by Kaitlyn Goalen
illustrations by Emily Brooks
As soon as the weather warms, the wanderlust kicks in. Maybe it’s an evolutionary side effect, something about the biological need to migrate. Maybe it’s just the result of being cooped up all winter. Whatever the reason, when the mercury rises, so does a yearning to cover new ground.
A three-week vacation to an exotic locale isn’t always in the cards, but with a car, Google Maps, and a good appetite, a good trip can be no more than a 10-minute drive away. We’ve rounded up five different food-focused itineraries within a short drive of Raleigh, from an afternoon of Indian food to a weekend in one of our coolest burgeoning food cities.
12 miles from downtown Raleigh; one afternoon
Raleigh’s best-known exurb is not top-of-mind for most when it comes to planning a day trip. In fact, we know more than a few Raleighites who would scoff at the suggestion. But those willing to stable their high horse will discover that there’s way more to Cary than chain stores, particularly when it comes to food.
Those in the know head to East Chatham Street, where a constellation of Indian restaurants and shops cover much of that country’s cuisine, from the biryani of the Hyderabad to the vegetarian buffets of the South.
Start at Biryani Maxx Indian Cuisine, a humble canteen of a spot that opened last fall with a menu dedicated to the eponymous Hyderabadi rice dish. Lunchtime brings a packed house of RTP businesspeople and locals, many of whom opt for a thali – the traditional Indian version of a lunch tray – piled high with the lentil dish daal, naan bread, and the house specialty, biryani, a fragrant rice dish studded with vegetables and meat. The goat biryani in particular is rich, aromatic, and delightfully spicy.
Then head over to Patel Brothers, a grocery store where you can load up on Indian ingredients. Aisles lined with dozens of types of dry lentils, the clarified butter known as ghee, prepackaged samosa pastries, and more offer plenty of cooking inspiration.
For dinner, head to Sri Meenakshi Bhavan, a brand new restaurant that specializes in the vegetarian cuisine of South India. Freshly steamed idli (rice and lentil cakes), oversize, paper-thin lentil and rice crepes called dosas filled with spiced potatoes, and coconut-laden cauliflower korma (a typical Southern slow-braised sauce with yogurt) render meat completely unnecessary. Do not leave without ordering the mango lassi, a type of yogurt-based smoothie – simply the best we’ve ever had.
Finish your adventure at Mithai House of Indian Desserts, which stocks traditional Bengali sweets. Our suggestion: grab an assorted pack of cardamom-spiced cookie-like treats from the case and take it with you for the drive back.
38 miles from downtown Raleigh; one afternoon and evening
Sleepy, quaint, and just a short drive from Durham, Hillsborough is home to a thriving community of creatives, which, in turn, has fed a tight-knit food scene. In addition to its status as a destination-worthy dinner spot, the tiny town features an exceptional no-frills wing joint and the best Bloody Mary for miles.
You’ll find the latter at La Place Louisiana Cookery, worth the drive for brunch. One of the owners hails from Louisiana, and he pays homage to his origins with classics like boudin balls, po’ boys and red beans and rice. Back to that Bloody Mary: customize your own by choosing from three different mixes, plus garnishes that range from a run-of-the-mill celery stalk to a house-smoked oyster.
But don’t fill up, because you’ll want to sample the chicken wings (plus the holy trinity of fried things: pickles, tots, and fries) at The Wooden Nickel Pub next door. Crisp and fiery hot (if you order them “frickin’ nickel” style, like we did), these wings put the soggy bar snacks of your college years to shame.
Work off your morning meals with a stroll along the Riverwalk, nearly 2 miles of trail that winds along the Eno River. Then stop in at Restaurante Ixtapa, a family-run Mexican spot that makes everything, including their corn tortillas, from scratch. Resist the urge to order everything and settle for a sope (ground beef) or a lengua (tongue) taco, because you have one last meal ahead of you: Panciuto.
Far more ambitious than its location would suggest, Panciuto has some of the best Italian-inspired dishes in the area, thanks to chef Aaron Vandemark’s thoughtful approach to hyper-local ingredients. A fiery squid-ink spaghetti, for instance, is nestled around shrimp meatballs, locally foraged stinging nettles, and is doused in a pork broth; ricotta gnocchi co-mingles with grilled beet tops.
