Where the Chefs Eat

Best Restaurants is a loaded term, often eliciting the question “according to whom?” That’s exactly what we asked ourselves when setting to compile a list of the best eats across the Triangle. When it comes down to choosing a new place to dine, there is one avenue that is the most powerful: word of mouth. A friend recommends a new eatery, a workmate mentions his favorite burger joint, or a parent at carpool shares her favorite date night restaurant. It compels us to try the eatery because it’s already received a stamp of approval from a trusted resourceand that’s what we wanted to do here. We reached out to more than 20 top chefs at some of the most celebrated restaurants in the city and asked them where they eat when off duty. The answers were inventive, delicious and, at times, surprising.

Pho Far East

4011 Capital Blvd., Raleigh

This unpretentious Vietnamese restaurant off Capital Boulevard has some culinary star power as fans. James Beard semifinalist chef Scott Crawford, Aaron Matyac of Whiskey Kitchen, and Bida Manda’s Vansana Nolitha name the eatery as one of their favorites. “My family loves Vietnamese cuisine. Pho Far East does it right,” says Crawford. “It’s not fussy, just delicious! We have fond memories of family date nights at Pho Far East.” At his restaurant, Crawford & Son, Crawford serves up a seasonal menu of beautifully executed comfort food but when it comes to ordering at Pho Far East he selects the Vegan Pho: “It’s out of the ordinary for me and absolutely fantastic!”

Nolitha, owner of Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant that was recently named the “Best Restaurant in North Carolina” by Business Insider, and the newly opened Brewery Bhavana, says the small eatery is “local, authentic, light-hearted and the best pho in town.” He doesn’t have just one favorite dish, naming Pho Dac Biet (beef and noodles in broth), Nem Nuong summer rolls and Chao Ga rice congee (a chicken rice porridge) as his top picks. “These dishes are soulful, honest and absolutely delicious…they take me all the way back home,” he adds. While Matyac, Chef de Cuisine at Whiskey Kitchen says the “tucked away hidden gem of Vietnamese delights makes this place a favorite on my days off.” His favorite dish is the beef pho, calling it “the best in Raleigh.”

Soo Café

2815 Brentwood Rd.

Chef Eric Montagne is a relatively new import to North Carolina—he moved to the state in 2014—but he’s quickly made his mark on the local culinary stage. He first worked as the executive chef at the Boiler Room Oyster Bar in Kinston, James Beard Award winner Vivian Howard’s restaurant, and now leads the kitchen at Standard Foods, a neighborhood restaurant specializing in local and seasonal cuisine. When grabbing a bite to eat, he stops at Soo Café, a no-frills chicken joint in Stony Brook Shopping Center. You may think KFC stands for Kentucky Fried Chicken but Korean Fried Chicken is taking the U.S. by storm. “Incredible fried chicken, great hospitality, K-pop on the big screen,” ticks off Montagne about a few of the reasons he recommends the place. As for ordering, try the whole fried chicken with original sauce and extra sides of rice and kimchi.

Provenance’s Chef James Miraglia agrees that it’s a hidden gem: “Anytime anyone mentions chicken I always ask if they have been to Soo Cafe. My diet is a plant heavy one, every now and then I need a fried chicken fix. Soo Cafe delivers that sweet, sticky, crunch, spicy and garlicky fix.”

Fresh Levant Bistro

Confectioner Nicole Evans Groth’s bakeshop Anisette is a delectable destination for all things sweet, including fragrant cakes, fresh tarts and mouthwatering cookies. When opening her dessertery, Groth was inspired by visits to Mediterranean sweet shops, and her partiality for the regional cuisine also dictates her more savory choices. When eating out she often visits Fresh Levant in Lafayette Village, a Mediterranean inspired bistro that is also entirely gluten free. “Their ingredients always seem quite fresh and healthful, and the owners are very welcoming, nice people,” says Groth, of the menu that features mostly organic, grass-fed and non-GMO purveyors. Her favorite dish on the menu: “Grilled halloumi sandwich—the halloumi has a really satisfying bite, and the pita bread has such a nice texture.”

