chapel hill – durham – raleigh

Sometimes collectively referred to as “the Triangle”, these towns are fairly intertwined, but manage to have their elements that set them apart from each other:  Chapel Hill is symbiotic with UNC and has the eternal college town feel.  Durham has rival school Duke, and strong influence from its past glory days of the tobacco industry, and Raleigh is the capital city of North Carolina.  A very strong sense of community was quickly apparent in each town, where we found some incredible farm-to-table regional food, art and architecture.

Food – Our first night, we arrived  in Chapel Hill, and although we were still full from our brunch in Asheville that morning, we headed straight to the highly recommended Crook’s Corner for a light meal and a drink.  Not just any drink, mind you, but the best drink we had of our whole trip – the Frozen Mint Julep (top, center).  I would fly back for this alone – Bulliet Bourbon poured over house-made mint sorbet.  Drinking it on a warm summer evening on the back porch of Crook’s was just about heavenly.  The green peach salad with mint and black pepper was almost as refreshing, and Shawn’s shrimp and grits was the best we had in our travels.  The next morning we headed over to Foster’s Market in Durham for a lingering breakfast on their expansive wisteria-covered front porch (top, right).  This market/cafe had incredible baked goods and house made granola, as well as all sorts of artisan products of the area.  Although plans to get the “best fried chicken” at Bullocks in Durham  were thwarted due to a summer vacation closure, we were told by several folks that it is hands down THE best spot in the area.  The Pit (in Raleigh) was a good substitute in it’s absence though.  Known more for its whole hog pit roasting BBQ, their fried chicken served Shawn and Brian right in the quest to check that off their “southern must-eats”.  For a sweet treat on hot days, we had several stops at the local paleta chain, LocoPops – incredible fresh fruit popsicles with some inventive combinations (bottom, left).  And last, but not in any way the least, Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen – a straightforward, low-brow but beautiful southern biscuit drive-thru.  I was so enthralled when I received that little bag of warmth, that I forgot to take a picture until I was almost through (bottom, right).

Art and Architecture – The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh has a beautifully executed new building surrounded by a lovely sculpture park, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners.  Detailed with an incredible design rigor, light-filled and spacious  – and it is free – a wonderful place to see art.  The museum has a sizable Rodin collection, along with representatives from a broad spectrum of art periods – all very well curated and placed.

Wanderings – We didn’t get a chance to spend too much time in downtown Durham, but I just love the old building stock – brick tobacco drying warehouses (center)- that have been turned into everything from restaurants to offices to condos, creating a pretty vibrant revitalized downtown.  And adjacent to Chapel Hill, is the town/neighborhood Carborro – home to the largest co-op we saw in the area, a very active art center, some great libation experts, the best farmer’s market in the area and host of  environmental movies in a vacant lot turned community living room.  This part of town is vibrant and full of an earnest idealism that was great to see.  Our favorite stop in this part of town was Johnny’s – part cafe, part store, part taco truck stop, part music venue, part community center – a great spot to sit for a spell on a sultry summer evening.

Thanks to Lynn especially for all the recommends in the Triangle!  Up next… Charleston, SC!

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asheville

Asheville, North Carolina has always been one of my favorite southern getaway spots – a great town, with a vibrant artistic community, and an activist vibe in an incredibly beautiful mountain setting for all sorts of outdoorsy adventures to be had.  While a few more people have found out about this little gem this last decade or so – causing some to say it has changed with the influx – I find that it still holds true to itself.  Our visit was way too quick this time – only 2 days – but we still managed to have some of the best meals of our whole southern trip here, do some very good art meandering, and catch up with a few very special-to-me Ashevillians (or at least that is what I am calling them!).

Roaming around in the River Arts District was a highlight of this last trip.   Just a few minutes from downtown along the French Broad River, it is a grouping of old brick warehouses transformed into wonderful mazes of working artist studios.  We spent the better part of a day coveting the work spaces along with the art, and then of course had to fortify  – at 12 Bones.  DANG!  This was the best BBQ of the trip, and just one of those times where the setting, the people, the food – all came together to provide a perfect beautiful moment.  The ribs are where it is at apparently, and our table decided that the brown sugar glaze was the best.  And despite being a place that is all about meat, they do not relegate the vegetarian options to an after thought.  I had a barbecued portobello mushroom, fried green tomato sandwich (YUM!) and the sides were all incredible too – I think the jalapeno grits were my fave.   After some more wandering around in the artist studios, a stop in at THE spot for a pint in all of Asheville – The Wedge.  The people of Asheville take their brewing very seriously, and this is the favorite mecca.  I am more of a cider fan myself, and found an incredibly good, crisp North Carolina Hard Cider this trip – from McRitchie Ciderworks.  Worth looking out for.

Asheville’s downtown core is great for strolling, window shopping, and finding random happenstance buskers and performance artists – as well as home to some wonderful restaurants.  Our first night in town we headed straight for Tupelo Honey for farm-to-table, regional style eats with a twist.  My catfish with goat cheese grits was a perfect, delicate combo, and the ginger cornbread with peach butter would be worth flying in for.  The other dishes and sides at the table were just as good – there is an artist in the kitchen for sure.  The best brunch in town is at Early Girl Eatery – the best thing on the on the menu, hands down, is the Early Girl Benny – grit cakes instead of english muffins, and tomato gravy instead of hollandaise – and I was full for the entire day!  Also downtown, Malaprop’s bookstore is a touchstone of Asheville – a community epicenter of sorts, with some great book buyers making choices –  worth checking in with if you are in town.  And also the Grove Arcade – a history public market that has been beautifully restored – is a great spot to duck into on a hot day for ice cream and air conditioning.

