter quietly on the small TV. A bell rings four times when an order comes up, and servers race back and forth with steaming dishes.
Discreet snifflings punctuate the din of conversation; it's the Sriracha effect. A garnish platter is served with the pho (pronounced "fuh"), including a stalk of licorice-y basil, two lime wedges, chopped peppers and bean sprouts. Tear the basil for a burst of aromatherapy, then toss it into the broth.
Experiment: sprouts, a little Sriracha, squirt of lime. Try a drip of the thick peanut sauce that came with the spring rolls. (It's better in the pho than as a dip.) My lips, by the end, are burning with a warm, oily heat.
Those for whom soup-as-meal is an oddity will appreciate the bahn mi sandwich, the best deal in the place. For $3, you get a long roll (similar to a baguette) stuffed with mayonnaise, fresh coriander, pickled carrot and meat of your choice. It's a solid meal by itself or a hearty appetizer to share.
A few knowledgeable souls are departing with bubble teas in hand. Bubble tea, found most often in New York, California or other regions with high-concentration Asian populations, originally referred to chilled tea (green tea, black milk-tea) shaken with half-inch-size balls of gummy tapioca "pearls" resting at the bottom, which a fat straw sucks up along with the tea. (Chapel Hill now has Chill on Franklin Street, devoted entirely to bubble teas.)
At Pho 9n9, the fad has gone wild: Their bubble tea resembles a frozen smoothie, available in more than a dozen flavors, including mango breeze, green tea latte, coconut beach and honeydew wave. Coconut beach, when it comes out from the back, is embarrassing, like getting a pumpkin spice whipped-cream frappuccino at Starbucks: frothy with a plastic dome top. One sip later, embarrassment dissolves. This is ... there's no other word but heaven. It's milky and soft, not too sweet, soothing away the spicy pho burn.
Pho 9n9 has emptied out. It's 1 p.m., and RTP offices are reabsorbing their employees. Outside, the once frantic parking lot is empty. (Was it all a dream?)
No matter—time to catch a plane. Now, how to separate this coconut beach into 3-ounce containers?