The Best Food and Drink in North Carolina for 2019
December 20, 2018
There’s more to North Carolina cuisine than choosing which barbecue style you’re willing to die for
The Best Food and Drink in North Carolina
The Tar Heel State is a land of contrasts, stretching from the East Coast’s highest peak, Mount Mitchell, through the Piedmont and Coastal Plain to the shifting dunes of the Outer Banks. That same diversity shines through in the state’s cuisine (the best of which we’ve rounded up as part of our second annual guide to the best food and drink in every state), and that holds true for more than just barbecue — though some North Carolinians would probably be willing to fight you over the best way to baste a hog at a pig pickin’.
The Old North State’s wide-ranging cuisine is reflected in our list of the state’s best eats. Twelve different cities and towns are represented, from the booming craft beer scene in Asheville to the delicious yet divisive barbecue of Lexington, and from cosmopolitan tacos in newly trendy Durham to fresh seafood in Southport at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
Given the rich food landscape in the Land of the Longleaf Pine, how did we go about choosing the best eats in the entire state? Over the course of the past year we’ve honored everything from its best hot dogs and fried chicken to its best bar and craft beer in our comprehensive and wide-ranging lists and rankings, compiled through extensive research and with input from a wide network of site contributors, bloggers, journalists, and chefs.. We’ve compiled these into individual slideshows celebrating the best food and drink in every state, and you can find our North Carolina gallery ahead.
Best Airport Restaurant: Brookwood Farms BBQ (Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Charlotte Douglass International Airport)
Specializing in authentic Carolina pit barbecue, Brookwood Farms has outposts in two of North Carolina’s major airports. Run by the Wood family since the 1970s, Brookwood Farms brings you smoked meats you can eat right at the gate and still have it taste like it came from an authentic Southern barbecue joint.
Best All-You-Can-Eat Deal: Casey’s Buffet (Wilmington)
This beloved no-frills buffet is filled to the brim with Southern and soul food classics. Chef-owner Larry Casey opened the restaurant in 2005 after 25 years in the industry, and here he displays his culinary skills in spot-on versions of barbecue pork, fried and baked chicken, catfish, whiting, chitlins, mac and cheese, sweet potato soufflé, mashed potatoes and gravy, fried fatback, pigs’ feet, and a slew of sides and desserts. Daily specials rotate on Wednesdays through Sundays; standouts include barbecue pork chops and beef ribs on Wednesdays, Brunswick stew and deviled crab on Thursdays, carved roast beef on Fridays through Sundays, hot wings and fried pork chops on Saturdays, and turkey and ham on Sundays. This place is a true Southern icon.
Best Bar: He’s Not Here (Chapel Hill)
He’s Not Here is a true old-school college dive bar known as “the oldest on-campus 45-year-old” — which, not coincidentally, also makes it our choice for best dive bar in the state. If you ever went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or are just a Tarheels fan, then you have probably had a 33-ounce Blue Cup — the classic $5 cup of beer — at He’s Not Here, which is located almost catty-corner from campus on Franklin Street.
There are 38 beers on tap and 35 by the bottle on offer. Chapel Hill was originally a village, and the bar’s courtyard was originally known as “the green.” It pays homage to the town’s history with bumper stickers that say “He’s Not Here — on the village green.” As for the name? There are many urban legends about its origin, but one popular story is that celebrities, such as UNC alum Michael Jordan, often frequented the bar, and folks called the bar to find them. The bartenders answered, “He’s not here.” Don’t miss the scene in the courtyard, which accommodates 1,000 rowdy college kids and hosts live bands three times each week — and where you’ll no doubt see hundreds of those iconic Carolina-blue cups.
Best Beach Bar: Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar (Carolina Beach)
Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and nestled among sand dunes, this casual, friendly bar is the perfect place to land after a day at the beach. A favorite among locals as well as visitors, the bar is built on the ruins of the Center Pier, which was destroyed in 1996 by Hurricane Fran. Catch one of the summer tiki shows that feature live bands every Thursday night, and enjoy the sounds as the sun sets over the ocean. Have tiki fever? Try these eight tiki cocktails to make for your next party... or for next Tuesday.
