Winston-Salem’s quirky, sophisticated food scene
words and photographs by Laura White
Once upon a time, if you had said to me, “I’m going to Winston-Salem,” I would have reacted incredulously. Conjuring tobacco, Moravian culture, and the fond if fuzzy memory of a college night spent at the former indie music venue Ziggy’s, I had a limited handful of constrictive clichés about the city 100 miles west of Raleigh. Recently, I decided to give the place a chance to speak for itself. After a few days exploring the Twin City, as it’s often called, and eating, eating, and eating (OK, there were cocktails and coffee, too), I’d like to issue a formal apology. Gone are the clichés. Food destination is now first and foremost on the list of how I describe Winston-Salem.
At just under two hours away from Raleigh, or one-and-a-half if you drive like I do, Winston-Salem is a quick and easy jaunt. I started my recent visit a bit outside of the main drag downtown, in the West End. What began as a streetcar suburb at the turn of the century still retains much of its original charm, and this national historic district, while primarily residential, is also home to a number of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and retail spaces stacked on gentle hills along meandering streets.
In search of lunch, I snagged a parking spot just outside of Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro, a West End fixture since 2008, and hurried inside. It was intimate and inviting, which I would find to be true of many places in Camel City (another one of its monikers). Time and again, I experienced an equally intimate and inviting culinary community. Light poured in through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the cheery space. I was starving, and this place was high on every list of recommendations I’d gotten from friends. As I began to look over the menu I could see why. Owner Jennifer Smith and chef Matt Haithcock have nailed the whole upscale Southern dining in a casual environment thing, offering a well-crafted, mouthwatering menu that sources from local farms.
Their tomato pie caught my eye, and when it was described by my server as a mix between a pot pie and a pizza, I pounced. At lunch it’s usually served with creamed succotash, and at dinner and brunch with cheese grits, but I opted to sub those for their spicy collards with bacon. When the tomato pie came out, it truly did look like a little slice of pizza pot pie. It was full of hot, melty cheese with a crispy, flaky crust. The collards were something to write home about, and as a born and bred Southerner, I’m picky about my collards. I polished it all off in no time and snuggled back into my barstool, sipping a small pour of Belle Glos pinot noir, thoroughly satisfied. While chatting up one of the servers, he laughed, “All we have to do in this town is drink and eat and do art.” “Sounds like a good life to me,” Aaron, one of the cooks, quipped with a wink. He also bounces at Bar Piña, a new spot off Trade Street that has quickly become a local favorite, with a perfectly over-the-top vibe and a rooftop patio to boot.
About a six-minute drive from the West End down 4th Street is the city’s first luxury boutique hotel, the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel. It opened in April 2016, and lucky me, it was my digs for the evening. Housed in the historic R.J. Reynolds Building, a 314-foot Art Deco skyscraper (be still my heart!), it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and – fun fact – was the muse for New York’s Empire State Building. Once headquarters to the tobacco empire, stepping through the revolving doors was like taking a step back in time: polished marble glistened, and the restored brass elevator doors clicked open and closed beneath gold-leaf gilded ceilings. All I wanted to do was play in the giant rec center in the basement, complete with a bowling alley, basketball court, pool table, and slide (that’s right, a two-story slide) but I had a date at Old Salem with Darlee Snyder, director of education and outreach, to explore Moravian culinary traditions.
We wandered around Old Salem, stopping in at a number of the historic sites and learning about the gardens and historic cooking techniques they still use, such as Winkler Bakery’s dome oven, still heated with wood just as it was nearly 200 years ago; and the secret to traditional German-style Springerle cookies, made with lemon and anise and pressed into wooden molds. For your own taste of this history, make sure to stop by the Tavern in Old Salem.
Back downtown, I embarked on a self-made evening walking tour, beginning at Tate’s, the first craft cocktail spot in the city. There, soft white lights strung across the ceiling illuminate a wall full of shelves bearing bottles upon bottles of everything one could imagine or desire, and more amaros than I even realized existed. The cocktail menu is playful, with some surprising combinations, like the Surfer on Acid with coconut rum, Montenegro amaro, fresh pineapple and lime juice, angostura bitters, and Jagermeister. I started with the house hot toddy (vanilla, lemon, rooibos tea, and whiskey) before moving on to their Hey Dude, an old-fashioned-style cocktail with Eagle Rare bourbon, Averna amaro, Cardamaro, Demarara sugar, and root beer essence. I considered having another drink but managed to drag myself away for a bite at Mission Pizza, just down Trade Street.
