When you talk about restaurants that have helped define the Raleigh food scene, it pretty much starts with Poole’s Diner. While there are older, more established restaurants, it was Ashley Christensen and Poole’s Diner that put the Oak City on the map and in the national foodie landscape. And after Chef Ashley won a James Beard award in 2014, things REALLY took off. Oddly enough, my first meals with her were not at Poole’s Diner but at the old Enoteca Vin which closed down in 2009. Given how much I eat out, I also admit to being more of a fan of her lower-tier restaurants like Beasley’s and Chucks. While I have always enjoyed my meals at Poole’s, the popularity and lack of reservations always threw me off a bit. But I decided it was time for a re-visit to Poole’s Diner to see how well it had held up over the years.
If you’re visiting for the first time just be aware that there are no printed menus at Poole’s (for the most part) given the seasonality of the dishes here. BUT since brunch has just re-started here at Poole’s Diner, they do have brunch menus at the table. We order up a slew of dishes to check out this new menu and chat over some wonderfully strong coffee as we wait for our meal. And as soon as the clock hits noon time, I order up a Pimms Cup as my adult bevvy for the meal!
First brunch item out of the Pooles Diner kitchen is their Mexican donuts, otherwise known as churros! These tasty rings are nicely fried and sprinkled with sugar. Tasty, crunchy and a good starter if you’ve got a sweet tooth. Next up is my croque madame which is dripping a thick, buttery hollandaise sauce. Thick slices of bread sandwich the ham, pop a fried egg on top and a sprinkle of chives and you’ve got yourself a meal. Great job here, Poole’s!
And my friend’s shrimp and grits? Spectacular with a ridiculously silky texture. I’ve got to believe there is a LOT of cream in this dish. Spiked with tender mushrooms, we’ve got the big brunch winner here. Another wonderful brunch item is the fluffy angel biscuits! Nicely browned crust but soft and tender inside, they’re served up with jam and butter. The latkes we got on the side were not quite as good (over-fried) but what the heck you can’t win everything!
On a separate visit for dinner, I stopped in before a show at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium which is tough given how popular Poole’s Diner is. There’s a pretty long line already at 5:35 and it takes a bit of time to get seated. For our meal we go with the crispy squid with fried pickle and Korean aioli, Ashley’s famous macaroni and cheese along with a short rib dish and side of greens. The fried squid is excellent but a bit salty, showing off a light and crunchy coating along with some spice from the side sauce.
But of course the GoTo dish at Poole’s Diner is their famous macaroni and cheese! Served in a piping hot porcelain dish, this beauty totally shows it off at the table, domed with a wonderfully browned crust. Dig your spoon in and scoop out luscious elbow macaroni covered in warm gooey cheese. A true carb classic that will warm your heart and tummy. (Chef Ashley has shared the recipe for the famous Poole’s Diner macaroni and cheese if you’d like to try it at home.) The short rib dish and greens we tried for that dinner were also excellent and well prepared.
So what can I say but Poole’s Diner is hitting its 10th anniversary in stride serving up creative and tasty comfort food for the Raleigh crowds. The restaurant is well put-together across all three phases of the dining experience (food, service, ambiance) and consistently delivers a great experience outside of some small misses in some of the dishes. And given the popularity of Poole’s Diner, beware of the noise and volume in the dining room, it’s not a quiet experience. But all the national accolades are well deserved for this classic downtown restaurant and I’m pretty sure you’ll agree after dining here for brunch OR dinner.