Located in the second-fastest-growing county in the United States, the city of Raleigh isn't the North Carolina you think you know.
While the bathroom bill passed by the state's then-governor in 2016 saw bands such as Pearl Jam and Maroon 5 cancel shows in the city, and conferences and conventions pulling out in boycott – the law, since repealed, required people at government facilities to use restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates – the state capital is, in fact, a hotbed of diversity. Greater Raleigh gains an average of 47 new residents each day (India, China and Mexico are the top three originating countries of those moving here from abroad), and more than 30 per cent of the population is non-white. Meanwhile, Raleigh's median age is nearly three years younger than the rest of the state.
But although Raleigh is often lumped together with the other two points on the Research Triangle – together with Durham and Chapel Hill, the three neighbouring cities are so-called for the high proportion of technology and research facilities and companies within their limits – the historically staid and corporate Raleigh has only recently begun to emerge as an entrepreneurial, culinary hub in its own right.
There's no better embodiment of what's happening here than Brewery Bhavana, recently crowned No. 10 on Bon Appétit's list of the best new restaurants in the United States. The word "restaurant" is actually far too narrow a descriptor for the nearly 9,000-square-foot space, which improbably combines a brewery, flower shop, bookstore and dim-sum restaurant inside a 100-year-old carriage house. It's gorgeous, eclectic and perpetually packed. On a Friday night, more than 1,000 guests may walk through Bhavana's door, Vansana Nolintha, one of its founders, said.
While he notes that there is no true link between Bhavana's various concepts other than its decor, Nolintha said the idea was about packing the space with positive energy. "Bhavana is tied to the things we love in our lives," Nolintha said. "We thought, what would happen if we put them all in one room? The more vulnerable we are and the more we share, the more empathy we can create."
From the city's chefs to its thriving art and maker cultures, it's an objective that seems to be prolific here.
The Mayton Inn
It's not just downtown Raleigh that's thriving – growth in the city is also fuelling its suburbs. About a 15-minute drive from the town centre, Cary is in the midst of its own revitalization, with a new town-square-style park, arts centre and renovated theatre. The Mayton Inn, Greater Raleigh's newest boutique hotel, is part of the plan; the city lent owners Deanna and Colin Crossman – the husband and wife behind the award-winning King's Daughters Inn in nearby Durham – $1.4-million (U.S.) to help build and open the 44-room property, on the condition they create 40 jobs for low- and middle-income families.
With more guestrooms, a restaurant and bar, spa and gym, the Mayton is far more ambitious than the couple's first outing, a B&B in nearby Durham, and also sleeker and more chic – nouveau Southern, if you will, with bold, poppy colours and local art. While its stately Georgian exterior looks historic, the property is cutting-edge, with an emphasis on sustainability, from the 91,000-litre rainwater cistern tucked under the terrace to the low-flow faucets and shower heads and high-efficiency toilets. Breakfast – complimentary for guests – can be ordered to guestrooms via a tablet for those who need their morning coffee before they're up for exploring the heart of the city.
From $224 (U.S.); maytoninn.com.
Eat and drink
Chef/owner Cheetie Kumar came to Raleigh more than 20 years ago after falling hard for the city's music scene while visiting on spring break. Today she cooks eclectic Indian and pan-Asian dishes such as chicken 65 with turmeric yogurt sauce and bhelpuri (lots of veg-friendly and gluten-free options), and ghee-based North Carolina peanut pralines with an unlikely kick of cumin at her ground-floor restaurant, Garland. On nights off, Kumar plays with her husband in a rock band at their upstairs venue Kings. The pair also has a cocktail bar in the basement and – lest you think she's an underachiever – Kumar was a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award, one of four nominees in Raleigh this year. garlandraleigh.com
A full wall of the massive Bhavana Brewery space is flanked by a white marble slab holding more than 40 taps – but don't let that fool you: Bhavana Brewery isn't your average brewpub. With three sections that flow into one another, encouraging movement through each, the bar and restaurant are alive and social. Start with a deeply aromatic Bloom, a tripel made with cardamom, or mango peppercorn saison – two of Bhavana's core offerings – then perhaps stop to browse the books that line the floor-to-ceiling shelves in the airy centre room or smell the flowers in the florist at the front, before settling in to a table for edamame and ginger dumplings, chicken curry bao and other perfect dim-sum bites.
The Green Light
Hidden behind a bookcase in a second-storey dance club, the 32-seat Green Light bar (named because if the green light is on, the bar is open) is a candle-lit speakeasy with a chilled-out, cozy vibe and great craft cocktails. Text 919-699-5256 for reservations.
Raleigh Denim Workshop
Victor Lytvinenko, who, with his wife, Sarah Yarborough, started making jeans out of their apartment 10 years ago, says he is inspired by trends in coffee roasting, breweries and wine-making. It's a curious link, until he explains the core principles behind his $200-$300 (U.S.) denim: quality over quantity, seasonal, small-batch production. How exactly does this apply to jeans, you may be wondering? Raleigh Denim's pants are cut and sewn by hand in a workshop at the back of Lytvinenko and Yarborough's Warehouse District store, using North Carolina cotton. Even the machines used to stitch each pair of jeans hark back to a golden era of clothesmaking: Lytvinenko scoured factory sales to find antique sewing machines.
Boxcar Bar + Arcade
Located in the Warehouse District and popular with locals of all ages, this combo bar-arcade is the stuff of teenage rec-room dreams: 6,500 square feet of vintage and modern arcade games, skee-ball, air hockey, screens hooked up to Nintendo and Atari consoles and two-dozen craft beers on tap. theboxcarbar.com
Capital Area Greenway
Starting from downtown, hop on a bike and pedal for about 30 minutes to the North Carolina Museum of Art via the greenway. At your destination you'll find innovative installations and special events, including a temporary exhibition tracing the influence of Ebony magazine over 50 years. ncartmuseum.org
This one is out of the downtown area but worth the trip. It's not every day that you happen upon a James Beard-nominated French bakery in a strip mall – but a non-descript plaza in Cary is exactly where you'll find locals queuing dozens deep for bread baked by Lionel Vatinet, a French-born member of Les Compagnons du Devoir, an organization of artisans that dates back to the Middle Ages. Vatinet works closely with local farmers to grow heirloom wheat and grains used in the more than 30 breads on offer – 15 types, including chewy sourdough made from Vatinet's 15-year-old starter are available year-round, with another 20 seasonal offerings (such as pumpkin challah in the fall). lafarmbakery.com
The writer was a guest of Visit NC and Visit Raleigh. They did not review or approve this article.