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World Eats Raleigh, North Carolina

Our Favorite queer-friendly restaurants!

by Jeff Heilman
Death & Taxes (Photo by Lauren Vied Allen)

the District, retaining its character amid large-scale mixed-use development, is home to queer-friendly, all-inclusive joints

Death & Taxes (Photo by Lauren Vied Allen)

Founded in 1792, North Carolina’s capital, the City of Oaks, is in the bloom of dynamic transformation, and that includes the culinary scene.

In the last decade-plus, more than 100 new restaurants, bars, and clubs have opened in the downtown area alone. In that same period, Raleigh chefs and restaurants have received 35 James Beard Foundation nominations, including four this year. While traditional Southern fare may come to mind, the Raleigh food map ventures boldly in all directions, from reimagined comfort food to global cuisines. Before North Carolina’s persistent anti-LGBTQ stance gives you pause, LGBTQ-friendly Raleigh determinedly and assuredly stands for equality and inclusivity alongside a strong culture of creativity, originality, and community.

Ashley Christensen (Photo by Paul Mehaffey)

Ashley Christensen (Photo by Paul Mehaffey)

Encapsulating this spirit is Poole’s Diner (426 S. McDowell Street. Tel: 919-832-4477. ac-restaurants.com/pooles). Located in the downtown convention district, the building was among Raleigh’s earliest restaurants, opened in 1945 as Poole’s Pie Shop before becoming Poole’s Luncheonette. Hailing from Kernersville, N.C., Chef Ashley Christensen, who relaunched the eatery under its original name in 2007 as the flagship of her AC Restaurants collection in Raleigh’s walkable downtown, is a “give until it hurts” community-driven fundraiser and philanthropist. After graduating from NC State University in Raleigh, she stayed in town “to influence, shape, and strengthen this place we call home.”

Emblazoned on Poole’s windows and framed in rainbow colors, “Don’t Forget Kindness” is one mantra repeated at all her restaurants. The goodness continues inside Poole’s Diner, which along with Christensen’s James Beard Best Chef: Southeast award in 2014, put Raleigh on the national culinary map. With nine Beard nominations to date, Christensen also took home the national Beard award for Outstanding Chef in 2019.

Seated on a red bar stool at the fetching double-horseshoe bar, I soaked up the diner’s retro ambiance while surveying the blackboard menu above the bar and entrance. On a packed Sunday night, fortune put me in the good hands of bartender Luke Buchanan. One of Christensen’s many long-time staffers, Buchanan painted and updated the “All Are Welcome, Raleigh NC” mural, which Christensen commissioned in 2015 to promote equality for the LGBTQ community.

At his recommendation, I ordered the Sundays-only Burger Royale. Composed of a 10-ounce brisket and chuck patty seared in duck fat and served open-faced on a grilled brioche bun with melted raclette cheese, this 2007 original comes with a pour of red wine shallot jus. Featuring two iceberg wedges in creamy dressing zinged with juice from pickled green beans and showered with parmesan cracklings, the Pickle Juice Caesars exemplified Christensen’s zesty twists on comfort food. Her talismanic best-seller, the Macaroni au Gratin, combines elbow noodles with Jarlsberg, Grana Padano, and sharp white cheddar. Finished with sea salt and brûléed under the broiler, it’s a creamy, caramelized mac and cheese dream. After the decadent chicken liver pate with house pickles, apple and pistachio chutney, cornichons, and two mustards, I finished my meal with the hand-formed strawberry pies and Creamsicle-like orange cream cheese ice cream.

Fried Chicken and Waffles at Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

Fried Chicken and Waffles at Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

My next Christensen experience was Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (237 South Wilmington Street. Tel: 919-322-0127. ac-restaurants.com/beasleys). Her sunny revival of a 1940’s Piggly Wiggly store is for fried chicken and waffles, served with cocktails or Champagne as you please. Plus, riffs on classic Southern sides, including the requisite buttermilk biscuits.

Located underneath Beasley’s, Fox Liquor Bar is Christensen’s craft cocktails-driven homage to her late father Robert, nicknamed Fox, who was notably a Poole’s Luncheonette regular back in the day and whose art and memorabilia decorate this speakeasy-style haven.

