As the name suggests, the Triangle is actually three distinct cities. There’s Raleigh, the state capital; Durham, where old tobacco factories now house luxury apartments and restaurants; and Chapel Hill, a college town that’s home to (debatably) the oldest public university in the country. Each one has its own distinct personality, and the beauty of being here is that they’re all within about 30 minutes of each other.
This collection of cities is home to a world-class college basketball rivalry, a major research hub, and the largest population of lemurs outside Madagascar. But if you’re anything like us, right after booking a lemur tour, deciding where to eat and drink is the highest priority.
Most places here are pretty casual - centered around craft beer, counter service, and dog-friendly outdoor seating that’s accessible a good eight months of the year. But if you feel like doing something a little more upscale, we have you covered for that, too. So whether you’re a new student, a recent transplant, or just here for the weekend, we put together a list of our favorite places to eat and drink in the Triangle. We organized them by city, so you can head to a place nearby, or find somewhere worth taking a short drive to (there are plenty).
If you were planning to scan this guide just to find the word “barbecue,” we made it easy for you by putting Clyde Cooper’s first. When you want Carolina-style, vinegar-based pork barbecue, this Raleigh spot is where you should get it. It’s one of the oldest barbecue spots in the state (it opened in 1938) and both the slow-roasted pork shoulder and baby-back ribs can rival any other barbecue in the Triangle. They also make fried chicken and brisket, along with all the usual sides.
An all-in-one craft brewery, flower shop, bookstore, and dim sum restaurant sounds like something made up by a bot created to generate restaurant ideas. Actually, though, all of that comes together to make of the best places in Raleigh. Brewery Bhavana’s Chinese menu is made up of dim sum and larger plates, with a few high-end ingredients thrown in like scallion pancakes with bone marrow, and shrimp and pork shumai with caviar (despite this, prices are still reasonable). Head here with another person to stand at the long bar and drink a few of their 40 house-brewed beers on tap, or bring a group to the bustling but not deafeningly loud dining room.
Technically, Poole’s is a diner. Really though, it’s more like a cross between the cleanest diner you’ve ever seen and a dark Manhattan bar from the Mad Men era. The red leather banquettes and barstools make it feel more appropriate for a nice dinner with someone you like, and dishes like watermelon salad and risotto make it clear that it’s not the place to come in your classic diner uniform of pajamas for a hungover breakfast. Get the macaroni au gratin, but other than that, the chalkboard menu changes daily and is always full of things we want to eat. Just make sure you don’t overlook the vegetables - they never taste overly healthy and are usually some of the most creative dishes here.
The perfect one-two punch for dinner and drinks isn’t always easy to find, but Garland manages to pull off the best - and possibly only - one-two-three punch in Raleigh. You could spend an entire night here between the restaurant, club downstairs, and music venue on top. Focus on the dishes with both Indian and Southern touches like fried chicken thighs with turmeric-yogurt sauce, coconut-poached shrimp with fried tapioca, and spiced lamb shank osso bucco with channa dal, while staring at the gallery wall of mostly bright red paintings that you’ll want to recreate at home. Dinner here is the perfect start, middle, or end to your (incredibly convenient) night.
Maybe you have a long layover, your flight got majorly delayed, or your ticket says 8 pm not am. Regardless, if you’re at or near RDU and don’t want to hole up at A&W after spending $18 on water and a bag of almonds, consider calling a car for very short drive to Lonerider. Order a beer in the small, relatively dark indoor bar, then head straight out to the sprawling lawn with plenty of covered picnic tables. There are usually some food trucks too in case you’re considering “accidentally” missing your flight.
Like pairing a ball gown with a leather jacket or drinking Champagne at a tailgate, Crawford and Sons toes the line between fancy and cool. You’ll eat Southern-inspired food that’s topped with edible flowers and more thoughtfully put together than a NASA launch, but then you’ll see bathroom walls covered in wallpaper that looks like a tattoo artist’s practice sheet. It may seem disjointed, but once you try some of the food, like chicken confit with creamed corn and pork cheeks with cheese grits, you’ll realize it all works perfectly well. Weekend reservations are basically required, but there are usually a few bar seats available - even if you just want to stop by for desserts like peaches and cream pie, which we fully endorse.
