As you often do at the beginning of the year, you look back at what’s transpired over the past 12 months. And 2023 felt like a bit of a bounce-back year for the Triangle food scene! While restaurants and the industry were still grappling with post-pandemic challenges, it felt like things were a bit easier around the inflation of food ingredient prices and restaurants were slowly getting a handle around staffing hurdles.
From a city by city standpoint, there was a lot more new businesses and openings in Durham, especially around bars! Given that things had slowed down quite a bit in the Bull City in previous years, it was great to see all the activity. And while both Raleigh and Cary continued to open up new places at a good pace, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area slowed down quite a bit. But overall it’s been good news with a lot more local, independent operators opening up new concepts for us to enjoy.
As usual, there were a lot of new openings at the end of the year and my Best New Restaurants and Bars of 2023 list got stalled a bit given I was trying to sneak in some last-minute visits. From Indian to Latino-Asian fusion, to Cajun-Creole to Mediterranean eats, we’ve got a good mix of cuisines and I hope you find a couple of new favorites on this Best of 2023 list!
Drum roll please, my Best New Restaurants and Bars of the Triangle, 2023 edition
The list below is in alphabetical order, click on the business name for a review or their website. Click on the address for a Google map. And a big congratulations to those who made the final cut for 2023!
A funky and quirky space, Ajja showcases the talents of Chef Cheetie Kumar in a very different setting. This smaller space with a large patio bar offers up Mediterranean kebabs and dips, along with some very interesting desserts in a quiet Five Points neighborhood. Look forward to my third visit, the dining room has been renovated and I’m excited to see what they have done in terms of upgrades and design!
Cuya was opened in early 2023 by the folks downstairs at Cortez and it is a beautiful looking space! Pink, magenta, and blue hues give it a slick, tropical vibe along with the fruit-forward cocktail selections. Part lounge, part club, and part bar, it’s a worthwhile visit for me in the earlier hours while it’s still quiet. Expect a bangin’ party later on given its S. Glenwood location and vibe.
A later opening in 2023, Gussies was lauded as part bar, part neighborhood joint and it sits in a space that has had many tenants on Morgan Street in Raleigh. With a large corner bar and interesting seating along the perimeter of the space, Gussies is offering up beer, wine, and cocktails along with a small menu of American classics (smashburgers, fried oysters, etc). A bottle shop will also be coming soon and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at this interesting concept, enjoy!
Brought to you by Chef Yung Nay (Iza Whiskey Kitchen & Eats), La Montaña spins things up offering up Latino-Asian cuisine and interesting plates like Asian tacos, edamame guacamole, and banh mi tortas! It’s a lovely space with bright colors, slick bar bathed in greens along with Wisteria-like blossoms overhead. Offering breakfast and coffee in the mornings, La Montaña moves to bigger, savory offerings as the day progresses (lunch, dinner).
When it comes to tapas, I’m a huge fan and Las Ramblas is doing a lot of things right. From its rich, colorful, bright interior and its large patio, it offers a lot of ambiance (like all of Giorgio’s Hospitality restaurants) along with a more upscale take on humble, Spanish small plates. Nom on the pan con tomate or the roasted branzino fish, there are little spins in the menu offerings showing off some talent in the kitchen. Its prime North Hills location means there’s plenty to do, before and after dinner.
Another top-notch offering from Chef Mike Lee (helmed by Chef Connor Johnson) is spun out by his M restaurant group in Fenton: M Test Kitchen. A long and sleek dining room next to M Sushi Cary, the Test Kitchen delivers some real twists in its constantly changing menu. From lobster shumai, to Kani crab XO fried rice and deconstructed carrot cake, the restaurant takes a lot of chances and mostly succeeds. Its prime location at the front of Fenton District will make it a favorite of Cary-ites for years!
Madre is the new see and be seen restaurant at Smoky Hollow! Another modern and slick offering for the Triangle, Madre delivers small plates in a dining room that is a bit industrial and sexy. The lively music, interior design, and neon accents make for a great space to enjoy their seasonal European-inspired plates like boquerones, duck prosciutto, and saffron risotto. While it is a bit of a scene, the decor and menu is still pretty unique for the area, a fun spot for a dinner with friends or a girls night out.
A late addition to the Durham scene, Nanas v2.0 is a fantastic reboot of a classic restaurant. The space is super fun and a bit retro, offering up dark polished woods with hues of deep green, beige and burnt orange. Enjoy shrimp risotto and duck tagliatelle along with their old-school chocolate souffle in a lively dining room. While the space may be a bit of a throw-back, the menu is delicious and modern showing off real talent in the kitchen. Can’t wait to get back!
Brought to you by longtime Triangle chef Gamer Rawat, Saffron offers up upscale Indian eats in a comfortable and slightly upscale dining room! The large menu crosses over a lot of Indian cuisne and delivers all the standard favorites like butter chicken, tandoori, and delicious naans. But it also offers up some modern takes on Indian like the lovely crispy kale and palak chaat (pictured above). If you like Indian food, you’ll love Saffron and even better, there’s a second location now in Durham along with the original restaurant in Cary.
Hooray, hooray, Seraphine has brought a delicious Cajun-Creole take to the American Tobacco Campus! Tabbed as Louisiana-style cuisine, Seraphine serves up raw oysters, barbeque shrimp, and catfish over red beans and rice in a nod to the owners’ upbringing. The space is a more traditional dining room highlighted by a long and busy bar with lovely glassware and strong cocktails. The food is delicious but Seraphine doesn’t take itself too seriously given its Nawlins roots.
In homage to bully pups everywhere, the Velvet Hippo opened in the middle of summer in downtown Durham. Located on the quiet Orange Street next to M Tempura, the Velvet Hippo is a bit of a hidden gem. Inconspicuous from the outside, you climb up (or use the elevator) to a cocktail oasis on the third floor! A large, bustling bar that’s LGBTQ friendly along with a huge patio that spans far beyond the inside drinking area means you’ve got your own adult beverage hangout. True to its name, dogs are allowed on the rooftop (Saturday, Sunday – 12 to 6pm) through a separate entrance and stairways to the left.
The quiet opening of Weldon Mills Distillery caught me a bit by surprise. While I had expected a smaller, humble bottle shop, Weldon Mills swings for the fences, taking over the huge space that used to be a private club. Enjoy the glowing, back-lit mural and long bar that highlights the space. Order up a delicious cocktail made with their Weldon Mills spirits and grab a comfortable couch for some conversation. There’s tons of options to stretch out here and just a block or two down the street from DPAC. Enjoy it all before the rest of Durham finds out!
Congratulations to the winners on my Best New Restaurants and Bars of 2023 list! I’ve chosen spots that I think are a bit unique and span a wide variety of cuisines and price points but as usual, some deserving spots get left out. So honorable mentions go out to new spots like Cheeni and Little Bull (Durham), The Mill and Eastcut Sandwich Bar (Raleigh), Snooze AM Eatery (Chapel Hill), and SAAP (Cary). A huge tip of the cap to all the NC Triangle restaurant and bar owners for taking a chance on your new concept in 2023!
If you’re interested in seeing the entire list of the new restaurants I tracked in 2023, please find them here. And I’m already looking forward to 2024 and restaurants like Figulina, La Terrazza, and Jaguar Bolera. I’m monitoring them on my Coming Soon to the Triangle – New Restaurants and Bars page which will be updated throughout the year. Wishing you all a delicious 2024!