Best Beer: The Event Horizon, Olde Hickory Brewery (Hickory)
The Event Horizon from Olde Hickory Brewery is brewed with honey and aged in oak bourbon barrels, and the outstanding flavor profile of honey, fudge, and particularly strong bourbon reflects the creation process. But don’t expect to chug this one, because it’s incredibly thick. This brew will coat your mouth with every sip and leave a pleasant sweet vanilla aftertaste dancing on your tongue.
Best Brunch: Poole’s Diner (Raleigh)
Chef Ashley Christensen has done more to put Raleigh on the culinary map than just about anybody else, thanks to her stunning restaurants Beasley’s Chicken & Honey, Bridge Club, Chuck’s, Death & Taxes, Fox’s Liquor Bar, and Poole’s Diner. Poole’s has actually been in business since 1945, and today it maintains that retro-chic charm with a double horseshoe bar, red leather banquettes, and a large blackboard displaying that day’s menu. The offerings change weekly (and sometimes daily) based on what’s fresh and in-season, but should you go for brunch (which was re-introduced after a hiatus in April 2017) rest assured that whatever you order will be absolutely exceptional. Expect dishes like seasonal hotcakes, biscuits and gravy, a Benedict with house-made English muffin and house-cured pork shoulder, Carolina shrimp and grits, croquet madame, and cinnamon sugar doughnuts. Coffee is from Counter Culture, and the cocktails are also spectacular.
Best Burger: The Dirty South Burger at Chuck's (Raleigh)
Nate H. / Yelp
The most outrageous offering at this down-home burger joint starts with a house-ground, 100 percent chuck patty that’s seared on a flat-top. You have your choice of a 5-ounce or 8-ounce patty, and we recommend going with the 5-ouncer because what comes next is delicious insanity: Smoked pork shoulder, Anson Mills red pea chili, crispy tobacco onions, roasted tomato malt vinegar slaw, Cheddar, and yellow mustard are all piled on top of the patty before being sandwiched between two halves of a bun. All the components work perfectly together thanks to the deft hand of a great chef: Ashley Christensen, who was the recipient of the 2014 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast.
Best Chinese Restaurant: Imperial Garden (Raleigh)
Mary T. via Yelp
Going strong since 1987, this classy and upscale restaurant has cooks in the kitchen who have been there since day one, and they’re turning out some spectacular Chinese food. Roast pork, hot shredded beef, Peking duck, and family-style multi-course dinners are all popular, as is outdoor seating, a rarity at a Chinese restaurant. Crowds also flock to its popular Sunday lunch buffet.
Best Chocolate Shop: French Broad Chocolate (Asheville)
This must-visit Asheville shop has chocolates that have won numerous awards at the International Chocolate Awards and Good Food Awards. The chocolates, which range from single-source bars to vegan lemongrass and ginger truffles, are made with local ingredients and sustainable, wholesome cacao beans.
Best Coffee Shop: Jubala (Raleigh)
Sourcing high-quality coffee from farms around the world with which they have a direct relationship, Jubala goes the extra mile for its customers. Getting their coffee roasted twice a week to order by Counter Culture Coffee in neighboring Durham, they refuse to sell any coffee that's older than 14 days off roast. Enjoy it with Liège waffles or Southern-style biscuits topped with all kinds of ingredients from apple butter to seasonal jam to maple bacon or pimento cheese.
Best Craft Brewery: Wicked Weed Brewing (Asheville)
Wicked Weed Brewing has what it calls a Funkatorium, the “East Coast’s first sour and funky beer dedicated taproom.” The Funkatorium is the perfect stop for sour beer lovers to grab a bite and discover what Wicked Weed is brewing for the season. Check out Freak of Nature, a West Coast-style double IPA brewed with a massive amount of hops, or Oblivion, a sour red ale aged in wine barrels with dates and blackberries.
The 50 Best Craft Breweries in America
Best Cupcake: Simply Cakes (Cary)
Kris L. via Yelp
Simply put, Simply Cakes is simply amazing! Its from-scratch methods produce cupcakes that are pure quality in taste and appearance — and you’ll be able to tell after just one bite. For your first bite, we recommend sinking your teeth into a Raspberry Pop, a yellow cupcake filled with raspberry mousse and topped with raspberry buttercream.