Even though it’s a 25-minute drive from downtown, La Farm Bakery in Cary is worth finding an excuse to go to the area, whether it’s for the North Carolina Museum of Art or a hike in nearby William B. Umstead State Park. This French bakery has scones, cookies, pastries, and a white chocolate baguette that definitely counts as bread, not dessert. There are also sandwiches like the Croque Madame, or the grilled cheese made with three cheeses and mornay sauce. Finding a seat can sometimes be a pain, but tables turn quickly despite the fact that no one ever wants to leave here.
Your friend thinks eating in a campus dining hall might be fun. Instead of getting stuck listening to a 19-year-old talk about how the TA they’re in love with is out to get them, go to Transfer Co. Food Hall instead. The dozens of plants and fresh flower arrangements keep this place from feeling like a cafeteria and it’s a great way to try a bunch of local spots all at once. There’s Benchwarmers for wood-fired bagel sandwiches, Chhote’s for Indian street food, Bul Box for Korean-inspired rice bowls, and many others. You can also grab a drink at the bar and take it anywhere in the food hall, or to one of the tables outside.
There are three Trophy locations - one hosts food trucks, another has a bar food menu - but when you want arguably the best pizza in Raleigh, head to the third location on Morgan. You can choose a specialty pie like the Local Celebrity (corn base, fontina, tomato, cheerwine-braised brisket, and jalapeno pesto) or The Indoor Kid (garlic herb cream sauce, spinach, artichokes, provolone, and parmesan), or make your own. Regardless of what you choose, it’ll go perfectly with one of their beers on tap.
When people aren’t getting heated about sports and different shades of blue here, they’re usually arguing over where to find the best food - from barbecue to biscuits to hot dogs. For the latter, instead of getting caught in the middle of a Char Grill vs. Snoopy’s debate, just head to our favorite, Roast Grill. The hot dogs are served “burnt,” which really means perfectly crispy on the outside. Be warned, there’s a ban on ketchup, mayo, and relish, so unless you smuggle some in (which frankly, we’ve never tried but aren’t above), you’ll choose between mustard, chopped onions, and chili. There are no fries or other sides either, but you should look at that as the perfect excuse to just eat another hot dog or two.
If you have one breakfast in Durham, or you land at RDU any time before 2pm, the first place you should go to is Monuts. What started as a donut cart at the farmers market is now a bright, large space with tables and a wraparound coffee bar - and one of the best and most popular breakfast/lunch spots in the area. This means on weekends, there’s a line from morning until close (4pm), but it moves quickly and gives you more time to choose between the eight or so donut options. Get a few to share along with a BEC with maple sriracha, an open-faced sandwich with chevre and farmer’s market vegetables, or fried chicken biscuits with pickles and hot honey.
Every so often, you miss college-aged you. Not the crippling anxiety over your future or 20-page papers, but the ability to brush off a hangover after about 20 minutes. For the present day you and the hangovers that usually last a full day, there’s Dame’s Chicken and Waffles. You can pick a waffle, a schmear (scoops of whipped butter in flavors like maple pecan and orange honeycomb), and type of chicken you want on top. Or you can go with one of their signature options if that sounds like an unsolvable SAT question in your current state. And, if breakfast cakes topped with fried meat just aren’t your thing but you’re a good sport humoring your friends, there are also options like sausage-filled shrimp and grits or an egg-and-sausage breakfast platter.
Yes, Gocciolina is an Italian restaurant in a strip mall, but you’ll forget that the second you enter the just-crowded-enough dining room. From the old-timey photos on the walls of people shoving pasta into their mouths to the tall breadsticks in the middle of the table that always taste like childhood, you’ll immediately know this is somewhere you want to eat pasta - and they happen to make some of the best in the city. The appetizers and pastas are all small-ish portions, but nothing’s over $14, which makes it easy to get a few things to share for the table, like the spicy chickpeas and the crispy fried eggplant, as well as spaghetti carbonara and one of the raviolis. Walk-ins are welcome, but you’re better off making a reservation, especially for groups larger than two and on the weekends.
