Restaurant of the Year: Lantern
423 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, lanternrestaurant.com
If there’s one restaurant Chapel Hill is known for, it’s chef Andrea Reusing’s Lantern. The James Beard Award winner’s haunt has garnered acclaim for its seamless marriage of classic Asian flavor with local North Carolina ingredients. Ask about the flash-fried cilantro—or the crispy local okra with hot tomato chutney, or the tea-smoked, pasture-raised chicken, or anything else on the menu, really. Reusing, who grew up in New Jersey and began working in New York City kitchens while in film school, opened Lantern in January 2002, and it’s been a Chapel Hill fixture ever since. Don’t miss out on the beautiful back garden, which is ideal for sipping one of Lantern’s inventive and expertly crafted seasonal cocktails.
Best New Restaurant: Lula’s
101 East Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, lulaschapelhill.com
The newest venture of chef William D’Auvray simultaneously honors his grandmother’s heirloom recipes and livens up a pizza-laden college town with a menu of Southern-focused “simple food, made the hard way.” The crispy shallow-fried chicken shines between a buttered biscuit or atop brunch-ready waffles, especially when paired with the spun sage honey.
10 Other Places You Have to Go
Acme Food & Beverage
110 East Main Street, Carrboro, acmecarrboro.com
At Acme, a twenty-year-old Carrboro institution, Southern staples don’t get fused and abused—“Damn good food” is the maxim—but they sure do clean up nicely, in an unflashy upscale style. Chef-owner Kevin Callaghan chases seasonal ingredients and nostalgic flavors through brunches and dinners laden with cast-iron skillet cornbread, tomato pie, pecan-crusted fried chicken, and overnight-smoked pork. Craft beers and shrubby signature cocktails hold down the right side of the ampersand in a place where fine dining’s not fancy.
610 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, crookscorner.com
Often credited with putting Southern cooking on the gastronomic map, Crook’s Corner blends homestyle with haute. To say the shrimp and grits are world-famous would be an understatement. Longtime chef Bill Smith just stepped away from the kitchen after nearly three decades (see page 91), but fear not: Crook’s remains in good hands.
The Fearrington House Restaurant
2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro, fearrington.com
A pinnacle of fine dining, The Fearrington serves sharply focused, often-changing menus that rely on seasonal ingredients, draw on Southern traditions, and incorporate chef Colin Bedford’s European training. For the main course, you might order venison with baby brussels sprouts and pistachio. It won’t be cheap—especially if you pair your courses with Fearrington’s exceptional wines—but your meal, served in intimate dining rooms in a former farm homestead in the country, will be an experience to remember.
Mama Dip’s Kitchen
408 West Rosemary Street, Chapel Hill, mamadips.com
Since 1976, Mama Dip’s has honed the “dump cooking” method—that is, cooking to taste, rather than from a recipe—for everyone from locals to students to sitting presidents. Proprietor Mildred Council recently passed away, but the Rosemary Street establishment keeps her spirit alive.
310 East Main Street, Carrboro, oakleafnc.com
This casual but sophisticated farm-to-table restaurant moved from bucolic Pittsboro to Carrboro in 2018, inching toward urbanity. It’s pure foodie bait. A mercurial seasonal menu swirls with rich fare like caramelized duck and ricotta gnocchi, often gussied up with almost comically rarified ingredients.
110 South Churton Street, Hillsborough, panciuto.com
Chef Aaron Vandemark enjoys no shortage of accolades. At Pancuito, the perennial James Beard Award semifinalist explores Italian cuisine with Southern ingredients from local farmers. The menu changes with the seasons and Vandermark’s whims, but be sure to try the homemade pastas and ragùs.
408 West Weaver Street, Carrboro, pizzeriamercatonc.com
Mercato has pies, sure—creative, expertly charred Neapolitan-style creations topped with ingredients sourced from the farmers market across the street. But the term pizzeria isn’t quite right. It’s more than that. Here, chef Gabe Barker puts the same locavore spin on pastas and salads, too, in a lively postindustrial room that’s noisy but not overwhelming.
Rumi Persian Café
306 West Franklin Street, Suite G, Chapel Hill, rumipersiancafe.com
One of eight vendors in Chapel Hill’s new Blue Dogwood Public Market, Rumi serves up Persian cuisine with personality by the heaping paper plateful. Swing through to grab a quick lunch to go Wednesdays through Sundays, or slide into a counter seat and take your time sampling the flavorful dishes on display. Don’t miss the popular vegetarian eggplant stew or the fall-apart-tender lamb shank over rice.
200 North Greensboro Street, #1A, Carrboro, tandemcarrboro.com
This relative newcomer has already earned local acclaim for its elegant surf-and-turfentrées. Upscale but not snobbish, the restaurant’s globalist menu is full of surprises, from a bone marrow appetizer to mushroom risotto, Moroccan lamb shank to open-faced ravioli.
Vimala’s Curryblossom Café
431 West Franklin Street, #415, Chapel Hill, curryblossom.com
Vimala Rajendran’s farm-to-table family restaurant is the best place around to have a home-cooked meal when you don’t have time to cook at home. A welcoming Chapel Hill staple more focused on community than commercial glitz, it serves filling, fresh dosa and uttapam (our faves), snacks like samosas and chaat, and classic Indian entrées that won’t break the bank.
2018 Best of the Triangle Readers’ Pick, Best New Restaurant in Orange and Chatham Counties: Mystery Brewing Public House (closed).