What is the future of dining out?
Almost two years after the coronavirus pandemic, diners are more used to browsing menus on their phones, displaying vaccine cards and reheating takeout. Now, the choice of where to exit includes a new option: whether to exit or not. We explore how COVID has reshaped food, what eating out looks and feels like, and how the famous Triangle food scene progresses. Plus, we’ll tell you which new restaurants – and foods – are drool-worthy.
Low and slow. Firm as she goes.
Barbecue believers know these things to be true, that patience and heat can turn a 20-pound piece of meat into a smoked masterpiece.
Before the pandemic, a rising tide of Triangle barbecue restaurants seemed to usher in a new heyday for the state’s most famous food. Things slowed down a bit due to COVID, and some restaurant plans are still cooking.
But the promise of barbecue glory remains. This new generation of Triangle pitmasters spans the entire culinary gamut, bringing together backgrounds from fine dining, competitive grilling, self-taught craftsmanship, and lifelong immersion.
At the top of the class is Chris Prieto, whose Prime BBQ opened in Knightdale in May 2020 after two years of construction. May 2020 was not an ideal time to open a dream restaurant, to build a dining room with large communal tables and space for a cutting line, only to debut in takeout boxes.
But Prime succeeded and emerged as one of the most talked about restaurants to open since the pandemic.
There wasn’t much of a line culture in North Carolina barbecue, but that’s changing. Every day a line forms before the door opens, and every day Prime sells outside the barbecue, Prieto said. On the weekends, the line starts three or four before the doors open, and if it wraps up the building, Prime hands out free beer.
Hailing from Texas, it’s no wonder Prime specializes in brisket. But the modern barbecue order isn’t a plate, it’s a platter, filled with ribs and pulled pork and homemade sausage. Prieto said variety is the expectation these days, along with dining and service that rivals most restaurants. Anything less, he believes, is stuck in the past.
“I think we’ve changed it,” Prieto said of barbecue in North Carolina. “There is a new generation of what a barbecue restaurant is and you can’t do it the old-fashioned way anymore. It would be like using a flip phone or an old pair of shoes. “
Perhaps the biggest adopter of the no-rules mindset of modern barbecue is Jake Wood, who left fine dining restaurants to open Lawrence BBQ in Durham’s Boxyard RTP development. Lawrence serves a menu featuring North Carolina oysters, roasted and raw, and specialties like birria breast tacos, which became so popular that they began to take over the flat surface of the kitchen. The upstairs Lagoon bar combines island vibes with barbecue. You wonder if smoked meats were ever so much fun.
Wood says the continued rise in food costs means that today’s barbecue has to be eye-catching, with gleaming subway tile walls and embracing modern tastes. The menu may still reflect North Carolina, Wood said, but with a different side.
“We have begun to bring back the image of the North Carolina barbecue,” Wood said. “Mom and Dad, on the side of the joint highway where you pay $ 5 for a huge plate of food, I have a soft spot for that, but those days are gone.”
Sam Jones BBQ
Sam Jones is one of America’s leading torchbearers for whole pork barbecue. His barbecue lineage connects the iconic Skylight Inn in Ayden, founded by his grandfather Pete Jones, with the trends of today, where pitmasters are the stars of the moment in the restaurant world.
Jones opened Sam Jones BBQ in downtown Raleigh last year, a restaurant dedicated to the old ways of minced whole barbecue and crispy skin that appreciates where the barbecue has been and where it is going.
“It’s a fucking diamond,” Jones said of Skylight, a 75-year-old restaurant with a silver dome on top, a pile of wood in the back and a James Beard medal hanging in the dining room.
Jones himself has propelled North Carolina barbecue in a new direction, adding a full bar to his downtown restaurant, a formidable cheeseburger, and a barbecued stuffed baked potato. Jones said it’s a new world, but setting up a new barbecue facility doesn’t happen overnight.
“I don’t think any town is going to replace all the places that dot the countryside in North Carolina,” Jones said. “You can’t replace the experience of driving to Dudley and eating at Grady’s or going into Skylight and hearing the blades bang.”
Big Belly What
Big Belly Que is former “Top Chef” contestant Garrett Fleming’s barbecue project, which has been part of the Blue Dogwood Public Market in Chapel Hill for two years.
Next year, Big Belly Que will be moving into its own larger space, planning a counter-service restaurant further down Franklin Street, but with the same wood-smoked menu.
The first Redneck barbecue lab opened at a gas station off Interstate 40 in Johnston County. Owner Jerry Stephenson’s future plans are a bit grander, starting with a slightly trimmed new BBQ Lab opening in North Hills. That restaurant is scheduled to open in the spring.
For those who think North Carolina might be falling behind Texas in the barbecue arms race, Stephenson says take another look.
“People underestimate how good North Carolina barbecue is,” said Stephenson, who came to the barbecue thanks to the success of the competition with her sister Roxanne Manley. “You can fly to RDU and in a two hour drive I’ll take you to 30 of the best restaurants you’ve been to. In Texas, it would take a 24-hour drive to get to all the good restaurants. “
Stephenson hopes to build his own barbecue destination after purchasing land in Johnston County. He said that project is months away, but refers to it as “The Redneck Biltmore.”
Starting as a pop-up trailer and planned as a narrow barbeque bar in a food hall, Longleaf Swine has grown into one of Raleigh’s most anticipated openings for 2022.
Adam Cunningham and Marc Russell bought the old Oakwood Cafe space on Person Street in downtown Raleigh and plan to build a restaurant that is both indoor and outdoor space, and both dining and barbecue.
Longleaf Swine will open for lunch, with a cutting line serving pulled pork, beef and pork brisket and ribs. In the evenings, it will turn into a restaurant, with Raleigh’s famous smashburgers, fried chicken sandwiches, and late-night poutine.
The project was delayed a year, surviving as a nomad, popping up in downtown Raleigh bars. Cunningham hopes to open now in late spring. He believes that there is still a lot of life at this barbecue moment.
“The more barbecue the better,” Cunningham said. “This should be the barbecue capital of the world.”
Ed Mitchell and his son Ryan, two of the nation’s most renowned steakhouses, planned to open their first restaurant in years, The Preserve, with the backing of LM Restaurants.
But that project is now on hold while the Mitchells work on a new cookbook and a new television series, Ryan said earlier this year.
Picnic’s Wyatt Dickson had planned to open Wyatt’s in Raleigh, bringing his name and brand of pork barbecue to the big city. But that project has been canceled for now.
This story was originally published December 19, 2021 6:00 AM.