Recession? What Recession? Not in the New (Foodie) South

I just went home for the weekend — home being Raleigh, N.C. — and was lucky enough to have my incredibly awesome parents (both patient with me and up for anything, especially food adventures) drive me nearly all over the state for some serious snacking. Sadly, what we ate is not the subject of this post. (Okay, okay, maybe just a little: hush puppies and sweet tea from Lexington Barbecue, pimento cheese and liver pudding from Conrad and Hinkle, Moravian sugar cake from Old Salem, barbecue and fried chicken livers from Parker’s in Wilson.)

Instead, it’s something my Dad pointed out as we pulled into the packed parking lot of a spanking new winery near Winston-Salem: “They call this a recession?” Because this place was a show-room of capitalism, and people were there to buy it. (It was also tacky as hell). The space was kind of Italian-Americanate in style, with soaring ceilings, bad tapestry-like walls, a spurting fountain in the lobby, massive meeting rooms — one bride-to-be gasped as she peered in to check out the space — a terrace restaurant overlooking the vineyards out back (which were neatly labeled with fancy lettering), and a tasting room in the gift shop where the cheapest flight was $10 and most folks were buying not-so-cheap North Carolina wine, cheese straws and spicy peanuts, bad pottery, and pricey wine openers (hey! it’s got a logo on it!) hand over fist.

I am used to living in a place where the recession doesn’t seem to make a difference in flashy new restaurant openings, trendy stupidities like $100 chicken dinners that only include two chickens, and hordes hitting the hottest new thing the second it opens. (That would be New York City.) That wasn’t what I’d expected to see when I went home, I guess. North Carolina’s strong and diverse economy hasn’t been totally shattered (and in fact the unemployment rate dropped while I was there) but I thought maybe the rush to stuff one’s face with artisanal cheese straws and whatnot might have been a little less in your face.

I was wrong. Everywhere I went, people were out spending money on good food, good wine, good beer, even as some things — most notably all the new condos built in the past few years — sat empty. In downtown Durham, they might have a bunch of apartments on Main Street unsold, but Toast (Counter Culture coffee, carafes of wine, shrimp and arugula bruschetta) and Whiskey (a leather couch, fine cigars and craft beer bar) are doing just fine, while Dos Perros, the newest fancy Mexican restaurant in a place with a ton of kickass and cheapass taquerias (like the amazing Los Comales), was so crowded on one night I couldn’t even take a seat at the bar.

In Raleigh, there’s a new beer garden (the Boylan Bridge Brewpub) with brews made in the basement and a view of the scrubby trainyards (and kudzu Jesus!) I used to walk over from my grungy post-collegiate apartment. Downtown, people are actually sitting outside at a slew of new restaurants. “Who knew Raleigh had a café society?” is what my Dad asked, only half in jest, while eating his spicy chipotle turkey sandwich at the cool new Remedy Diner on the sidewalk in front of the bus station and next door to the chic new Landmark bar. Which if you grew up in the South, you will realize is INSANE. (Fancy café and swank bar near downtown bus station? Wha?)

Okay, granted, plenty of restaurants have struggled and closed around the country, and the recession has certainly taken a toll on food-related businesses big and small. But I am hoping that maybe I wasn’t just witnessing the luckily monied few spend their inheritances. From the looks of the crowds, it doesn’t seem so. Many of those people at those bars and restaurants are friends of mine, who, last time I was home, made their drinking and eating decisions based on how many Pabsts you could get down your gullet for a ten spot and whether or not they knew the dude in the kitchen so they could swing a basket of free chili-cheese fries.

Who knew Raleigh had a café society? Not me. But it does now, apparently. Which is pretty damn cool, especially in the face of the first recession in my lifetime as a consumer. So maybe, just maybe, people are spending their money on decent food — and the lifestyle that goes along with getting it — instead of new cars or hair-dos or whatever? Okay, it’s doubtful, but a food geek can dream, right?

Rachel Wharton is a deputy editor with Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn magazines with a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, where she focused her research on sustainab more


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