201 West Martin Street, Raleigh
Whiskey Kitchen doesn’t care that it’s winter. Neither, it seems, does the woman sitting with crossed bare legs across the dining room, shoulder-to-shoulder with her date at a booth. Nor do the friends tucked at a table amid the bar crowd, digging in to a seafood boil with head-on shrimp and smoked sausage, tiny potatoes, and a hunk of yellow corn. Nor do the people gathered outside, huddled under heat lamps and holding icy cocktails. Here, the vibe is less thirty-two degrees, more Saturday night, and Whiskey Kitchen just wants you to have a good time.
The restaurant opened in August, less than a year after its co-owner and chef, Michael Thor, was severely injured in a motorcycle accident that damaged his spinal cord. The community rallied behind him to pay his medical costs, and co-owner Jeff Mickel and chef Jonathan Botta continue to carry out Thor’s vision as he continues his recovery.
In warmer weather, Whiskey Kitchen’s front window rolls up, merging its indoor and outdoor spaces. This design bolsters the idea that, sometimes, bigger really is better. The six thousand-square-foot space feels like a warehouse, but a Brooklyn warehouse, a place where hip urbanites make pickles during the week and flock to, in gaggles, on the weekend. A mammoth mural depicting a feast of regal proportions presides on one wall, and there’s plenty of exposed brick and rough-hewn wooden tables. Along with the added seating on the patio and at the bar, it has a total capacity of 142. But on a Sunday, when the place is nearly empty, the giant setting seems like a poor fit for a culinary venue.
“Sunday is our hangover day,” explains my server. He tells me to come back again on a Saturday. That, he assures me, is when the place gets “thumping.” So, a few weeks later, I didand he was right. It thumped.
Now, on a Saturday, you are told forty-five minutes “max” for a two-top, and you’ll wait ninety. But on a Sunday, you seat yourself. It’s fun to spend half this time drinking, less so to spend the rest of the time staring, longingly, at deep-fried cauliflower as it slides into the food pass and whooshes out of sight. Once we sit and place our orders, we start plunging the florets in sunflower seed pesto. Then our Sunday server appears. He is happy we followed his advice.
Standout service is consistent. On our first visit, as I flipped through the novella-length drink list, my partner asked our server to help. He chuckled, grabbed an empty chair from a nearby table, and took a seat. This mishmash of know-how and nonchalanceexemplified by the seemingly infinite display of bottles behind the bar, which employees mount a ladder to reachis where Whiskey Kitchen shines.
The whiskey collection is organized by origin: America, Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Japan, with more than two hundred varieties overall. Prices range from $6–$96. There are other spirits, too, plus wine and beer. But, when in Rome, try an old-fashioned in a heavy glass, or, better yet, a boulevardier, a rye revamp on a Negroni that outdoes the original.
As the drinks globe-trot and sightsee, the food would rather stay at home and rock on the porch, hosting a backyard cookout and exhorting one and all to “Come in, come in, I’ll fix y’all something nice.” When in doubt, get any sandwich; they’re good after one drink and great after two. The cornmeal-crusted fried skate sandwich, with spicy mayo and cabbage slaw, stretches to infinity and beyond its bun, like David Chang’s Chick-Fil-A-inspired Fuku that took Instagram by storm. The lamb cheeseburger is less photogenic, but it has a great personality.
Both are an ideal match for chubby, crusty potato wedges, sprinkled with salty malt vinegar powder, which will coat your fingertips, thrillingly, like a bag of Cheetos. You could, instead, up-charge for a foil-bundled baked yam with homemade, blackened marshmallows and pecan butter. Next time, I’ll get one of each and save the yam for dessert.
The ice cream sandwiches are hit-or-miss. An earlier, summery rendition, with cornmeal cookies and smoked peach ice cream, sounded like a home run. The current iteration, however, with fudgy chocolate cookies sparkling with crunchy salt, would be better off without the kind-of-coffee ice cream.
Whatever you order, sandwich or otherwise, odds are it’ll be smoked. The word appears on the dinner menu fourteen times. Some are standard, like smoked chicken, whose flabby skin is off-set by juicy meat and a charred scallion chimichurri. Or smoked local bluefish dip with everything-bagel chips, which introduces New York-Jewish and Southern like two old friends.
Other smoked items are more surprising, like smoked chili paste with tarragon-buttered littlenecks; smoked blue cheese in a beet salad; and smoked, whipped cream alongside a pork crackling-crusted biscuit, which is as welcome as flowers arriving at your office on a Wednesday just because. Only the smoked ketchup, for the potato wedges, tries too hard.
From the outside, Whiskey Kitchen reads: “One Part Neighborhood Bar. One Part Southern Kitchen. A Dash of Wood Smoke. Muddle with a No-Bullshit Attitude. Shake like Hell. Strain Over Sweet Patio.” If you swing by on a late night, you’ll barely notice these words. From a distance, you’ll just see a big, bright room, shaking with people, thrumming with chatter and chuckles, clutters and clanks. As you get closer, the noise will call to youcome in, come in, where it’s warm.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Nectar of the Gods”