Raleigh, North Carolina was a pleasant surprise for me. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't the young, vibrant city I found. Undergoing gentrification in many areas, wonderful restaurants abound. In fact, Glenwood Avenue is literally blocks of one restaurant after another. You will need a car or Uber to visit most of these restaurants, but the farthest we drove was 10 minutes. If you are staying downtown, your choices of dining experiences within a comfortable walking distance will be a bit more limited.
Located in a majestic historic building in downtown Raleigh, Caffé Luna is well known for serving Italian cuisine with a Tuscan flair. It is a seriously cute, homey restaurant with several dining areas. It felt like we were having dinner in someone's house and not a restaurant. Good for that homey feeling, but bad because it can feel a little closed in. (My only negative).
When you hear a restaurant has a reputation as one of the best Italian in Raleigh, of course you are going to order pasta. Three of us did and would have to agree. One ordered salmon and professed it as excellent, too. Caffe Luna also has a reputation for its service and making you feel like family. We would whole heartedly agree!
42nd St. Oyster Bar
Okay, I'll admit 42nd St. Oyster Bar is a bit touristy, but when a restaurant has been an institution in Raleigh since 1931, you just have to visit. It's a really large open space with dark wood, a large bar area, and an open kitchen. It is also a lot of fun. Several great options on the menu are the raw oysters - of which there are multiple choices - Manhattan Clam Chowder, Shrimp and Grits, and Crab Cakes.
I was appreciative that the restaurant has a commitment to serving the highest quality food and drinks and sourcing local products. With the motto "Seafood Any Fresher Would Still Be in the Ocean", you have a lot to live up to and 42nd St. Oyster Bar does! They also have live music on weekends.
Located on Glenwood Avenue or restaurant row, Sullivan's should satisfy anyone's craving for a great steakhouse. Besides, it is constantly showing up on best restaurants lists, so they must be doing something right. With the look and feel of an old world steakhouse, the restaurant does not disappoint in any aspects.
Sullivan's menu covers a lot of the classics, including filet mignon, lobster, burgers, soups, and salads. The side dishes are equally impressive and include baked potato, macaroni and cheese, king crab, gnocchi, and much more. They were even very happy to accommodate this vegetarian. With an amazing dining experience and great location, reservations are recommended.
Crawford and Son
This really popular restaurant is perfect for foodies. They serve straight forward, honest food that ranges from the familiar to the unexpected. But be aware, the menu is very limited with only 5 entrees to choose from. That said, there should be something for everyone, including vegetarians. A few menu standouts included the yellowtail crudo, seared swordfish, and chicken confit, along with the warm malted wheat rolls which are a side dish and a must order. They also offer "blue plate specials" Tuesday - Thursday based on what comfort food dish they are craving.
The interior is a rather dark space of gray, brick, and wood and is a bit on the masculine side. It can also be noisy, so might not be the place for an intimate dinner. Reservations are a must at this popular neighborhood restaurant located in historic Oakwood.
The Fiction Kitchen
I was SO disappointed that I did not get to try the Fiction Kitchen. It is rare to find amazing vegan/vegetarian restaurants and I certainly wasn't expecting it in Raleigh. And while it is vegetarian, it is regarded as one of the best restaurants in Raleigh, known for offering great food that you don't have to be a vegetarian to enjoy. But, it is only open for dinner and Sunday brunch and there just wasn't enough time to hit every restaurant I wanted to.
Some of the favorite dishes include Eastern NC Styled BBQ Pulled "Pork" and Crispy Fried "Chicken" with Waffles. Of course, it's mock chicken cooked in a special combination of herbs and seasoning before frying and serving with fluffy Belgian waffles. Another popular dish is the Mushroom Risotto. There's also a full bar.
Fiction Kitchen is located in the really hip Warehouse District of Downtown Raleigh. We walked to the district during the day, but if I was heading back for dinner, I'd drive or Uber.
18 Seaboard is housed in a repurposed, historic coastal train depot. It is one of Raleigh's top-rated restaurants. Committed to serving contemporary Southern inspired dishes, over 60% of their ingredients are sourced from North Carolina farms, ranches, fishmongers, and dairies. Some of the most popular dishes include cheese grits, fried green tomatoes, catfish, salmon, and brisket and we actually tried them all. Now, how often do you see brisket on a menu and their's melted in your mouth.
I loved the ambiance with its really pretty brick walls, soft lighting, high ceilings, and modern touches. They also have a really nice bar in the front of the restaurant. There was an issue with the service, but they knew how to make up for it...When the waitress didn't return to get me a drink, one of my fellow diners went to the bar themselves. Once she realized this, the waitress profusely apologized and actually comped the drink for me and brought us dessert on the house!
Ever heard of a four-in-one-concept establishment? I certainly had not and Brewery Bhavana has to be one of the oddest concepts for a restaurant I've seen. But then I love quirky. It's part brewery, dim-sum restaurant, bookstore, and flower shop! Yes, you read that right. Apparently, it's a concept that caught on as it earned a spot on Bon Appetit's 2017 list of America's Best New Restaurants.
The menu is wonderful and offers tons of vegetarian options, all clearly marked. Some of the favorites were the Seafood Dumplings, Scallion Pancakes, Crab Fried Rice, Lo Mein, and General Tso's Chicken. We ended up sharing many of the dishes and it worked well.
Brewery Bhavana is located in the historic Moore Square Park in downtown Raleigh next door to Caffe Luna. It is open for lunch and dinner. Reservations are highly recommended. In fact, I called several weeks before we were going to Raleigh and got one of the last dinner reservations. But, even if you can't get in for dinner, pop in just to see what a four-in-one concept restaurant looks like. I have to say I'd want to go just for the ambiance. It's a really pretty, ethereal-type atmosphere where you just want to linger. You can even just browse in the flower and book shops under skylights and by fig trees!
The brother-and-sister team behind Brewery Bhavana also own the Laotian restaurant next door, Bida Manda.
We actually had more than one meal at this gem as it was located across the street from our hotel. It also serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so that made it even more convenient. My husband actually kept going back for the Biblical Breakfast, which is artisanal bread served with peanut, almond & coconut butter topped with fig preserves, maple syrup & fresh fruit. You'll find tons of wonderful options in salads, sandwiches, bowls, and even pizza!
What I loved is the restaurant's committed to serving 100% organic, plant-based dishes and how they celebrate living foods. They believe that preparing food is a labor of love and that health, beauty, and art can be served on a plate. A bright, open space with an open kitchen, you can eat in or get food and drink to go. But will all that love of healthy food, they do serve wine and beer!