Best Doughnuts: Britt’s Donut Shop (Carolina Beach)
From May to September, crowds flock to Britt’s for the plain glazed doughnut. The setup of Britt’s hasn’t changed since the stand opened in 1939, and neither has the single-item menu. The closely guarded recipe for this famous doughnut is nothing short of perfection: soft, gooey, buttery, and so delicious that you’ll be talking about it until you can visit again.
Best Farmers Market: Durham Farmers’ Market (Durham)
The Durham Farmers' Market brings people together to “celebrate the unique food and culture of downtown Durham and the farms that sustain it.” All 77 vendors at the Durham Farmers’ Market grow their produce within 70 miles of the market, and the year-round market’s loyal following is mirrored by its more than 15,000 Twitter followers.
Best Food Truck: Papi Queso (Charlotte)
Featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, the Papi Queso food truck has charmed the residents of Charlotte with beautifully constructed grilled cheese sandwiches. Papi Queso isn’t winning customers over with gimmicks or ridiculous toppings, they’re simply doing the classics right, letting their high-quality ingredients and cheeses speak for themselves. Their menu is small but focused. The Bacon and Tomato (cheddar, American, provolone, smoked tomatoes, bacon, chile mayo), the Mac Melt (mac n’ cheese, cheddar) and the Spiced Apple (sautéed apples and onions, honey, white cheddar, brie, walnuts) are some of their more popular items, but looking at the menu, you really can’t go wrong. Check out their elegant creations on their Instagram (which is approaching 10,000 followers). If you’re ever in North Carolina, you’ve got to check them out.
Best French Fries: Kill Devil’s Frozen Custard and Beach Fries (Kill Devil Hills)
The Outer Banks of North Carolina are famous for a lot of things — the views, the beach, the scene of the first airplane flight — but they’re increasingly becoming famous for the frozen custard and “beach fries” at Kill Devil’s. Both are made fresh throughout the day from the highest quality ingredients, and the fries are thick-cut, golden brown, and delicious, with not a trace of grease or sog. You should probably just go ahead and get your fries in a bucket, because you’ll never want to stop eating these.
Best Fried Chicken: Beasley's Chicken + Honey (Raleigh)
Don't leave North Carolina having only eaten barbecue; the pressure-fried bird at Beasley’s Chicken & Honey is an absolute must. The combination of steaming and frying chicken kisses goodbye to all dryness, and a drizzle of honey — which chef Ashley Christensen includes as a tribute to her beekeeping father — gives this spot a personal and literally sweet touch.
Best Grocery Store: Harris Teeter
Mark S. via Yelp
North Carolina Harris Teeter stores strive to be an active part of their communities by working with local schools and food voucher systems. In fact, Harris Teeter has now donated more than $24.6 million to local schools within their respective communities.
Best Hot Dog: J. S. Pulliam Barbeque (Winston-Salem)
Well, it's called a barbecue place, but what most people seem to rave about here isn't the 'que, it's the dogs — and any place that's able to advertise "Hot Dogs Since 1910" has got to be doing something right. These wieners are a fearsome dark red in color, nicely spiced, and bursting with juices. The buns are buttered and toasted, which adds a nice level of texture and flavor. Add chili and slaw (and mustard and onions, if you want it "all the way") and you've got what Reader's Digest once called "the best hot dogs in the South." To make them really good, throw on a dose of Big Ed's Extremely Hot BBQ Sauce.
Best Hotel Restaurant: The Asbury (Charlotte)
The Asbury is named after architect Louis Asbury, who in 1929 designed the building that’s now the Dunhill Hotel, its home. This modern Southern restaurant looks to the past in dishes like cast iron biscuits with bacon jam, a fried chicken sandwich with country ham and Cheddar, mac and cheese, “pork and beans” (pork cheek ragout with boiled peanut hummus, and mixed peas and beans), and fisherman’s stew, but it’s planted firmly in the present with barbecue scallops and octopus with a poached egg and spring vegetables, pea emulsion with uni butter and coconut, crispy pork cheek with ginger-carrot bisque and pea salad, and a whole spring chicken with n’duja-white wine butter. It makes good use of heirloom Southern ingredients and showcases ingredients from many local farms.
