Top row from left : Jackie Morin of Wonderpuff, Plum Southern Kitchen & Bar, Bright Spot Donuts, Lawrence BBQ and Queenys. Second row : (ish) delicatessen, Kamila Rogers of Lawrence BBQ, Young Hearts Distilling Co., Prime Barbecue and Boxyard RTP. Third row : Boxyard RTP, ORO Restaurant & Lounge, Prime Barbecue, David Foye at the Kitchen Archive and Bulkogi Korean BBQ. JULI LEONARD JLEONARD@NEWSOBSERVER.COM
What’s the Future of Dining Out? Nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic, diners are more accustomed to navigating menus on their phones, flashing vaccine cards and reheating takeout. Now the choice of where to go out includes a new option — whether to go out at all. We explore how COVID has reshaped dining, what it looks and feels like to go out for a meal and how the Triangle’s celebrated dining scene advances. Plus, we’ll tell you which new restaurants — and meals — are drool-worthy.
Raleigh chef Cheetie Kumar doesn’t have time to dwell on the future. “My crystal ball has been broken since March 2020,” said Kumar, a James Beard Award nominee and chef and co-owner of Garland restaurant in Raleigh.
The future has never felt as fleeting as the past two years for restaurants, with moments of clarity arriving and then gone again like a sizzling fajita platter passing through a dining room. Some of what that’s meant for Garland has been building a patio oasis dining section on a downtown sidewalk. Dishes served on banana leaves instead of plates. Retiring long-beloved menu staples, like the pakora chaat, to shrink down the menu and bring back seasonal versions like boiled peanut and pickled watermelon chaat.
Kumar said she’s been able to find freedom amid the free fall. “When you feel like the worst thing possible has already happened, you’re not tied so much to the minutia,” Kumar said. “So many things have been dismantled. It feels like we’re more limber than we used to be. … It makes you understand where the joy is, where the creation is and where you find inspiration. It’s there, moment to moment.” Nearly two years into the pandemic, the new normal has faded into normal for most diners, comfortably accustomed to navigating menus on their phones, flashing vaccine cards and reheating takeout. Now the choice of where to go out includes a new option — whether to go out at all. In 2022, we’ll get our first glimpse into where the pandemic has redrawn the lines in food, of what it looks and feels like to go out for a meal and of the ways the Triangle’s celebrated dining scene is moving on.
DINNER AS THEATER
There’s a glass dragon in the downtown Raleigh restaurant ORO with steam coming out of its nostrils. The dragon is part of the restaurant’s new cocktail menu, which is as theatrical as it is boozy. One cocktail is served in a hot air balloon, one in a pewter lantern.
Cara Hylton, who owns ORO with her husband, Chris Hylton, said the restaurant is trying to step into the new year with something diners can’t find in takeout or delivery boxes: A bit of flair. “Everyone eats with their eyes first,” Hylton said. “Heating something up in a microwave or oven is not the same as going out to dinner. We’re eternally grateful to be here. A lot of our food experience is meant to be enjoyed in person. It’s dinner and a show.”
THE RETURN OF A SHARED EXPERIENCE
But people love restaurants for the quiet moments as well. The Durham restaurant Littler is perhaps tinier than the name suggests and has kept its dining room closed throughout the pandemic. Owner Gray Brooks said Littler wasn’t right for the time of social distancing, but is for what comes next. “People are getting more comfortable sitting beside people again,” Gray said. “We’re social animals, we don’t just want to have great food brought to the house. We want that shared experience.” Littler is planning to reopen in the first few months of 2022, Brooks said. He compared the relevancy of restaurants to movie theaters in the age of streaming. “Watching a comedy in the dark with 300 strangers is way funnier than sitting at home by yourself,” Brooks said. “We’re built this way. We’re being told delivery is going to be a bigger part of dining, but it’s not the end of restaurants.”
THE ARRIVAL OF GHOST KITCHENS
A piece of the future is being built in an old Golden Corral in North Raleigh. Buffet restaurants, essentially a potluck gone mainstream and the epitome of communal eating, particularly suffered during the pandemic. David Foye, an owner of food truck commissary kitchens in Raleigh and Durham, recently bought this one in Wake Forest, with plans to transform the building into The Flavor District, which will become the Triangle’s largest ghost kitchen.
