by Dean McCord
photographs by Chris Fowler
The sun pours into a quiet, nearly empty space on North Blount Street on a November afternoon as four men in their 30s sit around a table reflecting on how they managed to launch the hottest restaurant in Raleigh in a decade – the hottest one not owned by Ashley Christensen, anyway.
The immediate success of Stanbury, the ambitious new restaurant that opened in September in the space of the former Market restaurant, should surprise no one. Fantastic food, unpretentious surroundings, and a unique Raleigh vibe make for a potent combination. With a recent four-star review from The News & Observer’s Greg Cox, Stanbury is constantly packed, already boasting a cast of regulars. It’s all the result of three college classmates joining forces with a local bartender/chef. It’s about jumping at an opportunity at just the right time, and restaurant’s embracing a neighborhood – and the neighborhood’s hugging it right back.
Stanbury’s popularity can certainly be tied to its food, but a lot of the restaurant’s charm comes from its simplicity. The décor is cinder-block quirky. A stuffed bobcat, a stencil of Yoda, and vintage photos all play a role. John T. Edge, executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, compares the woodwork over the kitchen to a Swedish sauna, “but with a ‘Where’s Waldo’ ” element – tiny figurines hide in the carpentry. Dress down, dress up – Stanbury is a funky, welcoming place – but call a week ahead if you want a reservation.
The menu, which changes daily, is mostly small plates (generous ones) and a handful of larger, traditional-sized entrees. The chef is not afraid of offal. Sweetbreads and pig’s head are on offer, but the menu is also accessible, with options like tagliatelle, seared striped bass, and “an absolutely flawless grilled rib-eye,” in Cox’s words.
The food is not fussy. It’s honest, skilled cooking by Drew Maykuth, a chef who has learned the ropes the hard way.
“I was trying to find the right balance between rough and refined,” Maykuth says. “Where people could feel comfortable, yet get a great meal. I always thought this concept was solid, but still, when we opened the door, we wondered if we would get a customer.”
Getting customers has not been a problem. Getting a reservation is another matter. “It’s remarkable that someone has come here from out of town and hit it out of the park,” says local food writer Jill Warren Lucas.
The Stanbury four are working so hard, they may be the last to know about their home run. “We’re acting like chickens with our heads cut off, we’re so busy,” says partner Will Jeffers. “But we don’t really see what we’ve done as a big success; we’re so close to it, we don’t really see it.”
They’re close to their work, and they’re close to each another.
Maykuth, 33, has known partners Will Jeffers, 31, the group’s visionary, and Jeffers’ younger brother Joseph, 30, whom they all call “the glue,” since the three were classmates at Warren Wilson College in Asheville. The Jeffers brothers had no restaurant experience before Stanbury, and Maykuth had never opened a place of his own. So 31-year-old Andrew Shepherd became the fourth member of the team, adding culinary and beverage expertise.
It all started when Maykuth realized he was tired. After four years cooking at Asheville’s acclaimed restaurant The Admiral, he knew it was time to move on. He had started cooking at 15 in a small town in Ohio and worked odd jobs in various kitchens after college, including a three-month stint on a yacht in Guatemala. He traveled through Venezuela, and eventually followed a girl to a commune of some sort in Nashville where he learned to forage for chanterelle mushrooms.
One of his customers was chef Sean Brock, then heading up the restaurant at the deluxe Nashville hotel The Hermitage and just starting to make a name for himself. Brock invited Maykuth to join his culinary team – and changed his life in the process. Maykuth began to truly focus on food, learning new techniques, and refining his skills.
When Brock left Nashville, Maykuth moved to Asheville and became assistant chef at a cinder block dive bar called The Admiral. Then he and co-chef Elliott Moss turned the place into the city’s unlikeliest, hottest restaurant: A nondescript space with a magic touch for farm-to-fork food.
About four years on, Maykuth realized he was ready to make another move. The wanderlust of his youth was kicking in. “The excitement and energy was starting to fizzle out,” Maykuth says. And his old college buddy Will Jeffers knew exactly what Maykuth needed to do: move to Raleigh.
Will Jeffers, 31, is not easily ignored. Everything about him is big. He has a linebacker’s build and aspirations to match. He takes on big projects, mostly in construction (until now). But his voice is quiet. When Will Jeffers talks, you listen.
When he told his former college classmate to come to Raleigh, Maykuth listened. Though he had no job waiting for him here, not even a line cook position, Maykuth was willing to take the leap, even tiling bathrooms and doing odd jobs to get by, because Will Jeffers had a plan Maykuth believed in. A big plan.
That plan crystallized after a near-death experience. On a day no different than any other on the farm near Asheville where he worked, growing food to sell to Maykuth and the Admiral, Will had flipped his large tractor. His injuries nearly killed him, leaving him home-bound and out of work for nearly a year. He passed the time with lots of physical therapy and his own form of mental health: watching the Food Network. Incessantly. He realized that he wanted to return to his hometown of Raleigh and somehow, some way, get into the food business. He didn’t know how, and he had no culinary experience. But he knew someone who did: Maykuth.