Best Italian Restaurant: Mama Ricotta’s (Charlotte)
Mama’s Ricotta Restaurant/Yelp
This Charlotte institution is a neighborhood favorite that’s renowned locally for its high-quality ingredients, attention to detail, and house-made ingredients. Its New Haven-style pizza is a standout (the one topped with Italian beef, provolone, and giardiniera is a mashup for the ages), but make sure you sample the pasta (especially the penne alla vodka, rigatoni with meat sauce, and family-recipe cheese ravioli) and entrées (including Chianti-braised short rib and old-school chicken parmesan).
Best Mexican Restaurant: Super Taqueria (Durham)
Ian Maren C./Yelp
This hyper-local Mexican restaurant in Durham is best known and perhaps most loved for its tortas and its salsa bar. The tortillas are homemade and the carne asada keeps diners coming back for more. The tacos de pollo and the tacos al pastor are popular with the local patrons, as are the restaurant’s ceviche and other specialties.
Most Expensive Restaurant: Fearrington House Restaurant (Fearrington)
The Fearrington House Restaurant/Yelp
Open since 1980 inside the AAA Five Diamond-rated, Relais and Châteaux-operated Fearrington House Inn, Fearrington House Restaurant offers four different menus: a three-course ($95, plus $75 for wines), a four-course ($115, plus $85 for wines), an eight-course vegetarian chef’s tasting ($125, plus $105 for wines), and an eight-course tasting for $150, plus $105 for wines.
The Most Expensive Restaurant in Every State
Most Outrageous Restaurant Dish: The Lookout Twisted Biscuit, Blue Ridge Biscuit Company (Black Mountain)
Blue Ridge Biscuit Company, located in western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains, specializes in delicious biscuits, and their Twisted Biscuit sandwiches are a great way to enjoy them. Order The Lookout, a biscuit filled with fried chicken, bacon, and cheddar cheese and then covered in gravy.
Most Romantic Restaurant: Fearrington House Restaurant (Pittsboro)
Open since 1980 inside the AAA Five Diamond-rated, Relais and Châteaux-operated Fearrington House Inn just outside Chapel Hill, Fearrington House Restaurant offers four different menus, ranging between three and eight courses. The menus change regularly, as nearly every ingredient is either sourced from the property or from nearby farms and gardens, and they’re served in a series of intimate (and absurdly romantic) dining rooms inside an old farmhouse. Expect dishes like house-cured bacon with heirloom carrot, pistachio, medjool date, and granola; black truffle agnolotti with walnut, Rainier cherry, chanterelle, and Madeira; and veal tenderloin with foie gras, truffle, celeriac, and nori from chef Colin Bedford, with an expertly curated wine and cocktail selection. Be sure to end your meal with the legendary hot chocolate soufflé.
Best Pancakes: Kate’s Pancake House (Carolina Beach)
Located just a couple blocks from the legendary Britt’s Donuts, Kate’s boasts a bright pink and green exterior, and a bright and sunny interior – a perfect setting for some spectacular pancakes. There are more than a dozen pancake styles on the menu, enough for every whim; you can go traditional (bananas, pecans, walnuts, and whipped cream); wild (stuffed with graham crackers and chocolate chips and topped with marshmallow, chocolate syrup, and whipped cream); or somewhere in-between (sweet potato pancakes with cinnamon chips, nuts, and whipped cream); but even if you just get a plain stack with butter and syrup, you can rest assured that these pancakes are the finest the state has to offer.
Best Pizza: Pizzeria Omaggio (Charlotte)
“Omaggio” is Italian for “homage,” and everything this restaurant does is an homage to its Italian roots. The restaurant itself is modeled after authentic Italian pizza restaurants, the ingredients are as fresh as can be, and pizzas are cooked in a blazing hot oven. There’s a massive variety of pizzas on offer, including 13 “classic” pizzas (for example the Calabrese, with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, homemade Italian sausage, pepperoni, pecorino Romano, and olive oil) and eight white pizzas (including the Pera Gorgonzola, with whole milk mozzarella, gorgonzola, and sliced pears). If you’d prefer to decorate your own pie, you can choose from 30 different toppings, including homemade Italian sausage or meatballs, San Daniele prosciutto, basil pesto, and goat cheese.
