222 South Blount Street, Raleigh, bidamanda.com
Brewery Bhavana may be the one making national headlines—and with good reason, as the restaurant-brewery-bookstore-flower shop delivers taste and style on all accounts—but our heart belongs to owners Vanvisa and Vansana Nolintha’s original restaurant, Bida Manda. The Laotian spot’s vibe strikes a chord between cool and approachable, the service is on point, and the menu never disappoints. Don’t miss the signature crispy pork belly soup in a rich, milky coconut curry broth and the crispy rice lettuce wraps.
The Cortez Seafood + Cocktail
413 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh, cortezraleigh.com
At The Cortez, North Carolina oysters on the half shell are a good place to start before you move on to a selection of chef Oscar Diaz’s composed fare: bright, punchy ceviches, garlicky shell-on shrimp, and a grilled whole snapper that’s perfect for sharing. Its sister restaurant, José & Sons, is also worth a mention for the kitchen’s ability to effortlessly meld Mexican and Southern flavors.
Crawford & Son
618 North Person Street, Raleigh, crawfordandsonrestaurant.com
Chef Scott Crawford’s neighborhood joint strikes a chord between comfortable and fancy, with an all-star staff and a menu that reflects Crawford’s impressive pedigree. Anything from the “raw” section is a sure bet, but don’t miss the gold-standard beef tartare, and be sure to save room for one of pastry chef Krystle Swenson’s clever desserts. Look for Crawford’s French bistro, Jolie, opening next door this fall.
14 West Martin Street, Raleigh, garlandraleigh.com
James Beard Award semifinalist chef Cheetie Kumar has received national and local praise for her contemporary spins on Indian and Asian cuisine. Sure, you can find tandoori chicken in lots of places, but you won’t find it garnished with chicken skin pappadum and served with Punjabi-style house-made pickles on any other menu in town. Plus, the space is chic and inviting, the service attentive and warm, and the cocktails are on par with any craft bar in town.
3314 Guess Road, Durham, gocciolina.com
One of the best Italian spots in the Triangle, Gocciolina consistently earns raves for chef Aaron Benjamin’s house-made pastas (don’t miss the signature Carbonara), but the antipasti are worth a mention too. They’re also a great value. For $9, you can build a light supper of three small plates—say, meatballs, spicy chickpeas, and crispy fried eggplant with Boxcarr robiola. Save room for desserts like the chocolate almond torte or tiramisu cannoli.
423 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, lanternrestaurant.com
This Chapel Hill fixture is still a hit among locals and visitors alike. It’s helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing, with a menu that seamlessly imbues North Carolina ingredients with Asian flavors, such as crispy local okra with hot tomato chutney or tea-smoked, pasture-raised chicken. There’s also a beautiful back garden that’s ideal for sipping one of the inventive and expertly crafted seasonal cocktails.
2519 Fairview Road, Raleigh, mandolinraleigh.com
Chef Sean Fowler’s Raleigh gem is equal parts neighborhood haunt and special occasion destination. Sidle up to the bar for a $9 burger (on Mondays) or order a craft beer and two bar plates for $15. Or settle into the dining room for elevated takes on Southern classics, such as chicken and waffles topped with bacon-mushroom foam, seasonal dishes starring produce from Fowler’s farm, or the off-menu wood-fired ribeye. There’s also a superb weekend brunch—don’t miss the scratch-made buttermilk biscuits.
Mateo Bar de Tapas
109 West Chapel Hill Street, Durham, mateotapas.com
Chef Matt Kelly’s Durham restaurants are among the most popular in the region. Its flagship, Mateo, is always packed, but there’s no better spot around for cocktails and tapas (don’t miss the pan con tomate). For stellar Italian fare, head next door to Mothers & Sons Trattoria, and if it’s a sandwich you’re after, snag a hero at Lucky’s Delicatessen two doors down. And for North Carolina oysters and expertly prepared local catch, head to Kelly’s newest and prettiest, Saint James Seafood.
James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen Poole’s Diner is the crown jewel of her Raleigh restaurant empire, serving up fresh spins on comfort food classics like the locally famous macaroni au gratin. But the seasonally inflected menu gives you plenty to appreciate, like summer-ready tomato pie or crab beignets. Snag a seat at the double-horseshoe bar, order a glass of wine and a few plates to share, and you’ll be all set.
Saltbox Seafood Joint
2637 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard and 608 North Mangum Street, Durham
Chef Ricky Moore’s modern fish shack serves up fried (but not heavy) North Carolina seafood. Perhaps you’ll opt for something familiar, like catfish or flounder, or maybe curiosity will steer you toward drum or bone-in croaker. Whether you order it as a plate, with fried potatoes and a bright slaw, or piled on a roll, don’t forget a side of hush honeys, Moore’s fried cornmeal nuggets drizzled with honey. The Magnum Street location is a walk-up window; for indoor seating (and summer-ready AC) visit the Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard location.