Need a reason to head to North Carolina? How about to sate your craving for fresh-from-the-water seafood, locally produced cheeses and a delectable range of produce and fruit? The state just a few hours up I-85 has it all, and it’s in the capable hands of chefs who are building reputations for their dedication to showcasing the best of their regions. Here are just a few suggestions where you’ll find food worth driving for.
Mary’s Gourmet Diner
In 2014, this family-owned, everything-from-scratch eatery opened in a former bank building on the edge of Winston-Salem’s art district. But it had already established itself in a smaller spot (under the name Mary’s Of Course!) as the place to go for locally sourced, organic food where nothing was fried. Its main attraction has long been breakfast, and the menu at Mary’s covers all the bases, and then some. The build-your-own omelets and egg scrambles have more than 40 ingredients to choose from. Cornmeal griddle cakes, biscuits and gravy, and breakfast nachos (all the traditional elements, plus eggs) are joined by salads, sandwiches and sides. While dining, guests can get a look at what local artists are up to: The works of five artists are featured on the walls in giant designs. (The most eye-catching might be “Women Warriors,” a piece that has the female combatants armed with culinary instruments.) Be sure to check out the Art-o-Mat, a refurbished cigarette vending machine now stocked with works of art. Breakfast and lunch are served six days a week.
723 Trade St., Winston-Salem 27101. 336-723-7239, marysgourmetdiner.net.
Atlanta’s loss is Wilmington’s gain in this restaurant under the helm of executive chef and owner Dean Neff. The UGA grad began cooking as a kid on Tybee Island, matured under the tutelage of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group and branched out as the sous chef for Hugh Acheson’s 5&10 in Athens. He moved up to executive chef and helped open Empire State South. After a stint in Asheville, Neff opened PinPoint in an 1890s building a block from the Cape Fear riverfront. His locally sourced seafood and produce have been applauded by locals and critics alike. The short, Southern-inspired menu is long on tasty bites, particularly the baked North Carolina oysters topped with roasted, local shrimp; North Carolina blue crab fritters paired with fried green tomatoes; and North Carolina catfish, smoked to a crisp and served with creamy grits. Brunch selections range from classic egg dishes to oyster frittata, braised lamb tacos, fried chicken biscuits and cornmeal-crusted catfish. The menu changes daily, so call ahead to see what’s coming out of the kitchen. And save room for treats from pastry chef Lydia Clopton, another UGA grad who met Neff in Athens and said, “yes” when he proposed.
114 Market St., Wilmington 28401. 910-769-2972, pinpointrestaurant.com.
Smoky Park Supper Club
Nestled on almost two acres that sidle up to the French Broad River in Asheville’s River Arts district, the Smoky Park Supper Club is worth a visit just for the picturesque setting and its unusual architecture: It’s made from shipping containers. But stay for the food, prepared by executive chef Michelle Bailey, who blends the Blue Ridge Mountains locale with smoke from the wood-fired ovens and grill. An extensive bar menu offers a selection to go with a glass or two; smoked shrimp, butternut squash soup, oysters and salads are just a few. The oven roasts a range of goodies, including mussels with a smoked garlic crème fraiche; apples stuffed with kale, squash, walnuts and cheese; and garlic and lemon chicken, as well as an assortment of local produce. Even a few desserts get the wood-fired treatment: Look for the apple and fig crisp with an oat and almond crust or the smoked coconut and chocolate semifreddo. The grounds include the Boat House, an open-air event pavilion that hosts local musicians during the week and can be reserved for private events. Plans are in the works to add a dock.
350 Riverside Dr., Asheville 28801. 828-350-0315, smokypark.com.
The best way to enjoy this new Raleigh eatery is to stop looking at the time. Plan on being in the moment and savoring the Mediterranean fare as leisurely as possible – the way the cuisine is meant to be enjoyed. Linger over the selection of more than 50 wines on tap and 200 by the bottle, and pair them with a variety of small plates meant to be shared. Executive Chef Ian Sullivan employs a wood-fired grill and stone hearth to create charred octopus with a chorizo vinaigrette, beef skewers with Greek yogurt, a mélange of roasted vegetables and flatbreads topped with fig jam, sheep’s milk blue cheese and arugula. A smaller selection of large plates features grilled branzino, house-made linguini, hand-rolled agnolotti, black rice risotto, rotisserie pork shoulder and chicken with oregano, rosemary and paprika. In between is an array of seafood (oysters, prawns, mussels, scallops) and beef (steak tartare, hanger steak, ribeye). In contrast to the classic flavors, the soaring, two-story space has a contemporary design, with sleek hardwoods and matching butcher-block tables, low-slung chairs and several cutting-edge artistic elements, including a network of wood squares suspended from the ceiling and almost 400 pieces of blown glass cascading down a wall.
500 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh 27603. 919-803-6033, vidrioraleigh.com.
It’s hard to classify the cuisine at Never Blue, a homey Hendersonville restaurant that boasts about its menu of many countries. Yet most of its highlights hail from the Southern regions: crab cakes with Cajun remoulade, smoked Gouda and sour cream grits, Cuban-style black beans, jerk chicken and barbecue pork nachos. Diners will also find Yankee pot roast, ground lamb patties, Korean barbecue pork sliders and duck wontons. It’s taken classically trained pastry chef Jesse Roque eight years to create the mélange after opening as a bakery and cafe with her husband and mother (whose artworks still hang on some of the blue-brick walls). But the switch has proved enormously popular, and last year Roque was named the 2016 North Carolina Chef of the Year by the state’s Restaurant and Lodging Association.
119 S. Main St., Hendersonville 28792. 828-693-4646, theneverblue.com.
As a hotel-centered restaurant, this space in the boutique Durham Hotel in Durham does it all, offering guests and locals alike a casual coffee cafe, a full bar and an inviting dining destination for breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner. The main dining room features a menu focused on Southern favorites and plenty of seafood. In 2011, Andrea Reusing was named the James Beard Foundation’s best chef in the Southeast, and she brought her commitment to home-style originality to the Durham in 2015. Though the menu changes daily, look for some staples: heirloom apples, country ham, dry-aged steaks, locally raised chicken and homemade butter and cheese. The dramatic dining room boasts a two-story ceiling and a soaring wall of windows above a vivid white and red carpet. A rooftop bar serves a limited menu of bites and raw bar selections to go with the wines and hand-crafted cocktails. In the winter the bar is closed in, blankets adorn the seats and warmer fare (think soups) is served.
315 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham. 919-768-8831, thedurham.com.