Waraji

At his restaurant, Mandolin, Chef Sean Fowler draws upon his Southern roots but also infuses his menu with flavors from around the world. He also appreciates clean flavors and consistency in the restaurants he frequents, the very reasons why he names Waraji as one of his favorite eateries. He sums up its draw with one word “simplicity,” adding that with good sushi you want to enjoy the fish and emphasizing the importance of the freshest catch. Though known for its generous sushi and sashimi menu, Waraji also features other Japanese specialties, such as ochazuke (a rice soup) and sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef over vegetables and clear yam noodles).

Taipei 101

Chef Cheetie Kumar is no stranger to ethnic flavors. Her downtown restaurant, Garland, combines Indian, North African and Mexican flavors into a contemporary fusion menu. Perhaps her love for the exotic is one reason she’s drawn to Taipei 101, a reasonably-priced Chinese restaurant in Cary specializing in flavors from the Sichuan and Taiwanese regions. “The food is authentic and delicious,” she enthuses, adding: “Sundays are particularly lively.” Her top pick from the menu is cumin lamb, shredded potatoes with vinegar and lotus root.

The Provincial

Chef Nunzio Scordo knows food. He owns two successful restaurants in Lafayette Village: Farina Neighborhood Italian, a trattoria serving wood-fired pizza and fresh pasta, and Driftwood Southern Kitchen, a delicious menu of comfort food made of fresh, local ingredients. But when it comes to dining at someone else’s restaurant, Scordo heads to Apex to eat at The Provincial. “[Chef/owner] Wayne Alcaide buys only whole fish, local produce, makes everything in-house, and the menu changes frequently,” he says, citing a few of the reasons why it’s one of his favorites. And when it comes to ordering off the menu: “Anything seafood. It’s always going to be perfectly cooked and straight from the coast,” he adds.

Azitra

Walter Royal, Executive Chef of the Angus Barn and Pavilion, has been known to surprise. Indeed, when he competed on Iron Chef, he ended up defeating celebrity Chef Cat Cora’s team against the odds by thinking outside the box. So where might you find Royal eating when he’s away from work? Azitra, a white-cloth Indian restaurant in Brier Creek. “It is very good authentic Indian cuisine—in my opinion some of the best in the area,” he says. When asked to name his favorite dishes, he announces: “A wide array of things—naan, curried goat, basmati rice, soft shell crab, chicken tikka masala. They are delicious!”

Player’s Retreat

Chef Ashley Christensen has created a small culinary empire in Raleigh with her portfolio of restaurants, including Poole’s Diner, Beasley’s Chicken +
Honey
and Chuck’s. Her menus range from re-imagined comfort food to inventive and technical wood-fired creations, but when choosing a place to eat, Christensen sticks to her neighborhood and visits Player’s Retreat, a local institution that has been serving delicious bar food for more than 65 years.  “I love it for the ties it has to the history of our city, but my admiration isn’t purely nostalgic—the food is great,” says Christensen. “Chef Beth LittleJohn took over the kitchen about two years ago and has done a brilliant job of introducing new exciting dishes to the menu while keeping the classics as great as ever.” Her top picks off the menu include Mimi’s sausage dip, the chicken Gus sandwich, and the chopped salad.

Joseph Jeffers of Stanbury is also a fan of the restaurant, both for the food but also for the conversation and welcoming atmosphere. “If I had to sum up the soul of Raleigh in a restaurant, it would undoubtedly be this place,” he says. “Roll in and have a beer in a tux or jean shorts and get comfortable, there’s something for everyone.” He advises striking up a conversation with owner Gus Gusler: “You may learn the wild and fascinating history of this institution.” He often orders the Hawaiian burger, double patty with mayo, then adds, “or anything Chef LittleJohn tells me to get.”

While Executive Chef Jason Smith of 18 Restaurant Group feels fortunate to have such a great neighborhood joint nearby where he can take his family and friends. “I have been going there my whole life,” he says, and often orders a burger, medium rare or any of Chef Beth’s specials.