Opened in 2015, her Death & Taxes (105 West Hargett Street. Tel: 984-242-0218. ac-restaurants.com/death-taxes), was as inevitably and hauntingly good as the name suggests. Dating to 1907, the building’s past lives include coffin shop, undertaking and mortuary company, and bank. The basement vault is now the wine cellar; the two upper floors serve as Christensen’s private event venue, The Bridge Club. The contemporary ground-floor restaurant is alive with aromas from the white oak-fired grill. Seated at the service end of the long counter facing the open kitchen, I watched the line deliver one plate after another to Chef De Cuisine Andrea Cardella, who spoon-tasted each dish before it went out.

Fire touches the entire menu, such as the embered bell pepper in my Sgt. Pepper gin and Campari cocktail. Fired up too were the roasted North Carolina oysters with chili butter and preserved lemon gremolata, followed by the campanelle pasta with poached egg, embered Parmesan cream, and truffle. Savory sides included the charred brussels sprouts with chèvre and walnuts. The apple crostata with bourbon cream cheese ice cream, candied pecans, and smoked caramel provided the sweet send-off.

Beef Tartare at Crawford and Son (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

Beef Tartare at Crawford and Son (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

Scott Crawford, five-time Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast, has likewise significantly shaped Raleigh’s culinary scene, starting with his run as Executive Chef for Heron’s at five-star Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, just west of Raleigh. Next came Standard Foods (now Standard Beer and Food) in the eclectic Person Street District just north of downtown, where in 2016, the Pennsylvania native opened Crawford and Son (618 N. Person Street. Tel: 919-307-4647. crawfordandsonrestaurant.com).

This hip neighborhood restaurant, a 2024 Beard finalist for Outstanding Hospitality, is for seasonal upscale comfort dishes like the inventive beef tartare with kimchi mayo and soy-cured yolk on crispy black rice. Appetizing, too, were the mushroom carpaccio in sherry and smoked hazelnut crumb, and charcoal-grilled prawns on soft polenta. My duck breast entrée came jazzed with Szechuan peppercorn jus and maitake mushrooms. As my entertaining server commented, the cocktails are “dangerously sippable” along with the wines. Opened next door in 2019, Jolie, after his daughter, is Crawford’s lively take on a French bistro with a coveted rooftop patio.

Raleigh is also big on chocolate, coffee, cocktails, and craft beer. Serving gin-focused cocktails, bubbles, desserts, and coffee in the heart of downtown, Bittersweet (16 E. Martin Street. Tel: 919-977-3829. bittersweetraleigh.com) was a 2024 Beard semi-finalist for Outstanding Bar.

Housed in the former Raleigh Depot, an evocative brick rail freight building from 1912, Videri Chocolate Factory (327 W. Davie Street. viderichocolatefactory.com) supplies numerous local and regional restaurants (Crawford and Son among them), bakeries, breweries, and coffee shops with chocolate products made onsite. Incorporating Black & White Coffee, Videri is the ideal launch point for exploring downtown’s Warehouse District, which has anchored the LGBTQ community since the 1970s. Pioneering 1976 gay bar Capital Corral is now art gallery and wine bar Vita Vite (313 W. Hargett Street. Tel: 919-803-3156. vitaviteraleigh.com).

Long past the closeted days of darkened windows and secret codes, the District, retaining its character amid large-scale mixed-use development, is home to queer-friendly, all-inclusive joints including Flex Nightclub, and sibling neighbors The Night Rider and The Wicked Witch. Serving beer and wine, The Green Monkey (215 South Wilmington Street. Tel: 984-200-5682. greenmonkeyraleigh.com) store is a popular hangout. Locals also love nearby Morgan Street Food Hall (411 West Morgan Street. Tel: 919.-307-4481. morganstreetfoodhall.com). a renovated warehouse featuring 20-plus restaurants, massive indoor outdoor bar, and indoor and outdoor seating. Venues include Iyla’s Southern Kitchen for fried chicken and barbecue; Bad Cat Coffee; and hideaway gin bar Aunty Betty’s.

North Carolina’s $2.26 billion craft beer industry comprises more than 420 breweries and brewpubs. Raleigh’s preeminence in “The State of Southern Beer” is fitting, given that in 1788, the city’s founding fathers decreed that the state capitol be built within ten miles from their favorite watering hole, Isaac Hunter’s Tavern. The original is no more, its footprint buried under a Midtown hotel, while entrepreneur Zack Medford’s Isaac Hunter’s Tavern in downtown pays fitting homage.