Parker and Otis is a counter-service lunch spot inside a kitschy gift shop that sells things like local jams, hand-painted egg cups, and the kind of drink coasters that someone definitely gifted you for your housewarming two years ago. But what you really come here for are some of our favorite sandwiches in Durham. Somehow they’re able to make options like egg salad or turkey, bacon, and avocado far better than what you’ll get anywhere else - especially since they all come with a side of some of the best coleslaw we’ve ever had. Order inside, accidentally buy $20 worth of bulk candy while you wait, then eat on the airy outdoor patio.
Even if you’re someone who only thinks of cider as a lesser beer alternative for the gluten-free crowd, this craft cidery on the outskirts of downtown Durham will change your mind. It’s hard to go wrong with the dry flagship cider, but it’s the more experimental brews that we really love. If it’s your first visit, get a flight of options like a ginger-based Rhize Up, pumpkin-y Jack and Oak, and ghost pepper-infused Spooky Mango. The industrial indoor space is filled with long communal tables, and the outdoor picnic tables on their huge front lawn are great if you have dogs or kids tagging along.
Maybe you’re a recent transplant from a bigger city and you’re wary of all this open space and the strangers who make eye contact. When you find yourself looking for a loud, buzzy restaurant, head to Pizzeria Toro for dinner. There’s an open kitchen with a huge pizza oven, a long communal table down the center, and smaller tables and counters around the edge of the room. The wood-fired pizzas are thin and crispy on the bottom, with a chewy, blistered crust, and while the margherita is one of the best options, you can also choose from topping combinations like fennel sausage with roasted peppers and provolone, or a soft egg with oyster mushrooms, arugula, and parmesan. Like the pizzas, the appetizers change seasonally, but the bitter kale salad with parmesan and Calabrian chilis is a must, as is finishing with the fried-to-order zeppoles.
If it’s raining - or you’re unlucky enough to be in town on the one day a year that Durham panics over a half-inch of snow - Hi-Wire is your best bet. You’ll find whatever you’re looking for on the beer list, including one of the best session IPAs we’ve ever had, but don’t leave without trying one of their sours or wild ales. There are also indoor picnic tables and games like ping pong and shuffleboard, as well as “soccer pool,” which replaces pool balls and cues with soccer balls and feet, and is so much harder than you think.
Spending a few hours drinking at a picnic table under string lights at Parts and Labor is practically a Durham rite of passage. This indoor/outdoor space is more bar than restaurant, but it’s definitely worth coming hungry. Cheeseburger sliders and a soft pretzel with beer cheese cover the bar food bases, but the menu is also filled with interesting (and often vegetarian-friendly) things like eggplant chapati and beef bulgogi tacos. And if you want to keep the night going, head right across the street to Fullsteam Brewery, where you’ll find one of the most extensive beer selections in Durham.
Saltbox Seafood Joint is a true fish shack - you order at one window, pick up from another, and then you’re on your own to find seating at one of the few picnic tables scattered around. It’s somewhere you’d expect to find at the beach, rather than in the middle of landlocked suburbia. But don’t let the lack of ambiance (or a roof) turn you off, this is some of the best seafood in the triangle. Saltbox sources their seafood daily, so the selection depends on what’s available, but you can always get the fish grilled or fried, and on a platter with potatoes and slaw or sandwiched inside a buttery hot dog bun.
Whether you just finished a morning run through Duke Forest or are about to start an afternoon of finding out how bad your seasonal allergies can be at the Duke Gardens, head to nearby Eastcut Sandwich Bar. The place is huge, with plenty of parking and an outdoor garden that’s open all year, with heat lamps for colder months. The seasonally-changing menu always includes at least two vegetarian options alongside things like the Cheese-Fry Steak Hero, a cheesesteak filled with curly fries that’s really just a more efficient way to eat your meal. Get one of their boozy slushies with lunch and don’t skip the giant mozzarella sticks, because what’s better after some exercise than large pieces of fried cheese?
