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Best Raleigh Restaurants

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The Triangle restaurant scene is having its moment. National publications from the New York Times to Bon Appétit have been lavishing Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill with praise recently, marveling at its wealth of farmer's markets, bistros, handmade chocolate shops, and local breweries. Triangle foodies have just shrugged at all the attention. It's not news to them. A magical combination of agricultural heritage, ethnic diversity, and "creative class" culture have long worked to put the Triangle dining scene leaps and bounds ahead of similar-sized metropolitan areas. Here, trendy words like "locavore" describe what we've already been doing pretty much forever—eating well-prepared, seasonal foods fresh from the farm. The best restaurants in the Triangle span the high-low continuum. On the upscale end, fine Neo-Southern restaurants like Durham's Magnolia Grill and Chapel Hill's Crook's Corner have helped define the genre. Think grits souffle, eggs Benedict with fried green tomatoes. On the low end, a slew of mobile food trucks patrol downtown Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh, dispensing Indian fish curries, Korean-style cabbage rolls and authentic Mexican tongue tacos. In between, you can take your pick of everything from Parisian-style steak frites to vegan burritos to old-fashioned pulled pork barbecue.   

Toast

Neighborhood: Durham Price: Moderate
Billing itself as a "paninoteca," or Italian sandwich shop, this ultra-popular Durham cafe has a brief-but-perfect selection of exquisite hot sandwiches. Highlights include the pecorino and truffle oil, the  tuna with olive and fennel, and the farm egg and chive. The high molded ceilings and blackboard menu make you feel like you’ve wandered into a neighborhood cafe in an arty part of Milan. If you’re not very hungry, just nibble a plate of crostini—the warm goat cheese with local honey and cracked pepper is our favorite. Wash it all down with a cold bottle of Aranciata, a bittersweet Italian orange soda. If it's nice out, grab a seat at one of the iron bistro tables out front.

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Toast  

Cocquette Brasserie

Neighborhood: North Raleigh Price: Moderate
Steak frites, coq au vin, frisée salad, onion soup, and other exquisitely executed Gallic classics are the order of the day at Raleigh's Coquette. This stylish brasserie blends Parisian flair (black-and-white tiled floors, long pewter bar) with American-style comfort (booths, lots of light). The reasonably priced French brunch, featuring quiches, crepes and fussy little egg dishes, is popular. The frites (AKA "French fries")—elegantly thin, perfectly golden—are some of the best around. Located in Raleigh's ritzy North Hills shopping area, Coquette attracts a mixed crowd of tired shoppers, local yuppies and homesick Europeans.

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Cocquette Brasserie  

Raleigh Times

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate
Housed in the turn-of-the-century offices of the defunct Raleigh Times newspaper, this pub-style joint does a great job with high-end versions on downmarket classics—chicken-fried pickles, chipotle chicken wings, PBR-battered fish and chips. I’m partial to the BBQ nachos myself, loaded with queso fresco, jalapenos and pico de gallo. Atmosphere is convivial, with a burnished wood bar and walls adorned with old newspaper clippings. At lunch, you'll see everyone from reporters from the city's current newspaper (the News and Observer) to local politicos. Wash everything down with a North Carolina craft brew.

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Raleigh Times  

Jibarra

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate
This upscale Mexican joint does both classic (shrimp tacos, skirt-steak fajitas) and unexpected  (slow-cooked goat with potato confit, sea bass in Mexican vanilla bean oil)  with aplomb. Order something with huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn). It may not look pretty, but it's got a gorgeous truffle-eque earthiness. Wash it down with one of Jibarras many tequila selections. The restaurant, in a renovated downtown Raleigh factory building, has a swanky urban vibe—contemporary furniture, exposed metal beams, blowups of vintage Mexican photographs. The crowd is well-heeled and well-dressed. The three-course Royal Brunch (with guava mimosas) is popular.

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Jibarra  

Clyde Cooper's

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate
Cooper's is, in our humble opinion, Raleigh’s best barbecue place. This old-school brick storefront is a true Raleigh institution, serving three textures of Carolina pork barbecue—chopped, pulled and sliced—since 1938. Sit at one of the high-backed wooden booths and order a sweet tea and a $3 barbecue sandwich—we prefer it chopped, with a heavy splash of Cooper’s kicky vinegar sauce. People watching is great too—look out for the mayor and various visiting dignitaries, who toss their ties over their shoulders to avoid grease stains before chowing down.

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Clyde Cooper's  

Poole's Downtown Diner

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget
This French bistro-meets-Southern diner mashup has been generating buzz since it opened in late 2007. Chef Ashley Christensen's ever-changing menu is handwritten on chalkboards above the bar—think frisée salad with lardons, pots of mussels in herb-y broth, and open-faced burgers with whisky cheddar. The extravagant baked mac 'n' cheese is a Triangle legend, as are the pies—roasted banana cream with homemade toffee topping, bourbon-spiked chocolate pecan, etc. If you have to wait—it's first-come, first-served, and is usually packed on weekend nights—just sit at the bar with a cocktail and admire the hipster clientele's architectural hairdos.

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Poole's Downtown Diner  

Crook's Corner

Neighborhood: Chapel Hill Price: Budget
One of the granddaddies of the Triangle's New Southern cuisine scene, Crook's has character in spades—pig statue on the roof, funky local art on the walls, bamboo-shaded courtyard. Offerings range from simple pit-cooked barbecue sandwiches to a fancy grilled-asparagus salad with local goat cheese. If you can only get one thing, go for the famed shrimp and grits—an up-market twist on the classic Carolina fisherman's breakfast. Make reservations early, or just walk in. If you wind up having to wait for a table, just hang out at the bar sipping a classic Southern cocktails like the Sazerac and chatting up the quirky locals.

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Crook's Corner  

Magnolia Grill

Neighborhood: Durham Price: Budget
Chef Ben Barker may not have singlehandedly invented New Southern cuisine, but he came pretty darn close. Local foodies have been paying him homage at his Durham restaurant since 1986, and any visitor to the Triangle should do the same. Baker's genius lies in his deft way of turning humble ingredients into multifaceted delicacies. Pork belly is glazed with sorghum and served with wilted watercress, rice pudding is spooned into phyllo cups with port-cherry conserves. The menu changes daily, but if you spot Baker's famous grits soufflé, order it. You won't be sorry. Desserts, the province of Barker's wife, Karen, are legendary, and rightly so. The restaurant, in a converted corner grocery store, is small and sometimes noisy. Some guests will be wearing evening dresses, others will have on jeans. You'll be treated to terrific service either way.

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Magnolia Grill  

Busy Bee Cafe

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget
In a renovated downtown Raleigh warehouse, Chef Jeremy Clayman's hip new gastropub draws a young, arty crowd. Small plates include bruschetta with beet and orange, squash tarts, gooey herbed mac ‘n' cheese, and homemade tater tots. There are also large plates, including a decent burger and a very respectable green curry. The two bars—one upstairs, one downstairs—serve an impressive variety of rare and hard-to-find craft brews. Exposed brick walls display quirky local art—all for sale. If it's nice out, snag a table on the roof deck. Take note—the place really begins to swing after 10PM on weekends, and seating is first come, first served.

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Busy Bee Cafe  
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