In the last six months, Vidrio has tweaked its menu and found a chef for the long haul.
HUNDREDS OF HANDBLOWN glass orbs cover the dining room wall in colors ranging from ocean blues to clay-pot terra-cottas that suggest a Santorini sunset. Afternoon light floods 16,000 square feet of space on two levels, while rope chandeliers and fishermen’s crates conjure the accoutrements of a ship.
It’s easy to be enchanted by Vidrio, the year-old Mediterranean restaurant on Glenwood South that feels more like an Adriatic beach retreat than a family-style restaurant in downtown Raleigh. But for all its beauty—and its widely praised Mediterranean cuisine to match—the latest local addition to LM Restaurant’s portfolio saw its share of early struggles. “In the very beginning, we had a lot of issues,” says Lou Moshakos,the founder and CEO of the Raleigh-based hospitality group. Other brands under the LM umbrella include Taverna Agora, Carolina Ale House and Bluewater and Oceanic in Wilmington. “In the last six months, we have come a long way. I really believe it. The guys have done a fantastic job.”
The guys include Jay Spungin, Vidrio’s general manager, and Aaron Whitcombe, its third—and hopefully final—executive chef. Since the fall, when Whitcombe came on board in early September, the pair have worked consistently to recruit and retain top-notch talent, as well as to tweak an ambitious menu to be more in line with Raleigh market customers’ expectations. Now, Vidrio is reaping the rewards, having booked nearly 500 private events at its upstairs event space and racking up five-star reviews on Yelp and social media, which Moshakos says he monitors daily.
Moshakos, who came to the U.S. in 1978, was born in raised in Glykovrisi, a small village in the Southern Peloponnese. Grecian traditions of long, wine-soaked meals spent sharing plates of food and relishing the company of family and friends informed Moshakos’ vision for Vidrio, which takes its name from the Spanish word for glass. Dishes inspired from regions all over the Mediterranean are served family-style and brought out to tables in the dining room or to the bar as they’re ready, in a continuous stream. Guests can order bottles of wine and cocktails, or choose wines by the glass from close to 50 different taps in order to experience a variety that’s unrivaled locally. It’s an untraditional style of service that Moshakos says gives guests lots of flexibility. “That was the key right from the start, to give that flexibility,” he says. “You want to come in alone and have a couple of drinks and a snack; you have that flexibility. You want to sit down at the bar and have two or three plates, you can do that, or come in with a group of 10, 20, 50, 200…500.” Whitcombe, the chef, says guests seem to appreciate Vidrio’s shared small plate and family-style dining method, though the restaurant has made some tweaks to the concept to better connect with customers. For instance, Vidrio started out selling a large, hand-cut, grass-fed steak at a steakhouse price but found that guests wanted something different; now, smaller, less expensive cuts of steak appear on the menu. “Diners have the opportunity to taste and experience more food and experience wine from around the world,” Whitcombe says. “In addition, the menu is set up that if a guest wants a more traditional style dining experience, they can have it without losing the identity of Vidrio.” The restaurant’s biggest growing pain has been finding good people for its staff of more than 50. It’s a problem that, in a tight labor market that hasn’t quite reached the big city levels of places like New York, Miami and Chicago to draw talent from, many Raleigh restaurants continue to grapple with. But Vidrio is beginning to see improvements.
“I’ve felt the shift now that we’re out in the marketplace a bit, now that we’re considered one of the better places in town, we are seeing people come to us,” says Spungin, the general manager. “Where we were having to search out so much in the beginning, now people are starting to come to us. That’s something we want, that we’ll rely on, having great peer groups of people who already work with us and want other professionals they know to come work with them.” If one thing has always been consistent at Vidrio, it’s been delicious, locally sourced, seasonally suitable and superbly prepared food. The restaurant is renowned among seafood lovers for its tender charred octopus, Branzini ceviche and woodfired prawns. It’s celebrated for its tasty Italian-inspired dishes, including a creamy agnolotti.
Guests rave about Vidrio’s Moroccan beef skewers with harissa Greek yogurt, its flatbreads, charcuterie and its green chickpea hummus. For Vidrio’s menu, no detail is too small, with food cooked in olive oil imported from Moshakos’ hometown in Greece. This spring, expect new menu items that reflect Whitcombe’s varied style and extensive experience in Mediterranean cooking, and that strengthen Vidrio’s concept of sharing and social dining. “It’s an experience we want to bring to our guests and their families,” says Moshakos. “When you go to Greece, it’s hours-long meals. We mingle, it ties everyone together. Put the cellphone away, and enjoy each others’ company.”