Vimala’s, right off student-heavy Franklin Street, has a quiet courtyard and very kind staff, and it’s one of the first restaurants we send people to in Chapel Hill. On the menu, you’ll see familiar Indian dishes like vegetable samosas, chicken curry, and saag paneer, and everything here tends to be on the lighter side (in a good way). The counter service/open kitchen make eating here feel very casual, especially since you can grab a beer or glass of wine and camp out on the patio for a little while.
Craft breweries and taprooms are everywhere in the Triangle, but cocktail bars are still harder to come by. The Crunkleton is easy to miss on Franklin (the main street that runs adjacent to UNC’s campus), but it’s the best cocktail bar in Chapel Hill. If it’s your first time, you’ll need to sign up for a membership - North Carolina technically doesn’t allow bars, so any place that serves alcohol without food is classified as a “private club” - but it’s just a matter of signing a piece of paper and paying a $5 fee. Pick something from the leather-bound cocktail menu, like the Carrboro 75 (our favorite) or a mezcal sour, or have one of the bowtied bartenders make you something different.
Lantern is the perfect way to start a night on Franklin with a few friends, whether you plan on following it up with a quiet drink at the Crunkleton or a (much) rowdier couple of hours at any of the bars lining the street. Lantern’s menu mixes Southern and Asian ingredients, which means pork-and-chive dumplings and spicy Sichuan noodles alongside Indian-spiced fried okra and tea-smoked chicken with kale. The dining room is bright and minimalist, but the best place to sit is under the red lanterns in the dimly-lit upstairs bar, sharing small plates and cocktails. There’s also a new-ish garden patio that’s a little more calm.
Most of Franklin Street is quiet during weekdays while students are in class, but Med Deli’s daily lunch rush is the exception. Every afternoon, dozens of people crowd in front of packed deli cases and order from a huge menu of sandwiches, platters, and pre-made salads. Pick a few mezze from the cold counter and make a plate, or get falafel or kebobs in a pita, or over rice. This is a great place for vegetarians but it works for just about anyone. Get your lunch to-go and eat on UNC’s Lower Quad or drive ten minutes and sit on rocking chairs at the botanical gardens. Or skip the crowd entirely and head in for a sit-down dinner.
The only downside to ordering a pastrami, egg, and cheese biscuit sandwich for breakfast at Neal’s is that once you’ve tried it, it might ruin regular BECs for a while. Neal’s is in Carrboro, a small town that’s home to many graduate students and professors, and that’s just a 20-minute walk or seven-minute drive from UNC’s campus. Head here for the classics, like reuben sandwiches, Italian subs, and dill-heavy chicken salad, alongside Southern staples like pimento cheese on white bread, breakfast biscuit sandwiches, and pickled green tomatoes. Space is limited, so come alone or in a small group if you’re hoping to snag a seat inside or on the front porch.
There’s a time and a place for fancy, expensive burgers, but when you’re looking for the opposite, there’s nowhere better than Al’s. Their classic cheeseburger is a thick patty cooked medium, topped with cheddar, and served on a squishy potato bun for under $9. You can choose from options like the Kenny J with bacon, BBQ sauce, and pimento cheese, or one of the two meatless burgers, a sweet potato and black bean patty and a caramelized roasted cauliflower one, that really hold their own. There are three locations within a 10-minute drive from the UNC campus, and they’re all pretty small, with just a handful of tables and patios, so expect people to hover (or just ask if they can squeeze onto one end of your table) if you linger.
If you’re in the mood for a beer but not in the mood for excited “21-year-olds” who look suspiciously young, head to Steel String Brewery. On the western side of downtown Carrboro, it’s just about walkable from downtown Chapel Hill, but further than undergrads tend to go. Compared to other warehouse-style breweries in the area, this one is relatively small, with a dozen or so tables inside an exposed brick interior, plus a handful more under string lights out front. There’s often a food truck parked nearby for when you go in the early afternoon and “accidentally” find yourself still there at dinner time.