Located in the Arts District, Mission Pizza Napoletana is North Carolina’s first Napoletana, or Neopolitan, pizzeria, meaning this crew’s mission is to honor the centuries of pizza-makers from the birthplace of pizza: Naples, Italy. For owner Peyton Smith, Mission was a six-year labor of love that finally came to fruition in 2014. What started as Forno Moto, a mobile wood-fired pizza oven, has become a favorite brick-and-mortar in Winston, with a monstrous handmade Stefano Ferrara oven holding court in the center of an open, modern space. The oven fires at 1000 degrees and cooks the pizzas in 90 seconds, leaving a lovely char on the blistered crust.
“Best eaten while hot. Dilly dallying is discouraged,” the menu chides. You don’t have to tell me twice. I opted for a white pizza, the “Funghi,” loaded with crimini and shiitake mushrooms, fresh and smoked mozzarella, garlic, Parmigiano, and thyme. The crust was absolutely divine: light and flaky on the outside, soft and still a bit gooey on the inside. I polished off the 12-inch pizza on my own in no time, along with a juicy, earthy glass of Santi Valpolicella Ripasso DOC.
Leaving Mission, it was back to the hotel to gussy up for a second dinner (because, why not?). I had a reservation at the Katharine Brasserie & Bar, the restaurant and craft cocktail bar inside of the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel. The restaurant is named for R.J. Reynold’s wife, known for her philanthropic work pushing for social reforms in the tobacco factory, and for her vision and role in the design and construction of their elaborate family estate, Reynolda House, which is just down the road and now the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. The construction of the house took eight years; it celebrated its centennial in December 2017, and in addition to the beautiful home it is well-known for its gardens and greenhouses. (A quick aside: if you’re headed out to visit the museum and gardens – which I highly recommend, phytomaniac that I am – there are two spots where I suggest you grab a nearby bite to eat: Dioli’s Italian Market for solid sandwiches or homemade zeppoles; and practically next-door Village Tavern, where the house-made potato chips are heavenly.)
Back to the Katharine. It isn’t just the namesake that’s impressive. Located on the first floor of the R.J. Reynolds building, the restaurant is Art Deco inspired and at once masculine and feminine. Intricate metal scrollwork adorns the walls, recessed lighting in the curved ceiling gives it a romantic glow, and white marble slabs rest atop heavy iron table bases. The bar is a whole other beast, a half-step down from the restaurant, and with its scalloped white tile floor, brown leather bar stools, and dark wood paneling, it feels a bit like walking into an executive boardroom from a bygone era.
The menu reflects executive chef Adam Barnett’s experience working in French bistros and brasseries. French and Southern staples are good neighbors, borrowing and lending a bit here and there. There’s the cotelette de porc topped with a crispy fried onion ring, and the shrimp-and-grits with spicy chorizo and peppers basquaise, or the Carolina rainbow trout grenobloise: a North Carolina mountain fish cooked in a style literally “of Grenoble,” a city situated at the foot of the French alps. Since it was Friday, and their plat du jour was a bouillabaisse with halibut, mussels, shrimp, carrots, and fingerling potatoes, there was really no question what I’d be having for the main course. What is there to say about this dish? Simply this: make a reservation for a Friday night. Go eat it.
At this point I was stuffed to the gills, Violet Beaureguarde status. With the promise of an oversized king bed mere moments away, I decided to end the evening on a high note, ride that brass elevator up to the fourth floor, and call it a night.
The next morning, I made my way down to Camino, a coffee shop off 4th Street, for a wake-up call, then headed back to the Arts District. I’d heard Mary’s Gourmet Diner served the best breakfast in town, and I intended to find out. What Mary Haglund opened as Mary’s Of Course in 2000 quickly outgrew its original space, and in 2010 it reopened as Mary’s Gourmet Diner in a beautiful old bank building. Hand-painted murals adorn the walls and ceilings, and work by local artists is everywhere. Though tempted by the “gritz” bowls, with options like the down-home gritz (with jalapeno pimento cheese, eggs, and country ham), a split-grilled biscuit covered with pork gravy was just the thing for me. I still got a healthy helping of grits, too: They came served on the side in a full-sized mug, absolutely smothered in cheese.
