It did not have to be this way. In early April, it became apparent that restaurants—reliant on foot traffic, mingling, and all the intimate, communal elements of public life that we’ve had to give up this year—were going to suffer during the pandemic.
We bought gift cards and T-shirts. We pledged to get takeout. But without federal and municipal relief, it was always going to be impossible for restaurants to continue to pay overhead costs and make payroll. And so we’ve watched our cities get rewritten in real time.
Months later, as the year draws to a close, we want to recognize some of the establishments we’ve loved and lost—restaurants that will not be around in the new year. Some of these were places we worked at, and some of them were ones we went to after work—sliding into dark, cool bar seats to hug one another. Some were iconic, family-owned spots that had been around for decades, while others were promising restaurants just getting their start.
We will miss and mourn them. But losing restaurants—and the livelihoods and legacies that come with them—is not an unalterable outcome. As we move into 2021, we hope that rent relief and federal help are just around the corner, and that it will not be too late to save the remaining places we love.
A staple of downtown Raleigh, the cozy, family-owned Oakwood Cafe closed its doors in May, after 21 years in business. The restaurant served popular Cuban and Argentine cuisine—catfish with rice and beans, picadillo and ropa vieja, yucca, pork sandwiches—and was known as a dimly lit, intimate lunchtime hideaway with the best hot sauce in the capital city. Its closure was directly tied to the pandemic: Business had been fine prior to the virus, owner Norberto Meccia told the INDY in May, but sales had dropped by 80 percent. “Downtown is dead,” Meccia said. —Sarah Edwards
This summer, numerous K&Ws shuttered, leaving only one left in Raleigh. It is no surprise that a regional restaurant chain that relies on an ardent retiree fan base and an especially communal type of dining would be hard-hit by a pandemic. But when I began to report out a story on the closures in September, it became clear that the loyalty people feel is about more than just cafeteria-style dining and plates of jello. My inbox brimmed with stories about after-church lunches with grandparents and solitary late-night dinners, as readers considered not only childhood memories but the loss of a taste of home. “I really worry about all the folks that worked there and all the folks for whom it was one of the few affordable places in town to eat,” University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill librarian Aaron Smithers told me. “It was a place for folks to come together for comfort food and comfort in each other.” —SE
To aspire to elevate Raleigh’s already notoriously robust restaurant scene is a dangerous game, especially when you give yourself a name like High Horse. But celebrity chef, Katsuji Tanabe, who has appeared on Top Chef and Chopped, didn’t want to add another bourgeois option to the city’s menu. Instead, High Horse, to me, felt like a food lover’s home. Sitting at the bar, as I usually do, watching the cooks halve chickens and prepare Grandma’s Cornbread, I’d sip blissfully on a glass of Cabernet. The cuisine was hearty and wholesome. I recall a marrow dish, served on the bone and a pate that spread like butter on rustic bread slices. But High Horse also never took itself too seriously: A bar favorite was a shot served in ice-glass for patrons to hurl at a metal bell outside. —Leigh Tauss
Elmo’s was one of the few places in Carrboro (and Chapel Hill, by proxy) where townies and college students could fraternize. A table of hungover 21-year-olds would be positioned next to a young family, whose baby would stare wide-eyed at the elderly couple the next booth over. There was something about the never-ending menu, the chalkboard signs stuffed with the day’s specials, the coloring pages of a duck decorating the hostess station, and the servers in Elmo’s signature brightly-colored t-shirts. It was surprising and heartbreaking to see it close its doors after 29 years of cobblers and pancakes. Yes, there’s still an Elmo’s in Durham; but our Elmo’s—the one whose booths were a rare moment of coexistence—is irreplaceable. —Sara Pequeño
Some closures this year were not precipitated by the pandemic, though it made them easier to slip away before we got a chance to say goodbye. Take Halgo European Deli & Groceries, a Polish market tucked away at the corner of Highway 54 and South Alston in Durham. It was an inconspicuous spot, but for those who knew about it—many, the owners say, who were of Eastern European descent and came in seeking a taste of home—it was one of a kind. Owner Zbigniew “Ziggy” Gorzkowski and his wife, co-owner Halina, emigrated from Poland to New Jersey in 1983, where Zgbiniew worked as a limousine driver and Halina worked part-time in restaurants. Opening the market—where the shelves were crammed with sausages, pierogi, Polish sweets, and twice-smoked kielbasa—was a dream. In June, they retired after 12 years. It’ll be hard to find a ham sandwich that holds a candle to Halgo’s signature cut. —SE
Lunch options in downtown Raleigh have never been particularly chic. Sure, you can get your foot-long fix at Subway, or spend way too much on a sushi platter at Sono, but that key middle ground of crave-worthy cuisine that won’t bust your budget is a rare find. Linus & Pepper thread that needle with its rustic homemade potato chips, an Italian cauliflower-based slaw to die for, and a french sandwich dip savory to the last drip. It was downtown’s unparalleled king of the daytime fast-casual, at least for this humble sandwich aficionado. I only wish I’d taken the time to dine-in more often. —LT
Bar Brunello was a lot of things to me. It was a place for celebration and clinking glasses; in the same breath, too, it was a place for comfort. A refuge with INDY coworkers after a long day at the office. A place of solace. Something about it felt fancy—and it was!—but it was unpretentious and full of genuine warmth. It felt like a secret. When you walked through the doors of this dimly lit gem, you were greeted by the unmatched enthusiasm of Esteban Brunello or Sergio Ramos, who felt like old friends after an hour of bar-top chat and savvy wine recommendations. Brunello brought wines from all over the world to this tiny Durham spot, transforming a night out into something magic and personal. —Annie Maynard
It’s hard to imagine Franklin Street without Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe. The diner—its name spelled out in medieval, cobwebby type, looking like it was plucked from a 1970s yearbook—saw generations of UNC students spill through its doors and sit down to plates piled high with breakfast staples and hangover tonics. Opened by Linda and Jimmy Chris in 1972, Ye Olde always felt special because of its timelessness; since Jimmy passed in 2012, the eatery had been run by Linda and her daughter Melissa Peng. The closure, Peng told the INDY, was a very difficult decision—but the business wasn’t built for takeout, or a town without college students. “Like my mom said, it’s bittersweet,” Peng said. “But I’m also very proud of what they built and how many people we reached. We really never changed much.” —SE
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