Best Restaurant for Breakfast: Terrace (Charlotte)
Food made from scratch with fresh and seasonal ingredients with a Southern twist is the name of the game at Terrace, which has two locations that open at 7 a.m. daily and at 8 on Sundays. Founded by Stewart Penick (his son Jacob runs the kitchen), Terrace’s breakfast menu is massive and locally renowned. Specialties include fresh spiced doughnuts, fried green tomatoes, Southern sausage Benedict with sausage gravy, shrimp and grits, daily quiche, open-faced barbecue pulled pork biscuit, red velvet waffles, lemon poppy seed French toast, carrot cake pancakes, and chicken and waffles. But whatever you order, you really can’t go wrong.
Best Restaurant: Lantern Restaurant (Chapel Hill)
For many, chef Andrea Reusing’s Lantern needs no introduction. The Asian cuisine-inspired restaurant with a strong priority for using North Carolina ingredients and has won widespread recognition. Chef Reusing is the winner of the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast, and the restaurant was a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Outstanding Restaurant award this year. The menu is variable, but standouts include red-cooked Chapel Hill Creamery pork shank with star anise, steamed lotus leaf rice, Edward’s ham, local mushrooms, and braised watercress.
Best Ribs: The Pit (Raleigh)
Don’t let the simple name fool you — this is one special place. Legendary pitmaster Ed Mitchell founded The Pit in 2007, and although he’s no longer a part of the venture, it’s still imbued with his famous touch. They source pigs in-state, all raised using free-range farming practices, and the proof is in the pudding — or the ribs, if you will. They have whole and half racks of baby back ribs, but you should really order the Carolina-style ribs because, as its menu cheers, they have “more bone, more fat, more flavor!”
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Best Sandwich: Chopped BBQ, Lexington Barbecue (Lexington)
It’s all about the pork when it comes to “Lexington-style” North Carolina barbecue, and though countless restaurants are serving their take on smoked pork shoulder sandwiches, none quite compare to Lexington Barbecue, going strong since 1962. You can order yours sliced or chopped (we prefer chopped), but make sure you don’t skimp on the slaw, a tangy mix of cabbage, vinegar, and pepper. It’s a smoky, porky, perfect expression of a beloved regional barbecue style.
Best Seafood Shack: Yacht Provision Company (Southport)
Located along a shipping channel and first established in 1993, the Yacht Provision Company serves a top-notch grouper salad sandwich and fresh steamed shrimp, both of which are ideally washed down with some craft beer. While you're eating, sit back and watch the sun set at the mouth of Cape Fear.
Best Soup: Matzo Ball Soup, Lucky’s Delicatessen (Durham)
Yelp/ Celeste C.
Three-time James Beard Award semifinalist Matt Kelly has turned his attention to Italian- and Jewish-inspired comfort food at his newest restaurant, with astonishing results. The broth is rich and deeply flavored, and the matzo balls are light but hearty, made with some serious skill.
Best Steakhouse: Angus Barn (Raleigh)
Yelp/ Emily H
This sprawling compound is home to two event spaces, two lounges, private dining rooms, one of the country’s largest wine cellars, and a classy restaurant serving the best steaks in the state. Steaks are dry-aged and include a 42-ounce bone-in tomahawk rib-eye, chateaubriand, prime rib, and a 15-ounce New York strip; add-ons include Oscar (crab, asparagus, and hollandaise), blue cheese and balsamic glaze, and sautéed onions. All steaks are served with your choice of soup, salad, and potato, and as many menu items as possible are sourced from local North Carolina farms.
Best Tacos: Barbacoa, Tacos La Vaquita (Durham)
Thomas R. via Yelp
Since the turn of the millennium, Durham has experienced a boom in the size of its Hispanic community, and helping to give the city’s new residents a taste of home is Tacos La Vaquita. There’s a whole lot to love about the menu, but make sure to order the barbacoa taco. It’s composed of flavored beef with chopped onions, cilantro, radish, and green or red sauce, all rolled into a handmade corn tortilla. For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2019.
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