Burger Royale at Poole's Diner (Photo by Lauren Vied Allen)

Burger Royale at Poole’s Diner (Photo by Lauren Vied Allen)

With thousands of hop heads pouring into downtown each April for two-day Brewgaloo (shoplocalraleigh.org/brewgaloo), the state’s largest craft beer festival, Raleigh overflows with award-winning taprooms.

Standouts include Trophy Brewing (656 Maywood Avenue. Tel: 919-803-1333. trophybrewing.com/brewery-taproom), with daily food trucks, a fixture of the Raleigh scene, being part of the fun.

Burial art meets beer at the Raleigh outpost of award-winning Asheville, NC-based Burial Beer Co. (burialbeer.com/pages/raleigh-theexhibit), which adjoins downtown’s other foodie destination, Transfer Co. Food Hall (transfercofoodhall.com).

Established in 2015 by Niall Hanley, creator of Morgan Street Food Hall and other Raleigh concepts, The Raleigh Beer Garden (614 Glenwood Avenue. Tel: 919- 324-3415. theraleighbeergarden.com) holds three Guinness World Records for the most beer taps in one location. Offering 386-plus beers, this multi-level hotspot in the hopping Glenwood South neighborhood serves 144 state drafts in the ground-floor North Carolina bar. The second-floor International Bar, where I spent three happy hours sampling delicious porters and stouts, features 222 domestic and global taps. More varieties flow on the rooftop and outdoor event yard.

Preeti Waas exemplifies the strength of Raleigh’s international culinary scene. Born and raised in southern India, Wass, chef-owner of Cheeni Indian Food Emporium (1141 Falls River Avenue. Tel: 919-438-1468. cheeniraleigh.com) in North Raleigh reached the semi-final round for Best Chef: Southeast in 2023 and again this year.

Another signature global kitchen is downtown’s Bida Manda (222 S. Blount Street. Tel: 919-829-9999. bidamanda.com). One of the first Laotian restaurants in the nation, this stylish locals’ favorite is renowned for pork belly soup, ginger ribs, and other tantalizing dishes.

At Brewery Bhavana (218 S Blount Street, Tel: 919) 829-9998. brewerybhavana.com), they combines a brewery, taproom, flower shop, bookstore, dim sum house, and Chinese restaurant in one.

Across the street, The Longleaf Hotel and Lounge (300 N. Dawson Street. Tel: 919-867-5770. thelongleafhotel.com), my base in Raleigh, is the coolest kid in town. Reinventing a 1965 motor lodge with original starshine breeze blocks and a time-capsule bar-lounge, it’s the overnight throwback every destination needs.

Every city should also have an Ajja (209 Bickett Blvd. Tel: 919-213-1276, ajjaeats.com). Located near The Longleaf in the historic Five Points neighborhood, this latest concept for serial Beard nominee Cheetie Kumar may just be her most exciting yet. While “rock star” gets overplayed in the culinary and other non-musical industries, Kumar, a musician who has long played in local bands with her husband and business partner Paul Siler, is the real deal.

Ajja's Paul Siler and Cheetie Kumar (Photo by Baxter Miller)

Ajja’s Paul Siler and Cheetie Kumar (Photo by Baxter Miller)

Her prior restaurant, pan-Asian-driven Garland, was one of the hottest reservations in town. With Ajja, the Hindi/Urdu word for “come over,” Kumar, of Indian heritage, has charted a mesmerizing culinary journey through the Mediterranean, Middle East, and southwest Asia, with North Carolina’s growers, farmers, and purveyors along for the ride.

What a finale Ajja provided for my parting dining experience. Warm Moroccan hummus, creamed feta, and carrot houriya to start. From the grill, Spanish anchovies, flown in fresh and flash-fried whole; North Carolina pork spare ribs with a peach-ambatamarind glaze; and tender King Trumpet mushrooms with pickled oyster mushrooms, black garlic, and green onions. For dessert, the lemon-saffron posset with apricot mango sauce and Middle Eastern konafi.

Perched on a hilltop in a residential neighborhood, Ajja, with its sunny, groovy aesthetic, does what every restaurant should do—take you away. Between 2017 and 2022, Kumar earned five Beard Best Chef nominations. This year, Ajja was a national Best New Restaurant semi-finalist. It’s got my vote for one of the brightest dining destinations in the U.S., along with Raleigh itself, its nighttime skyline, clearly visible from Ajja’s backyard some two miles away, calling me back for more.

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