A perfect plate of crispy Brussels sprouts was served for the last time on September 30, when renowned Raleigh restaurant Humble Pie closed its doors.
After 33 years, the restaurant dished out its final dinner to a packed bar, dining room, and sparkling outdoor patio, a spot that has long been the favorite of many Raleigh locals. Ownership tells the INDY that it was simply time to “step away” and retire from the restaurant business.
“This moment is bittersweet but we are focused on the good times shared with staff and regulars as well as the extraordinary opportunity we had to serve you,” read a social media post published by the restaurant on September 24. “The buzz of a dining room full of happy diners sharing a meal is a feeling not forgotten.”
A cornerstone of the city’s warehouse district, Humble Pie was founded by Grover Williamson in 1989. The restaurant was a leader in Raleigh’s early scene and known for offering a tapas-style twist on classic Southern comfort food.
“Humble Pie was one of the first great food institutions, up there with the Rockford,” says Caroline Morrison, owner of nearby vegan-vegetarian restaurant Fiction Kitchen. Morrison adds that she’s appreciated how owner Joe Farmer, manager Jim Beriau, and chef Josh Young carried on the restaurant’s legacy after Williamson passed the baton in the early 2000s.
“They’ve been able to hang on to that gritty Raleigh feel, in a way,” she says, “and keep the food the focus and keep it simple and presentable. That’s really what I enjoyed about it.”
The restaurant launched the careers of many area chefs, including two-time James Beard Award winner Ashley Christensen, who worked at Humble Pie for two years, in 1999 and 2000. Christensen went on to open Poole’s Diner in 2007, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey in 2011, and Death & Taxes in 2019.
Humble Pie was “a city joint before Raleigh really felt like a city,” she wrote in an email to the INDY.
“It was one of the first places I remember venturing through the then-confusing one-way streets of downtown decades ago to find for its epically rock-and-roll brunch. Loud music, damn good scratch-made food, and likely an up-and-coming musician or artist of some craft taking your order.”
During Christensen’s time at Humble Pie, one of the most important things she learned was “how to express my own ideas in an established, existing language,” she wrote. Williamson kept recipes handwritten on index cards —“classic, beloved dishes that reflected Grover’s life experiences and respect for food.”
Pushing to tweak or add to those recipes was a hard battle. The boundaries Williamson drew taught Christensen a lot, she says, about “the importance of restraint when flexing on the creative process in a place with its own history.”
“In our time working together, he could at times drive me absolutely crazy. That said, there was no greater acknowledgment to me at that time than watching him love a new dish that I had put on the menu.”
As Christensen and other chefs exercised their culinary creativity, Humble Pie’s menu did slowly grow and change over the years. Over the restaurant’s decades on South Harrington Street, it evolved. When asked about favorite dishes, regulars recounted mouthwatering descriptions of fried green tomatoes, crab cakes, and a tortilla cheese plate.
The universal favorite, however, was undoubtedly the restaurant’s famous crispy Brussels sprouts, caramelized with brown sugar and apple cider vinegar.
“[Chef Josh Young] really kept it very focused, whatever the dish was,” says Morrison. “And took that tapas-style [food] to a different elevation. The Brussels sprouts tasted like Brussels sprouts, they were just enhanced.”
Keith Stringer, who once worked in the kitchen, also has nothing but praise for Young, Humble Pie’s last chef.
“Josh was not classically trained, but boy, did he have a palate,” Stringer says. “He just knew how to put combinations together of food and make it taste good.”
Stringer—who interned at Humble Pie under Chef Andy Cordova and later worked under Young—says his favorite dish was the braised short rib tostadas. During Stringer’s time in the kitchen from 2009 to 2012, Cordova was working on South American–Asian fusion. He was “really going in different directions with food,” Stringer says.
“These are things I hadn’t done, so I was sort of encouraged to expand my repertoire of food that I could produce,” he says. “We used to do a stuffed shell dish there with butternut squash and a romesco sauce …. That was a dish I’ve taken to other places.”
Stringer, who now runs a bed-and-breakfast in the western mountain town of Elkin, says he learned a lot at Humble Pie. In addition to studying new techniques of food preparation, he was asked to work with kitchen staff to create new dishes. One recipe Stringer is particularly proud of, he says, is the ricotta gnocchi perfected under Young. It took weeks of experimentation.
“We worked on it, worked on it, worked on it, and finally got it right,” Stringer says. “Josh did most of the research and development, but he’d also grab somebody aside and say, ‘Hey, let’s try doing this and see whether this works’ …. That’s where it became fun, because now you’re working collaboratively.”
A watering hole for chefs
Humble Pie was well loved by patrons, but it was also beloved by chefs as a place where they could come together to collaborate, create, and support each other in the sometimes-brutal world of restaurant ownership, says Morrison.
“When our air broke in the kitchen, I walked down there and they had a big-ass fan they let me bring over,” Morrison says with a laugh. “I think I needed cornmeal one time and Josh was like, ‘Sure, come on over and get it.’ It’s neighborly support.”
Owner Joe Farmer has also been a bolstering presence as downtown rents rise and inflation makes operating more expensive, Morrison says. She and Farmer were able to support each other through personal and professional struggles.
As Humble Pie closes, another local restaurateur will take over: Poole’s Diner chef de cuisine David Ellis, who plans to open a pasta restaurant, Figulina, in the space in December or January. As the story comes full circle, Morrison says she hopes the handoff will motivate people to continue to grow the Raleigh restaurant scene with independent owner-operators.
For Christensen, Ellis’s takeover “is the thing that makes me feel like the Pie isn’t going away,” she wrote.
“It was special three, two, and one decade(s) ago, and each of those versions of ‘special’ has been pretty different in the offerings,” Christensen wrote. “The magic of this place is in the walls, and it will continue through Dave’s stewarding. I had my first chef role there just over 25 years ago, and I’m so excited to see Dave carry on the spirit of what this place has meant to Raleigh.”
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