Raleigh’s food scene? It’s thriving. Evolving. More diverse than ever, thanks to tasty endeavors from a community that’s passionate about good eats and drinks.

Just some of the recent accolades: One of America’s hottest food cities (Zagat); one of the most underrated food cities on the East Coast (USA TODAY); one of five surprising Southern food towns (Garden & Gun). The list goes on. 

From hidden gems to bold establishments, Raleigh's culinary stage welcomed a variety of new faces, flavors and dining experiences in 2023. A tasting tour is in order—jot these down for your next trip to the City of Oaks!

 

Madre

Undoubtedly one of the year's most hotly anticipated restaurant openings, this Mediterranean small-plates restaurant was created and named in celebration of motherly hospitality (and the entire experience has 100% lived up to the hype).

Opened at the end of June within Raleigh's lively Smoky Hollow district, Madre's menu—salmon crudo, Spanish octopus, Calabrian chicken, salchipapas and more bright flavors including a plethora of wine options—pairs perfectly with the interior vibe: warm, upscale and sleek, with just enough restraint for relaxed date nights and late nights with friends. Pro tip: Sunday brunch is a killer time, too.

Address: 518 N. West St., Raleigh, NC 27603

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Ajja

For the now six-time James Beard Award nominee chef Cheetie Kumar, Ajja is not so much a reinvention of her beloved restaurant Garland—which shuttered after a near decade run in downtown Raleigh in 2022—as it is a chance to build upon its legacy. 

Tucked within a growing neighborhood just north of downtown Raleigh, Ajja matches Mediterranean and Middle East eats (grilled meats, dips, spreads and warm bread) with an impressive bar menu, retro decor and perhaps the best new patio dining in town. 

Surprising absolutely no one, Ajja has been a hit, both locally and beyond. Esquire named the restaurant one of the 50 best new restaurants in America, and the Beard Foundation just announced Kumar's latest offering as a semifinalist in their best new restaurant category as well.

Address: 213 Bickett Blvd., Raleigh, NC 27608

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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SAAP

Possibly one of Cary's most important restaurant openings ever, SAAP is the creation of celebrated chef Lon Bounsanga (formerly of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana in downtown Raleigh, where his decade-plus of work earned the restaurants a myriad of awards and accolades).

Opened in November just a literal hop, skip and a jump from the incredible new Downtown Cary Park, Bounsanga's first restaurant of his own offers guests familiar Laotian street food favorites: green papaya salad, Lao beef jerky, crispy rice lettuce wraps, bahn mi, pork belly soup and so much more. 

The 70-seat restaurant includes a full bar with a deep list of wine, local beer and fun cocktails to choose from—can you see yourself sipping on an ube colada this summer?

Address: 370 S. Walker St., Ste. 100, Cary, NC 27511

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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M Test Kitchen

A sister concept to the critically acclaimed M Sushi (opened in 2022 at Fenton in Cary), M Test Kitchen is chef Michael Lee's newest travel-worthy dining destination, acting as a testing ground for dishes that could eventually make their way to Lee's other restaurant menus, and a no-limits creative space for a chef team working on an ever-rotating menu of Asian-focused small plates (a sample of which you can scroll through below). 

Address: 4 Fenton Main St., Ste. 120B, Cary, NC 27511

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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The Depot on First

Worth. The. Wait. This long-anticipated, upscale dining venue in the heart of Knightdale opened its doors to rave reviews late in 2023. 

Owner Christopher Critzer spent the last few years renovating a historic home in a prime location, and the now 6,000-square-foot venue—with spacious outdoor seating—can hold as many as 200 guests, delivering salads, steaks, pastas and local fish entrees that, to this point, have risen above diners' lofty expectations (the lobster sliders and 18-ounce ribeye have been a hit, and don't skip the crème brulée, either!). 

You'll find live entertainment on most Friday and Saturday evenings, and an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch is expected to debut this spring. Reservations are recommended, of course, and a stop in at Oak City Brewing directly next door is always a good idea, too. 

Address: 608 N. First Ave., Knightdale, NC 27545

 

Midwood Smokehouse

Just a couple doors down from the previously mentioned Madre, this wildly popular barbecue joint is known for its all-hickory-smoked 'cue that draws influence from Texas, the Carolinas and beyond. 

First opened in Charlotte just over a decade ago and thriving with a handful of other locations in the Carolinas now, the Raleigh menu brings the same raved-about smoked meats to the City of Oaks that Lexington-native pitmaster Matthew Barry has had so much success with elsewhere. Carolina pork, skillet cornbread, burnt ends and beef brisket? Yes, please!

Address: 409 W. Johnson St., Raleigh, NC 27603

 

Eastcut Sandwich Bar

The greatest hits of East Coast sandwich culture—cheesesteaks, hand-breaded cutlets, roasted turkey, Italian heroes and more—rolled into one super sandwich shop run by a couple of guys from Jersey and the Bronx.

Eastcut Sandwich Bar was the first restaurant to open at the still-in-progress Raleigh Iron Works development in a booming part of town, and it won't be long before they're joined by one of 2024's most highly anticipated restaurant openings: Brodeto, from award-winning chef Scott Crawford, is expected to open in the first quarter of this year.

Address: 1101 E. Whitaker Mill Rd., Ste. 126, Raleigh, NC 27604

 

East End Bistrot

A modern day fine dining experience, East End Bistrot's unique decor and design (chic and romantic and a bit whimsical) keeps things playful, while executive chef William D'Auvray and his team deliver absolutely stunning French flavors and wine pairings that make any night out a special occasion (spring for the caviar service if you're really feeling fancy). Chef D'Auvray is no stranger to great food in Raleigh—he opened his first restaurant, Fins, to serious acclaim all the way back in 1997. 

Address: 2020 Progress Ct., Ste. 110, Raleigh, NC 27608

 

Las Ramblas

One of the Tar Heel State's most prolific restaurateurs, Giorgios Bakastias has focused on building out his empire of City of Oaks eateries in recent years. 

He opened the critically acclaimed Rosewater Kitchen & Bar in 2019, then followed up with Giorgio Pizza Bar (superb sourdough pizzas), East End Bistrot (above) and Las Ramblas (a Spanish tapas spot)—all in 2023.

Led by executive chef Zarchary Massery—and named for the famed boulevard in Barcelona—Las Ramblas features a bustling bar and open kitchen, with a menu highlighted by modern updates to traditional tapas dishes: patatas bravas, suckling pig, fried calamari, beef carpaccio and a dozen other shareable favorites (plus desserts, too).

Address: 141 Park at North Hills St., Ste. 100, Raleigh, NC 27609

 

Smith's Smokehouse and Smoothies

For husband and wife duo Rashad and Saadia Smith, the journey from neighborhood cookouts to pop-up markets to a new brick and mortar restaurant has been a long grind—and a dream come true.

The number one question they're asked—"why barbecue and smoothies?"—is met with an easy answer: this is what they know and love. Florida natives who spent time in Texas while in the Army, the restaurant now serves Texas-style barbecue (brisket, burnt ends, beef oxtail, smoked chicken and more) paired with dessert smoothies (banana pudding, blueberry cobbler, strawberry apple pie and so on).

So yes, bring your appetite, and be prepared to explore—plenty of coffee, wine, beer, shopping and more fun awaits in the heart of downtown Wake Forest, just a three-minute drive away.

Address: 1318 S. Main St., Wake Forest, NC 27587

 

Header photo of Ajja by Baxter Miller

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