One thing you won’t find in New York City, at least at my apartment, is a screened-in porch. But in the summer in the south, the porch is the living room, kitchen, dining room and bar, a focal point of a home to rival the greatest of fireplaces. I know because I had the pleasure of enjoying a porch for a couple of days recently in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Through my friend Rob, I’d met Tim and Susan, a couple that left New York City after about fifteen years to slow down and try their hands in the south. Like our friends in the Outer Banks, they were standard bearers for North Carolina’s wonderful brand of hospitality, immediately shuffling us out to the porch, plopping us down in chairs and handing us frosty beers plucked from an ice chest. One of the greatest things in North Carolina is the beer-filled cooler that holds a prime position on porches across the state.
We talked. Rob updated his friends on news from New York and I grilled the couple on life in Raleigh and how it compares to the north, particularly because Tim will soon open his own bar near the campus of UNC. “The bottom line is, with Research Triangle Park, there is this really well-educated community and an awfully diverse community here,” he says. “My thing is that there’s a phenomenal number of ‘classic American’ bars but there aren’t really a phenomenal number of bars that have been influenced by Europe. And it’s not that I want to create a ‘European bar’ but there are a lot of things that the Europeans get right with bars,” like lighting, music, ambiance and drink selection.
Tim’s new spot should be, like his porch, a great place for gathering. The idea of televisions in pubs is repellant to the long-time bartender, a pointless intrusion on the real reasons for going out: the people and the booze and sometimes the food. Construction at his place is still underway, but he’s already found that the business of building a restaurant in Chapel Hill is, in many ways, much easier here than in New York City. Rent is cheaper, of course, but so are construction costs, contracting fees and permits. Bureaucratic headaches are nothing compared to what restaurant owners confront up north. It’s the kind of place, says Tim, where he can actually open his own business; that wasn’t a certainty in his former hometown. (He also has more room in his house for power tools now.)
Critically for the area restaurant scene-if not his place-the local products are good, says Tim: “There is some very good beer being brewed in North Carolina. I was shocked to say so when I moved but there’s some fabulous beer being brewed down here.” Lonerider’s Shotgun Betty and Foothills Pilsner from Salem, North Carolina are a couple of his favorites. 3 Cups, a Chapel Hill gourmet shop, stocks plenty of international groceries and wines, but its event program is all about local chefs and farmers. “There is good food here,” Tim says. Much of it is on view at the Raleigh Farmers Market, which has so much to offer that it’s open daily.
While his future bar is across “The Triangle” from the capital, Raleigh’s downtown alliance is encouraging development in the heart of the city, where there’s already a healthy dining and nightlife scene. Poole’s Diner is a foodie favorite occupying a restored luncheonette, bustling until the wee hours as friends finish that last bottle of wine and linger over dessert. The chef there, Ashley Christensen, is embarking on a new triple-concept restaurant, adding to the offerings in downtown with Beasley’s, Chuck’s and an as-yet-unnamed bar. It’s not just eating and drinking: The Contemporary Art Museum opened earlier this year in a converted warehouse on West Martin Street.
The nerve center of it all is Morning Times, a killer coffee shop where friends bump into friends by coincidence and everyone seems to greet the baristas by name. Tables line the street, occupied by couples reading the paper and neighbors “visiting,” that southern form of chatting that makes a conversation much more than just small talk. There are salads and sandwiches and wraps to order, sure, but the egg and cheese biscuit is what you really want for breakfast (and probably lunch too).
Transit, urban planning, and land use are new problems that we will face as the city grows. What will downtown’s role be in all of this? I am trying to follow Raleigh’s attempts at bringing back the urban center it once had in the early 1900s.
Indeed, in this growing city and metro region, sprawl could be public enemy number one, with engineers commuting to RTP, suburbanites driving downtown for a night out or an entrepreneurial bartender living in Raleigh opening his place in Chapel Hill. All the driving makes economic sense now, but will it still as the population continues to grow-and gas prices keep rising?