Stanbury

Marshall Smith has worked with the best, training under Chef Jean-Michel Bouvier at the Michelin Star restaurant L’Essentiel à Chambéry in France. In Raleigh as the new Executive Chef of Midtown Grille, he focuses on contemporary American cuisine that features local and fresh ingredients. When he’s not cooking though you might find him at Stanbury, the rustic eatery featuring small plates and craft cocktails. “Consistently good food with creative flavors and presentation, atmosphere is great and the staff is on their game,” says Smith. Plus, he enjoys the concept of sharing food and trying everything on the menu. “We like to try several of the small plates to get the most out of the experience,” he says. “Almost never order the same thing twice.”

MoJoe’s Burger Joint

Burgers might not be fine dining but the art of getting it perfectly right is worth celebrating, and Executive Chef Daniel Schurr of Second Empire Restaurant & Tavern agrees. While the award-winning Second-Empire is housed in the historic Dodd-Hinsdale House, Schurr appreciates a decided lower-key dining experience.  “After being in fine dining all my career, it’s nice to eat casual and consistently good food,” he says. When it comes to burgers, he goes to MoJoe’s, an eatery with a large outdoor patio off Peace Street that has been serving 100 percent Angus beef patties for the last 15 years. Though the joint has almost a dozen inspired burger combinations, you can also build your own, which is what Schurr does when he’s there: “Build your own with mayo, lettuce, tomato and cheddar cheese. The burger is always done right and wait staff is always polite.”

Seoul Garden

4701 Atlantic Ave.

At NOFO Café, Chef Dan Gray crafts Southern favorites, such as buttermilk fried chicken, shrimp and grits and glazed pork chops served in a vibrant and eclectic atmosphere. When eating out, though, he explores new cultures through cuisine. Seoul Garden, a traditional Korean restaurant where meat is barbecued in front of you on a grill built into your table, is one of his favorites. “[It’s] truly a must-try in Raleigh!” he enthuses. He orders kimchi (fermented cabbage), jjigae (a type of hearty stew), and beef or pork bulgogi (marinated and grilled barbecue).

Pizzeria Mercato

Outside Italy, New Yorkers claim the title of great pizza, or at least knowing where to find it. So when Chef Jeff Seizer talks about where he goes, one should listen. Seizer recently moved to Raleigh from the Big Apple, where he was the chef de cuisine at Gramercy Park Hotel and Langham Place, to open Royale, a French-influenced American bistro. But for a slice, Seizer travels to Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro: “Being from New York I love pizza, and Pizzeria Mercato has the best pizza in the Triangle.” Bon Appétit magazine agrees, naming the establishment one of the top three new pizzerias of 2016. Founded by Gabe Barker, whose parents both are James Beard Award winning chefs, the chef prepares rustic Italian dishes and pizzas topped with local produce from the farmer’s market. “You can’t go wrong with either the Funghi or Salsiccia pizzas,” advises Seizer.

Kimbap

At Saint Jacques, Chef Serge Falcoz-Vigne celebrates French cuisine through his own personal interpretation, and when dining out he seeks a similar approach. He recommends Kimbap Café, a local and organic eatery: “The freshness of local ingredients with a twist on the traditional Korean cuisine,” sums up Falcoz-Vigne. Self-taught chef Kim Hunter was born in Korea and adopted as a baby. Food was one way for her to reconnect with her birth culture, and her menu features a delicious selection of noodles, dumplings, and one of Falcoz-Vigne’s favorites—bibimbap, a crispy rice bowl mixed with seasonal vegetables, a sunny side egg and choice of local protein, including Heritage Farms pork belly or Joyce Farms chicken.

J.Betzki’s

Inspired by Central and Eastern European cuisine, J. Betski’s reflects Chef and Owner John Korzekwinski’s personal Polish and German heritage. On the menu, you’ll find Old World classics like Kielbasa sausage and Sauerkraut, pork schnitzel and pierogies, which, according to Chef David Mitchell of The Oak, “are the best in town.” Chef Johnny Wright of Glenwood Grill agrees: “Best pierogi I have ever eaten.” And, how can you go wrong with sausages and any local brew? Which is what Wright often orders alongside the pierogies. For those interested in exploring the menu further, Mitchell recommends the fish: “Chef John [Korzekwinski] does a great job with seafood.”  Both chefs also appreciate the overall restaurant, with quality consistent food, great staff and an enjoyable “vibe.” 