Before leaving the area, we headed north on the Blue Ridge Parkway – a peaceful meander through the mountains, with great vistas that you can hop on just outside of Asheville.  A stop at the newly designed visitor center (Lord Aeck Sargent for you design-y types), and on to a morning hike up to Mt. Baldy for a 360-degree view.  If we had a wee bit more time, we may have headed to Natahala Outdoor Center for some rafting or kayaking, or checked out Biltmore Estate, but alas, there will just have to be another visit soon!

Thanks so much to Dean for having us and to Susanne for joining in and showing us her spots too!

nashville

I try to get myself to Nashville at least once a year lately, and while Music City is an incredible place – a great sense of community, beautiful rolling hill landscape, incredible music beyond the commercial face it tends to be stereotyped as – it is primarily because one of the best people I have in my life lives there.  While Kath and I share a long, winding, rich history through many locales and life events, and a few doggers – the best parts have always involved our love of good food.  Kath and her husband Grant are both very, very skilled in the kitchen and at the art of the table – the pie in progress, grilled sandwiches and biscuits above are just a few examples from my last visit – a stop on my recent southern tour.  Kath happens to have her own blog about her food and music adventures in Nashville – beautiful photos, recipes and great stories that you should check out too:  ladysmokey.wordpress.com

Seeing Grant, aka Big Smokey (above left, with John Byrd), play with one of his various incarnations is an important part of my visits – an incredible guitar player that can wear many hats, be it steel guitar or banjo, classic country or roots – catch his schedule and music musings here: bigsmokey.wordpress.com. I missed them this last visit, but the Time Jumpers at the Station Inn (center) is an incredible treat that shouldn’t be missed if you are in Nashville on a Monday night.  Hands down, some of the best musicians I’ve seen – so charismatic and playing an infectious bluegrass and western swing style.  And, a trip to Nashville just wouldn’t really be complete without a little honky-tonkin’ downtown.  Stroll in, stroll out of this string of bars on Broadway – some of the very best hard-working musicians right there playing for tips.

Another important reason I have to touch base with Nashville every year, is that the print-maker part of me has a mecca there – Hatch Show Print.  Their aesthetic is like no other, and synonymous with the music of the south. Some incredible show prints have been coming out of this shop for over 130 years. There is not much room for much more than just standing in awe of all of the old wood type stacked from floor to ceiling, and watching the old presses whir, but it is stunning in its own right, and worth a visit to their Broadway storefront.  And another important piece of Nashville history, right around the corner from Hatch is the Ryman Auditorium.  Dubbed “the mother church of country music”, originally built as a revival style church, it was later the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, and continues to broadcast some of its shows from this incredibly restored theater, despite the move to Opryland in the 70’s.  I was fortunate enough to get to see one of those shows, where one of the musicians likened playing there to playing inside an old acoustic instrument – and I could feel that from the wooden pews!  All sorts of musicians play there now – an incredible venue to see anyone.

Well, you knew I’d have to talk about some restaurants too at some point… Arnold’s is an institution in the “meat and three” realm.  Cafeteria style, with a line of friendly chatty folks, and straightforward atmosphere, it is the best spot in Nashville for a basic southern comfort food fix. The Loveless Cafe is a biscuit mecca that should not be missed.  A little bit out-of-town, but incredibly worth the drive.  All the food was tasty, but gol’dang the biscuits!  And on the other end of the foodie spectrum, City House has been one of my favorites these past visits – I still can’t quite shake the fontina and onion pizza, and fabulous cocktail concoctions – all in well-designed restored brick building with wood accents in the Germantown neighborhood (above, third from left).  Another round of very good, inventive prohibition-style cocktails in a fun, funky setting this last visit was at the Holland House in East Nashville – we would have made some changes to the snacks we had, but I bet they are working on that, as it is a fairly new place.  And another spot I try to visit for a lunch while in East Nashville is Marche – a european style cafe and market.  Oh and don’t forget to pick up some Olive and Sinclair artisan chocolates to bring home – my favorite is the salt and pepper that I picked up at the Turnip Truck natural market.

Perhaps one day I will be able to pony up for a jeans experience of Imogene + Wille, but for now, I just go and soak up the great aesthetic of the store, a renovated gas station in the 12th South neighborhood where they make, design and sell their brand of custom and stock jeans, along with a few meticulously found objects.  And the Mas Tacos truck arrives at the store on occasion – I hear it is a good one!  Also on your 12th South visit find a fresh fruit gourmet popsicle at Las Palettas.

This last trip up to Nashville from Atlanta, I met Kath and Grant in Normandy, TN, about an hour southeast of Nashville.  A beautiful little town in the midst of a revitalization, that their friend Nikki has a big hand in, with the catalyst, River Cafe.  Yummy BBQ and sides and pies – all perfect to fortify before or after a kayak trip down the pristine Duck river with Normandy Kayak Rental.  This river trip was heavenly and a perfectly southern touchstone for me (center image – by Kathryn Johnson).

Another great wander into the country side from Nashville is Leiper’s Fork.  Incredible countryside, some cute shops to stroll, a great pimento cheese sandwich (and Shawn’s very first ever) at Puckett’s Grocery, where they also happen to have live music in an intimate setting – sometimes some very famous names grace that eclectic venue.

Well, I could go on about Nashville – it really is a great place for a visit – but I am sure I will be there again, and will share more Music City tales with you down the road.  Until then, y’all!