When it comes to Southern food, generally comfort cooking and barbecue are the most obvious options. But for those willing to expand their minds and palates, Raleigh is a treasure trove of world cuisine from Asian fusion to Persian ice cream.
Here’s where to get your culinary passport stamped in North Carolina’s capital city.
In 2008 downtown Raleigh had few restaurants other than the old-timers like Mecca (serving diner-style favorites since 1930) and pioneers like the Raleigh Times Bar (a then-new and now classic establishment in a 100-year-old building). Enter Sitti, an elegant corner bistro serving authentic Lebanese food — quite the departure from burgers and barbecue.
The restaurant’s quick and continued success may be due to the experience and recipes brought to Sitti from the owners of Neomonde, a Mediterranean café and deli baking bread and tossing fresh salads in Raleigh for 40 years.
Vintage photographs of the owners’ grandmothers (the eponymous “sittis”) overlook diners sharing mezze of avocado hummus and refreshing cucumber-yogurt dip called Laban bi Khiar before moving onto marinated lamb chops and tahini-topped salmon. Cocktails like the Beirut Betty and Za’atar-spiced Paloma are mixed at the art deco bar, and the centerpiece communal table is made from Lebanese cedar.
Purists may take issue with Garland, as its menu blends Indian, Moroccan (with a dash of Brazilian, Italian, etc.) and various Asian dishes, but it does justice to local ingredients in a way that surprises and satisfies many tastes.
Moroccan-style lamb sausage is meant to be dipped in Indian- and Southern-flavored mustards, Korean tteokbokki rice cakes are rolled in-house, and sweet North Carolina corn cakes are topped with a tandoori-style onion-and-fennel compote and local greens.
Chef Cheetie Kumar is a straight-up rock star — in and out of the kitchen — as she plays guitar for local psychedelic rock band Birds of Avalon. Kumar also runs the attached Kings bar and underground Neptune’s Parlour (where she also masterminds the craft cocktail list) with her husband and bandmate, Paul Siler.
Another downtown favorite, Bida Manda is a familial labor of love with roots stretching all the way to Laos. Opened by a brother-and-sister team sent to America for a better life, they named it Bida Manda for the Sanskit “father and mother” and built the chic decor with reclaimed wood and a bamboo-like wall of North Carolina sticks.
Adventurous foodies were enthusiastic early adopters of this southeast Asian restaurant, which now consistently tops “best of” lists for not only the city of Raleigh, but the whole country.
The menu changes seasonally, but standouts may include a crunchy, coconut rice lettuce wrap; a traditional Laotian larb with chicken liver and gizzard; and a papaya salad with sea bass in a spicy lime sauce.
In early 2017 they added Brewery Bhavana next door. Combining craft beer with dim sum, a flower shop and a bookstore, Bhavana is already racking up acclaim like its sister restaurant, proving it’s all in the family.
While the menu is generally standard American breakfast and lunch dishes, Carroll’s Kitchen is likely the only place in the Triangle where you can get a kolache with your tomato-basil soup. A kolache is a traditional Central European pastry, somewhat like an empanada, originating in the Czech Republic and Slovakia as a wedding treat.
In Raleigh it can be filled with spinach and feta or apple butter and brie (to name a few options) and eaten after a breakfast sandwich or salad from this downtown, takeout-only spot.
What makes Carroll’s truly special is its social mission: The restaurant is a nonprofit enterprise, employing homeless women and empowering them through job training and life skills and housing assistance. Helping end the cycle of homelessness is a cause to celebrate in any language.
In an unassuming suburban location between downtown and RDU airport, Flame Kabob serves Mediterranean food with a Persian twist.
The menu of grilled meat kabobs (all halal) and rice dishes is accented with traditional recipes from Iran, such as Khoresht-e-Gormeh Sabzi, a flavorful herb, meat, and bean stew, and Ash-e-Reshteh, a vegetarian noodle soup topped with whey and often made for Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
Save room to taste saffron ice cream made with rose water and cardamom. The food is authentic enough to satisfy Iranian visitors to Raleigh while also appealing to Western tastes.
Should your stomach still have wanderlust, Raleigh is also home to empanadas (Calavera), Ethiopian (Abyssinia), Greek (Taverna Agora), Peruvian chicken (Mami Nora’s and its related Alpaca restaurants) and Venezulan arepas (Guasaca), to name a few.