Bella Monica

Iris, the sleek restaurant inside of the NC Museum of Art, showcases complex flavors that complement the striking works of art around it. There, Chef Andy Hicks crafts beautifully presented dishes such as the seared scallops and red curry lemongrass broth or roasted duck and succotash. When eating out, Hicks seeks simplicity in his cuisine, naming Bella Monica as a favorite. “The food is straightforward, always consistent and delicious,” he says. “It’s a comfortable place with no pretense, great wine list, and the service is always great—all of the things I look for when dining out.”

Death & Taxes

Executive Chef Jacquelynn Brown has been leading the kitchen of J. Alexander, a part of a boutique collection of restaurants, for more than a decade. But when she explores the local dining scene in Raleigh, she makes her way to Ashley Christensen’s Death & Taxes, a conceptual restaurant where the menu is dedicated to the technique of cooking with wood fire. “As a chef, I appreciate the small quaint atmosphere and the use of local foods,” says Brown. “They put an emphasis on farm-to-table concept so they constantly have a rotating menu.” When available, she chooses the grilled duck leg confit with rainbow carrots, honey and almonds: “Duck can be easily overcooked, but they make it perfect every time,” she adds.

Toyko House

For more than 40 years, Chef Arthur Gordon has been a pioneering force in the restaurant industry, adhering to a “local, fresh and sustainable” mantra long before it became a popular concept. Perhaps it’s this approach that draws the Irregardless Café owner to Tokyo House Sushi at Celebrations Shopping Center; there Tokyo House’s chef personally oversees the delivery of fish daily to ensure the highest quality. “[It’s] great Sushi and lots of options,” says Gordon, who recommends the sushi and sashimi platter for two.

M Sushi

Who better to ask for a sushi restaurant recommendation than a chef that serves sushi? Chef Hyun-Woo Kim recently took over the reigns of SONO, an inventive Japanese restaurant in downtown Raleigh, where he’ll bring the flavors of his birthplace, South Korea, to the new menu. His top pick when it comes to sushi (and he’s not dining at his own restaurant) is M Sushi in Durham. Chef and owner Michael Lee brings Omakase style dining to the Triangle. Translated “Omakase” means “I’ll leave it up to you,” essentially a chef’s choice culinary experience, and that’s exactly what Kim enjoys—the tasting menu.

Alpaca Chicken

Chef Taion McElveen of Bare Bones knows a thing or two about barbecue. In fact the restaurant was named “Bare Bones” because the brisket, chicken and pulled pork is so good you eat it down to the bone. It makes sense, then, that his favorite restaurant has the word “charcoal” in the name. Alpaca’s Peruvian cuisine features rotisserie style chicken that is roasted in an imported charcoal-fired oven. “The upfront charcoal flavor stands out over the other chicken eateries. In the cooking process the chicken still remains moist and juicy,” says McElveen. “The complimentary green or yellow sauce pair perfectly with all combinations and are incredible tasty.”

Saint Jacques

The nostalgia of home is what draws Lionel Vatinet, owner of La Farm Bakery, to his favorite restaurant, Saint Jacques. The master baker, who hails from France, is devoted to preserving the art and science of bread making passed down from generations of artisanal French bakers. Drawing upon one’s culture is important to Vatinet, so he appreciates the authenticity of Chef Serge Falcoz-Vigne’s menu. “It reminds me of my childhood in France,” says Vatinet, who often orders Ris de veau sautée, jardinière de légume, jus de champignon (crispy veal sweetbread médallions, sautéed vegetables and demi-glace mushroom sauce). After 13 years running his own restaurant in Paris, Falcoz-Vigne relocated to Raleigh and brought his culinary talent to the Triangle, interpreting classic French cuisine using locally sourced ingredients.

Alexandra Drosu
Alexandra Drosu

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