Ghost kitchens are restaurants without a dining room, often serving multiple menus from the same kitchen, with everything made for takeout or delivery. They existed before the pandemic, but mostly in larger cities. COVID’s early shutdown of dining rooms pushed the trend into the Triangle, where it looks like it’s here to stay. The Flavor District will have 17 vendor stalls, 10 likely going to restaurants, Foye said, and the others leased by caterers or bakers. Foye said the pandemic has led diners and restaurant owners to take a longer look at what kinds of meals can be takeout and which are worth seeking out in a dining room. “This is looking at consumer needs, but also vendor needs,” Foye said. “A mom and pop pizza parlor rents space for a restaurant, with maybe five tables up front. But 80 percent of their business is takeout. Do you really need that space to manage a restaurant anymore?” The pandemic upped expectations for takeout, Foye said, moving beyond pizza and burritos to family-style meals or composed restaurant dishes.
“It’s not like people expect to eat at the dinner or lunch table every meal,” Foye said. “They eat where they are; it doesn’t have to be bad food anymore.”
HELPING WOMEN AND MINORITIES START BUSINESSES
Downtown Raleigh will get its own ghost kitchen next year, as well. HUBB Kitchens is building a six-vendor ghost kitchen on Lenoir Street on the eastern edge of downtown, plus a new non-profit restaurant incubator on Fayetteville Street aimed at helping women and minorities start businesses in the food industry. Both projects are slated to open next year. Founder Jason Johnson believes people are more and more thinking of takeout costs like they do grocery bills.
“You’ll never be able to replace the experience of first-hand dining,” Johnson said. “People don’t cook at home as much as they used to. You’re seeing people replace their grocery bill with a food delivery bill.” Johnson thinks the growing divide between in-person restaurants and delivery meals will shine a greater spotlight on dining as an occasion. “With accessibility of delivery, it will force dine-in restaurants to step up service,” said Johnson, who spent years working in restaurants like the Capital Grille and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. “You’ll expect a higher level of food and quality when you get up and go out to dinner.” Many foods are unchanged by the delivery experience. Pizza remains perfect, lasagna resilient. But the french fry problem looms. A crispy fry stuck in a box is not crispy for long. Johnson said technology and logistics are developing a french fry solution right now.
“I come from fine dining; the solution is more people like me coordinating better with operators and drivers,” Johnson said. “The demand is here now. Your french fry solution will come.”
QR CODES AND VACCINE CARDS
Some of the changes restaurants made during the pandemic are beginning to cure and harden into business as usual. Some restaurants have QR codes stuck to the table, pulling up menus and ordering systems. Many dining rooms continue to have tables spaced out, limiting restaurant capacity but embracing a new meaning to breathing room. Imbibers are used to whipping out IDs at the Durham Bar Surf Club, but now they have their phones ready to show photos of vaccine cards, too, which are required to walk through the door. Over the summer, when busier dining rooms were met with the aggressive delta variant of COVID-19, a number of Triangle restaurants added vaccine requirements.
Players Retreat owner Gus Gusler kept the iconic Raleigh sports bar closed for more than a year. When it did reopen in June, Gusler required customers to register their vaccination status with the restaurant, earning a button they could wear for future visits. As of early December, Gusler said he’s handed out nearly 19,000 buttons and plans to order another 2,000 more. “We’ve been back to 2019 numbers for a few months now,” Gusler said of business at the PR. “I think people feel more comfortable coming inside when they know everyone’s vaxxed.” Despite that success, or perhaps because of it, Gusler said he’s not in any hurry to lift the mandate and unable to imagine when that might happen.
Future barbecue restaurant Longleaf Swine on Person Street in Raleigh is devoting 2,000 square feet to its outdoor patio, including a roof and tabletop heaters. “It’s definitely because of the pandemic,” co-owner Adam Cunningham said. “We always planned to have kind of a lean-to. But now we made more space. People really want to sit outside, and you never know when you’ll need to take out seats indoors, or God-forbid something else happens.” The Boxyard RTP development, a cluster of restaurants and shops made out of shipping containers, was in the works before the pandemic, but has emerged as a kind of outdoor food hall seemingly built for these times. The Boxyard vendors have minimal indoors seating, but the development is built in a horseshoe around a wide covered patio.