80 miles from downtown Raleigh; one full day
As recently as a decade ago, Kinston was the kind of town you’d drive through without even stopping for gum. But thanks to a few culinary-minded pioneers, Kinston has become a cultural capital of eastern North Carolina, drawing regional and national attention.
Vivian Howard and Ben Knight are at the epicenter of this change. The New York City-trained chef and her husband own Chef and the Farmer, an upmarket spot that celebrates the local growers with dishes like boiled peanut “risotto,” which is embraced by the smokiness of Benton’s bacon. Vivian has amplified her reach through her TV show, A Chef’s Life, which airs on PBS and spotlights the culinary community that she inhabits.
Plan ahead to make a reservation for dinner here; or, if you can’t get a table, head to Vivian’s second project, Boiler Room Oyster Bar. It features exceptionally delicious burgers and steamed, fresh-from-the-coast seafood.
But arrive early for a BBQ lunch at Kings Restaurant’s flagship location and try the signature dish, the Pig in a Puppy. This gargantuan special updates the classic pulled pork sandwich by ditching the white bread and stuffing hand-chopped pork barbecue into an oversize hushpuppy.
Digest that behemoth with the help of a beer at Mother Earth Brewing, then take a tour of their impressively eco-conscious facilities. Solar panels power the place, while rainwater is collected in a cistern to be reused.
133 miles from downtown Raleigh; one weekend
The primary draw of this waterfront town is the beach, of course. It’s a fact that has kept Wilmington’s food scene somewhat stagnant, since longstanding seafood shacks with oceanfront views can detract attention away from out-of-date menus (we’re looking at you, over-breaded calamari with cocktail sauce). But the tide might be slowly shifting, with a few new options for exactly the type of beach food we crave: fresh, ingredient-driven, and delicious.
Blue Surf Cafe, an all-day spot that opened almost 2 years ago, certainly fits that bill. Think breakfast sandwiches with feta and arugula, spinach salad with roasted tomato vinaigrette, and mojo pork with coconut rice.
Then there’s Rx Restaurant and Bar, which has raised the dinner bar with dishes like pan-roasted quail with johnnycakes, or local triggerfish over split pea risotto. The chef, James Doss, is an alumnus of Sean Brock’s Husk in Charleston, and his devotion to using pristine ingredients shines through the ever-changing menu.
Those who’d prefer to cook their own dinner should head to Seaview Crab Company, a seafood purveyor with multiple locations, slinging crab, fish, and shellfish just hours out of the water. The last time we were there, the coolers were stocked with North Carolina tilefish, monkfish, and royal red shrimp.
Don’t pack up your beach chairs without a final cocktail at King Neptune Restaurant. Yes, it’s pirate-themed, and yes, there’s that calamari we railed against, but the drinks are strong and the ambiance reminds you that you’re on a vacation.
264 miles from downtown Raleigh; one weekend
This South Carolina city is in the middle of a metamorphosis, stepping out of Charleston’s shadow to find its own cultural footing. The city’s Main Street is a beauty, encompassing a 40-foot waterfall and plenty of high-end boutiques. A spate of new restaurants have opened in the last two years and many more are slated for the next two, making this leafy, pedestrian-friendly place a city to watch.
Kick off your day with an expertly rendered cappuccino at the just-opened The Village Grind. The design is as exquisite as the coffee, with blonde wood paneling the walls and deeply colored rugs anchoring a handful of chairs scattered around the room.
Passerelle Bistro harnesses the magic of French cooking with a loyally bistro-centric menu. Beautifully composed salads make use of local ingredients, while classic French dishes like cassoulet are given Southern context, swapping white beans for locally available limas.
For a postprandial drink, take to the roof at SIP Tasting Room and Rooftop Lounge, an alfresco wine bar that also features pitcher cocktails and beer. Lounge on one of the outdoor couches for excellent people-watching.
And before you head to bed, visit the new late-night taco takeout window, Ventana Magica. Open from 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. on the weekends, this casual outpost is quickly garnering a following for chile con queso nachos loaded with pickled onions, chipotle-lime sour cream, and cilantro.