Only a block down from Mary’s was my next stop, Sweet Potatoes (Well Shut My Mouth!). Owners Vivian Joiner and chef Stephanie Tyson opened the restaurant in 2003, and since then it has become a culinary mainstay. Sweet potatoes star in a number of the dishes, from biscuits to sandwich rolls, and I was tempted by more than a couple of menu items, like the fried bologna sandwich with pimento cheese, and the PBJ, a fried porkchop with peanut butter and banana aioli topped with bacon, cheddar, and tomato jam. But because I’m always on the hunt for the best fried chicken sandwich in America, I gave theirs a go. The Mambo Chicken is a wonderful hot mess, with a fried chicken breast atop a sweet potato roll slathered with coleslaw and served with a side of their spicy Mambo sauce. I dumped the sauce on the sandwich and dug in. With each bite, juice dripped down my hands and onto the bartop, and I was soon out of napkins and licking my fingers right there in front of God and everybody. The bartender quickly brought me a thick stack of extra napkins, laughing. The fried chicken was standout. It’s
no wonder, then, that last July, Joiner and Tyson opened a walk-in, counter-service chicken spot next-door to Sweet Potatoes.
Miss Ora’s Kitchen, named for Tyson’s late grandmother, uses her fried chicken recipe – which is different, I discover, than the recipe they use at Sweet Potatoes. It has limited counter seating and a limited menu, but a whole heck of a lot of charm. A leg or a thigh is $2.25, a breast $3.99, and they’re all pan-fried while you wait in a huge cast iron skillet sizzling on the stovetop. While waiting for my order, a woman in line told me, “It’ll be the best fried chicken you’ve ever had.” She wasn’t wrong, and the recipe reminded me a bit of my own grandmother’s, taking me back to childhoods of Sunday suppers in Eastern North Carolina.
I managed many snacks during my time in Winston-Salem. For a quick bite, hit Skippy’s. Hot dogs at this joint are served on pretzel rolls and are, if you’re a hot dog person, an actual dream come true. For a treat, try Black Mountain Chocolate. I’m a fan of their 53-percent goat’s milk bar, made right there in the building. Or if you like your treats in liquid form, just next-door is Broad Branch, a grain-to-glass distillery specializing in North Carolina whiskey.
No trip to the Twin City is complete without a stop at Foothills Brewery, one of the state’s first and largest craft breweries. There are two locations, but the popular brewpub is downtown in what was once a car dealership. It opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 2005 and builds on a city tradition: the first documented commercial brewery in North Carolina was at the Single Brothers’ House in Old Salem, just down the road.
As I sat at the bar sipping my Frostbite IPA, which my bartender described as being “like a porter and an IPA had a baby,” I began to think of this whole trip as divine providence. Maybe it was just the beer talking, and maybe Benjamin Franklin didn’t actually say it, but I’m pretty sure the Single Brothers of days gone by would agree that beer is in fact proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. At 6.2-percent alcohol-by-volume and only $1.50 for a 6-ounce pour, I was happy, anyway.
In honor of those unmarried Moravian men, I decided to have one last drink at their namesake bar back in the Arts District. Tucked onto the end of the Tobacco Soho Building, which was home to a weekly newspaper in a past life, Single Brothers is an intimate watering hole for all manner of locals, with craft cocktails and plenty of people-watching on the expansive covered patio.
Reluctantly, I downed my drink and stepped back out into the world. The sun was setting, and the streets had come alive. The Arts District was full of people walking, headed to restaurants and bars. The wind whipped around me, and the tinkling of wind chimes hanging from the lamp posts along Trade Street filled the air. It mingled with the music piped out from the radio station next door, and the whole block felt surreal and magical, a scene from some intellectual indie film, complete with a soundtrack, in the last glimmer of late afternoon.
To fuel the drive back home I swung by Krankies Cafe. What started as a coffee shop has now added a full-service restaurant to the mix. Thankfully, they’re still roasting their own beans in the 3rd Street spot, just off the train tracks near downtown. As I waited for a latte at the bar I could hear a song by one of my favorite Raleigh-tied bands, Future Islands, playing just below the din of patrons laughing and glasses clinking: People change … I’ve been waiting on you, I’ve been waiting on you.
It seems for Winston-Salem, that wait is over. This former tobacco town has forged a name for itself in the culinary scene and is more than worth the quick drive out. Give yourself even a full weekend, and you’ll be left wanting more.