The what, when, and the where came together in Raleigh as the two ate brunch at Market one Sunday in March 2013, which happened to be the final brunch Market chef Chad McIntyre served before closing his restaurant.
McIntyre knew of Maykuth and his time at The Admiral, so he asked, casually, if he wanted to buy the restaurant. Maykuth did not need much convincing. That night, Will Jeffers and Maykuth agreed with McIntyre on the terms to buy the establishment that would become Stanbury. Then Will called his younger brother, Joseph, who was doing scrap metal salvage work on the waterways around Wilmington, to tell him of their plans. The next day, Joseph gave his two weeks notice. His days of salvage work were over.
Joseph Jeffers will grab your attention. Red hair. Red beard. A flurry of activity, an eye for detail. The way Stanbury looks is his work. “Joe is our Martha Stewart,” Maykuth says. “None of us have owned a restaurant before, and we need someone like him.”
No one expected that Joseph would name the restaurant, too. During his final days in the scrap-metal salvage business, Joseph Jeffers was walking through a junkyard, which was sorted into piles of different types of detritus. With his keen eye, Joseph noticed something unusual: partially buried under a heap of gun parts – rifle barrels and stocks, magazines and trigger guards – was a glimmer of rectangular green: a street sign. It read “STANBURY RD.” He knew he had the name of the restaurant.
Stanbury’s fourth partner, Andrew Shepherd, did not go to Warren Wilson. He is not from Raleigh and is not related to the Jeffers brothers. His story is a bit more traditional. A culinary school graduate, Shepherd was one of the partners who opened Foundation, Raleigh’s first craft cocktail bar, five years ago. Like the other members of the Stanbury team, Shepherd had gotten antsy. He wanted to cook again.
For the past couple of years, as a frequent customer of Escazu Artisan Chocolate, Shepherd had admired the space next door, Market Restaurant. He thought he could see himself cooking in that space. But the timing hadn’t been right. Then he saw a sign on the window announcing the opening of Stanbury and its tentative menu. He walked in and introduced himself to Maykuth.
Stanbury’s fourth partner, the one with the necessary knowledge of food and beverages, had arrived.
The Jeffers brothers and Maykuth did much of the renovation themselves last summer. Maykuth’s handyman skills, Will Jeffers’ time in construction, and Joseph Jeffers’ design and metalworking skills all played a role. Maykuth and Shepherd worked on the food and beverages.
It was starting to come together, but they still didn’t know how the community, the neighborhood, would accept Stanbury. Or if it would accept them.
So instead of waiting for the neighborhood to come to them, they reached out to the neighborhood. As the restaurant was taking shape, the four hosted a goat roast, sending email invitations to as many people as they could in the surrounding Mordecai area. More than 300 people showed up.
It was a good indicator, but they were still uncertain as the official opening date approached. “Seriously, when we opened the door on that day in early September, we really wondered if we would ever get a customer,” Will Jeffers says.
His concerns were quickly allayed. They came, and they’re still coming. With Maykuth in the kitchen, Joseph Jeffers at the bar, and Shepherd in both, Will Jeffers is making the trains run on time. It’s all working.
Lekita Essa is one regular who’s grateful that’s the case. She lives blocks away and eats at Stanbury at least once a week. “This neighborhood is growing, and it’s great to see a restaurant that focuses on local sourcing open up,” she says. Not only does Stanbury believe in using ingredients from local growers and purveyors, they believe in helping out other food producers in their neighborhood. The artisan chocolate from next-door neighbor Escazu features in Stanbury desserts, and guests typically receive a small tile of it with their checks.
It’s a sweet and fitting capstone to a local gamble that has hit a local jackpot. Like most lottery winners, the four men holding the winning ticket are still letting it sink in. “It’s surreal,” Shepherd says. “I ask myself, ‘Wait, I own a restaurant?’ ”
Stanbury’s Krispy Kreme bread pudding
Taking the “love thy neighbor” approach to heart, Stanbury chef Drew Maykuth has incorporated Krispy Kreme donuts (made fresh and hot a few blocks south) into a bread pudding.
“It’s essentially a crème brûlée base, wrapped around donuts,” Maykuth says. “Our customers love it, and it’s very simple.”
18 glazed Krispy Kreme donuts
2 cups heavy whipping cream
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Chop each donut into eight to 12 pieces and put in a buttered 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Bring cream to boil and set aside. Whisk sugar and salt with egg yolks until the sugar is fully incorporated and the eggs take on a light yellow color.
Very slowly pour the hot cream into egg mixture, a little at a time, stirring constantly, so as not to cook the eggs.
Pour the mixture through a strainer, and pour the strained mixture over donuts.
Toss the donuts to incorporate the custard mix, cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees. Remove the foil after 20 minutes, then continue baking another 15 to 20 minutes until the top has browned a bit and the pudding has set. When the pudding is lightly shaken, it should move together, and all liquid should be gone. Remove the pudding from the oven and cool for at least 30 minutes.
Stanbury often serves the bread pudding with coffee ice cream, whipped cream, and something crunchy, like chopped, chocolate-covered espresso beans. Seasonal berries are also a good complement.