The mark of a truly cultured city is not its fancy restaurants. It is the quality of its lunch spots and casual dinner spots, its cafes and bars. It is the places where regular people can afford to eat regularly. Every food enthusiast knows that life is most often enhanced by the simple things, the sandwich of fresh tomatoes and good cheese, the well put together salad. In the Triangle, while I wouldn’t give up the biscuits or BBQ for anything, we have a real lack of good, mid-range but quality food.

Piero Potenza, owner of Ciao, which opened in the Olde Cary Commons building in November (phone 469-3021 for info), understands this concept very well. After growing up in Italy and then spending time in New York City, he should understand it. Cafe culture in both of those places is a huge part of what makes them vibrant, interesting places to live.

Ciao has received a lot of attention since it opened, and its success has been attributed to the restaurant’s appeal to women, to Potenza’s charm, and to some rather overblown gushings about the food. Not that the food isn’t fantastic, but in a major city Ciao would go almost unnoticed.

The real reason why Ciao is doing so well is that it has exactly what the Triangle has been missing–good food, good wine, and an inviting atmosphere without the pretension or price of a “serious” restaurant. It’s somewhere you can go on a Saturday afternoon and sip wine (one of 26 by the glass), have a cheese plate, and leave without worrying about how your afternoon has affected your ability to pay rent. If you want to go and have dinner with all the trimmings you can, but it’s not required.

It looks like the idea is catching on. The “tapas-style menu” is popping up everywhere. This trend shows that the industry is responding to the need for less formal dining options. Tapas can be fun when they are done well, but these places still lack the simplicity and everyday pleasure of a good cafe and wine bar. Cafe Panne & Vino in Chapel Hill (see notes) has caught on, with the welcome addition of late night hours.

The Triangle is already on the culinary map. If the trend that Ciao seems to have started continues, we could not only be on the map, but enjoy non-barbecue food options every day.

Top 10 Don’ts List

Last month I examined the top 10 habits of bad customers. This month, I’ve compiled the top 10 things that restaurants do to upset and drive away customers.

10. Cooks who wish to exert their interpretation of well done on my unsuspecting granny. Look, I have a lot of sympathy here. It is a crime to see a good piece of meat go to waste that way. But so be it–just cook it the way they want it because we’ll never win this fight and it’s become boring.

9. Staff members eating in view of the customers. Yuck. I’m not sure why, but yuck anyway.

8. Excessive waits for food without explanation. It happens, and sometimes it’s unavoidable. But it must be acknowledged. This goes for all mistakes and problems, but time delays are the most common.

7. Points of service. This is so often done wrong, and so easy to do right. A restaurant should decide what’s important to them about their service and stick with it. Clear as people finish or clear all at once, but decide. Alert the customer if you have to reach across them. Reset the table before the next course comes! I could go on, but I won’t.

6. The intrusive waiter. Some customers want to make friends, and some don’t. So keep your charm and opinions under wraps unless they are called forth. Don’t interrupt. And I think “how does your food taste?” is getting too personal. “Is everything good?” lets the customer simply nod if she’s in the middle of something, or elaborate if she wants to.

5. The tacky up-sell. Salesmanship is an art, and one that the customer should not be able to detect.

4. The reinterpretation of “business hours.” Some restaurants (or at least their staffs) think that if the advertised closing time is 10 p.m., everyone should be able to go home at 10:05. A restaurant’s closing time should indicate when the kitchen closes, not when customers are expected to leave. There is a simple solution to this problem–close earlier if you want to leave earlier.

3. The rude, argumentative waiter. It’s so obvious, but it still happens.

2. The under-trained waiter. A lot of the time, blatantly bad service comes from under-trained waiters. This is a management problem, so managers, listen up! If your waiters are constantly screwing up, if your customers are always getting the wrong thing, if the checks are written wrong, you need to spend more time training.