The development is one of the latest big bets on the ever-widening umbrella of fast casual and counter service, which continues to expand the quality of food outside traditional restaurants. The Bulkogi food truck brand opened a brick and mortar space within Boxyard that’s evolving even the meaning of counter service. Bulkogi has ordering kiosks instead of cashiers, where diners can plug in their menu choice and pay. Owner Joe Choi said worker shortages and the acceptance of online ordering led to the move and that soon he’ll add kiosks to his Durham restaurant Namu. “This is very much a pandemic thing, but customers seem to enjoy it,” Choi said. “(The Boxyard location) was meant to be kind of Chipotle-esque, with people going through the line. But the staffing shortage is so real right now, it’s better for us to train a cook than a cashier.”
Service shakeups are even happening in upscale restaurants. The acclaimed Hillsborough Italian restaurant Panciuto reopened this summer for the first time in more than a year, calling it Panciuto Vol. 2. Chef and owner Aaron Vandemark did away with the traditional front of house service, opting instead for a host seating diners and answering questions, then guests would make menu choices on an iPad. Vandemark said he always felt Panciuto’s reputation was more formal than reality and hopes the switch helps break down barriers to the dining room. “I can’t see ever having formal service again,” Vandemark said. “It’s the food but with informality and without the pomp and circumstance.”
DOWNTOWN VERSUS SUBURBAN DEVELOPMENT
One of the biggest shifts in dining going into 2022 is exactly where we’ll be eating. For the years leading up to the pandemic, the Triangle’s dining scene established itself in its downtowns, as independent standalone restaurants moved in and built a culinary momentum in Raleigh and particularly in Durham. Next year’s major restaurant openings are mostly clusters of new developments, some in downtowns, but many in the suburbs. In Durham, the American Tobacco Campus will nearly turn over its entire restaurant lineup, introducing Zweli’s Ekhaya, Queenburger, the Cajun concept Seraphine and a new Five Star location. Cary’s Fenton development will add a new M Sushi, Crawford Brothers Steakhouse, a Superica location, Colletta from Charleston restaurateur Steve Palmer and a new Dram and Draught bar. North Hills in Raleigh is adding two new restaurants from Giorgios Bakatsias, tapas bar Las Ramblas and the pizzeria Giorgio Pizza Bar.
Smoky Hollow near downtown Raleigh will bring Charlotte’s Midwood Smokehouse to the Triangle, plus Spanish restaurant Madre and Durham sandwich shop J. Lights. The list goes on. Durham chef Michael Lee said he initially turned down the offer to open a new M. Sushi in Fenton, but changed his mind, believing the project represents big development’s attempt to go local. “I wouldn’t go there if it was 100 percent national chains,” Lee said. “In the last couple years developers have been paying attention to locality instead of just going to the highest bidder.” Moving into Durham’s American Tobacco Campus, Zweli Williams said joining the development meant a kind of security following a brutal two years for the restaurant industry.
“If you had a standalone place and wanted to fix it up, in this economy it would be way more expensive,” Williams said. “What they’ve offered us as a small business, I feel like they actually care about our existence and helping us expand.”
TAKING TIME FOR MENTAL HEALTH
After more than a year of short staffs, stressful services and plenty of uncertainty, some Triangle restaurants did something almost unheard of: they took a break. In Raleigh, Ashley Christensen closed all of her restaurants for a few days in August, Garland shut down for more than a week at the beginning of November, and Hummingbird took a week around the Fourth of July and plans more breaks in the future. Hummingbird owner Coleen Speaks said the pandemic introduced a lot of new things to dining, including the realization that sometimes you have to hit pause.
“We’ve spent time focusing on health and not killing ourselves with work,” Speaks said. “Everyone should walk away from the pandemic more committed to taking care of themselves and one another.” Lawrence Barbecue owner Jake Wood said he’ll make the call to close for a day or two when he feels burnout creeping in. A break is already planned for January, Wood said, noting that the idea of closing for anything other than natural disaster or equipment failure was unheard of in the past. “I never experienced anything like that coming up,” Wood said. “But it’s a different mindset. If I’m feeling beat down, I know our staff is being beat down. We’re trying to maintain the balance. A service isn’t as important as healthy minds and healthy bodies.”