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Chef Jason Smith is known for his cracklin’ pork shank, fresh salmon salad and $9 lunch meatloaf from a wood-fire grill.
But on Tuesday nights the flavor profile is cheesy. And it’s more mac-and-cheese than goat cheese guacamole. That’s because Tuesdays often mean daddy-daughter dates for Smith, 41, and his daughter Sutton, 7. Maybe they venture to one of Smith’s restaurants — 18 Seaboard, Cantina 18 and Harvest 18. Or maybe they hit some “non-18” spots such as Players’ Retreat and Sardi’s Den.
No matter where they are, it’s not unusual for fellow diners to ask him if he’s “checking out the competition.”
“I will say no. I am just having a good time … out, having fun. Are you kidding me?” he laughs.
Maybe it’s the white chef’s coat with the small, embroidered state flag or the way he constantly credits others, including his wife Lauren, staff and local purveyors, but it’s easy to believe him.
He’s also having a big year. In a few months his first restaurant, Seaboard 18, will turn 10. His second – and busiest – restaurant, Cantina 18, will reopen by December with a fresh design, newly white-washed and exposed brick walls (circa 1959), accordion windows, a horseshoe bar, pressed bamboo floors and 2,000 additional square feet.
“It’s gonna be the same old Cantina. It was working great,” Smith says. “We are just expanding and freshening … the entire concept [at Cantina 18] is driven on fresh food. We are farm to fork, chef driven and Southwest.”
Smith, who is also dad to 3-year-old son Lawson, will soon begin his role as board chair of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. It’s a natural fit for the man whose father (an attorney) and grandfathers (a machinist and a firefighter) all worked in downtown Raleigh, too.
The eldest of four children, Smith’s Raleigh roots go even deeper. He was born at Rex Hospital, at its former location on St. Mary’s Street. And, just after high school, his first job in the restaurant business was at 42nd Street Oyster Bar. (He also worked in Durham, New York City and Charleston before opening his own restaurant.)
“I love comfort food. [With 18 Seaboard] I wanted to do sensible and Southern with contemporary nuances,” he said. “I didn’t want the restaurant to be an intellectual test. I wanted it to be a place people could make memories or entertain clients … [a place that’s] approachable and fun.”
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