1. Treating the customers like idiots. There are times when this is obvious and infuriating–the cliche of the snotty waiter scoffing at your order or becoming condescending when you order the wrong wine. But there are more subtle ways of letting the customer know that you think they are below the standards that your restaurant is hoping for. This includes over-explaining wine or food, and this is a difficult balance, but must be maintained if you don’t want to offend people. A good waiter will leave an opening for questions, but not assume that people don’t know what they’re ordering. And if you can’t keep your contempt under control, I don’t care how many wine glasses you can carry, you’re a crappy waiter.

Restaurant Notes

A Toast to the Triangle, now it its 19th year, will take place at the Raleigh Convention Center on Sunday, April 4 from 5-7:30pm. The event showcases 40 of the Triangle’s restaurants, caterers and fine wine, beer and food purveyors, and benefits the Tammy Lynn Memorial Foundation, which provides special needs programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities. Tickets are $60 a person. For more information, go to

Tasca Brava in Cary will be having Penas del Flamenco the last Sunday of the month starting April 25 at 6:30 p.m. The evening will feature flamenco guitar, dance, singing and palmas. Also, the restaurant will be having a special Easter Sunday dinner April 11 beginning at 5 p.m.

Blue Martini has opened at 116 N. West Street in the space formerly occupied by Taza Grill. While the martinis are the real draw, a tapas menu is available all night. Check out the live music on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.


Grayson’s Cafe has opened in south Durham at 2300 Chapel Hill Road. Serving “Traditional American Favorites,” the restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week (closed Sundays). The menu reads like an upscale diner with a few twists, like the assortment of Monte Cristo sandwiches. Chef Arthur Grayson is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, as well as a veteran of some upscale positions in New York. But Greyson’s Cafe is a very different venture–the most expensive item on the menu is a $14.95 steak. The cafe also offers catering services.

Fowler’s in Peabody Place is featuring food and wine from Spain for the whole month of April. They also have a few events going on, including a meet-the-new-owners open house on Saturday, April 3 with free hors d’oeuvres from 6-9 p.m., the annual wine sale starting on April 8, and weekly Saturday afternoon cookouts on the back porch.

Pop’s, also in Peabody Place, will be offering brunch on Easter Sunday, April 11. For reservations, call 956-7677.

Chapel Hill

The Teaching Kitchen in the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont is hosting a series of classes throughout April on Wednesday nights from 6-8 p.m. with the theme, “In Good Taste: Healthy Spring Flavors.” Reservations must be made by Wednesday (March 31), so hurry! Cost is $65 per class, or $225 for the whole series (four classes). Classes are as follows: On April 7, appetizers with Graham Fox of the Fearrington House Restaurant ; on April 14, entrees with Fred Thomson, author of the cookbooks Crazy for Crab, Iced Tea, and Lemonade; on April 21, vegetables and salads with Moreton Neal, co-founder of La Residence ; on April 28, desserts with Bill Smith, chef of Crook’s Corner . For reservations or more information, call 962-2643 or visit

After months of setbacks, Tallula’s has finally opened at 456 W. Franklin St. in the old Silk Road space between Elaine’s on Franklin and The Carolina Brewery. Co-owned by Benji Shelton and Demir Willford (owner of Carrboro’s Nomadic Trading Company), Tallula’s serves mezze plates that are the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean version of tapas. More than half the menu is vegetarian. Hot and cold mezze plates are served from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., cold plates through to midnight, and the bar remains open until 2 a.m.

Cafe Panne & Vino has opened at 418 W. Franklin St. in the small space that has housed everything from bad Chinese food to most recently the Mayberry Creamery. The cafe and wine bar serves crostinis and paninis, and is open from morning all day through to late night seven days a week.

Aurora will be hosting an Italian seder dinner for Passover on Tuesday, April 6, starting at 6:30 p.m. Barry Katz will be leading the celebration, to which all faiths are welcome, and will be bringing along friends from Duke’s music department to provide the music. The cost for the evening is $75 per person and includes food and wine. For reservations, call 942-2400.