A sidewalk café, a rooftop view, a romantic courtyard ... Dining outside affects your mood, the food you choose to eat—even how that food tastes. And in the relatively mild seasons of North Carolina, Triangle restaurants offer outdoor dining year-round. The best of them offer a total experience where the food and surroundings compliment each other.
In addition to outdoor dining in the Triangle's larger cities, there is no better way to get a feel for some of the region's small, historic towns than to eat at one of their restaurants “European style” at a sidewalk table. Here are 10 restaurants with alfresco accommodations worth checking out, from Raleigh to Hillsborough.
At Babylon in Raleigh, owner Samad Hachby has transformed a century-old knitting mill into a Moroccan oasis in the middle of downtown. The spacious courtyard, with its tranquil pool, palm trees and terra cotta tile, is the perfect environment for sampling their authentic Moroccan tagines.
“It’s a Moroccan palace,” said Hachby. “You come for an evening and feel as if you’ve traveled thousands of miles away.”
In addition to traditional dishes coming from the indoor kitchen, Babylon has a beautifully tiled brick oven outside, which produces roasted oysters and clams, and crisp-crust pizzas with toppings like Turkish fig puree or housemade lamb sausage. Hachby recommends the Mediterranean Platter, which includes oven roasted eggplant, spicy tomato sauce, Moroccan marinated olives, roasted peppers and tomato confit. The spicy food perfectly compliments a warm night, and with its heated tents in winter, Babylon’s outdoor space is a great year-round option. 309 N. Dawson St., Raleigh, North Carolina, 919.838.8595.
Just down the street from Babylon, Taverna Agora offers a different Mediterranean option—this time a rooftop escape to Greece.
“In Greece, the 'tavern' is a place for gathering with your family and friends to share simple, great tasting food,” said brand manager Mindy Stroup.
And in Ancient Greece, the “agora” was an open-air public space, the center of a city’s cultural and social life. In this tradition, Taverna Agora provides open-air dining—both a street-level patio, ideal for people-watching, and a rooftop garden with views of the city framed by grapevines and sparkling lights.
The rooftop, Stroup says, is almost always full for lunch and dinner, even in winter when the area is enclosed with glass walls shipped from Greece.
“It gives the rooftop a whole different feel,” he said. “With all the greenery, it’s like sitting in a treehouse.”
Try the Grecian Grill Sharing Platter, which includes grilled chicken, pork chops, lamb meatballs, herb-marinated lamb chops, a large salad, seasonal vegetables, roasted lemon potatoes, pita and Tzatziki. 326 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, North Carolina, 919.664.8868.
The Roof at the Durham Hotel
If the rooftop view at Taverna Agora is not dramatic enough for you, try The Roof at The Durham Hotel in the heart of downtown Durham. Housed in a beautifully renovated mid-century modern building, the hotel’s interior embraces a space-age vibe with a red and gold geometric patterned carpet, funky light fixtures and classically “modern” furniture.
In contrast, the rooftop décor is minimal, giving way on every side to the view of Durham’s downtown and beyond. The Roof restaurant and the award-winning restaurant downstairs are curated by James Beard award-winning chef Andrea Reusing. The Roof with a smaller, more casual list of offerings, perfect for a light dinner or a pre-meal snack.
“All of our menus are seasonal, but on the roof we’re also influenced by the elements,” Reusing says. “What’s better than sitting outside and eating icy local shellfish on a warm summer night or a bowl of hot soup on a chilly evening?”
The casual setting, she says, lends itself nicely to “shareable snacks” like homemade cracker jacks, chicharron, spicy North Carolina peanuts and ice cream sandwiches. As fall gives way to winter, The Roof offers wool blankets, soups and hot cocktails. 315 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham, North Carolina, 919.768.8830.
Stay in Durham to experience another striking outdoor space at the German bakery and café, Guglhupf. While the bakery uses traditional methods to make their from-scratch Brezel bread and Mandelhoernchen cookies, that’s where owner Claudia Cooper’s reliance on tradition ends.
“My German identity lies with the contemporary, high-tech and progressive," said Cooper. "It’s much more fun to take classic dishes and interpret them in a modern, relevant way.”
Guglhupf’s space is just as fun. The high-ceilinged indoor area features an open second floor, and with its exposed beams, dozens of oversize lanterns and lively art, the bins of crusty breads and pastries seem anything but staid.
The partially covered wraparound patio is just as unique, featuring soaring wooden beams, quirky metal art and plenty of greenery. The patio is the place for an elegant dinner (Cooper suggests the Oxtail Ragout with buttered noodles), a lunch with friends (try the Alsatian potato leek tart), or a late-morning cup of Ostfriesen breakfast tea and a Berliner doughnut. 2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham, North Carolina, 919.401.2600.
After years of working with award-winning chefs at restaurants in Las Vegas and Florida, Wayne Alcaide opened The Provincial on Salem Street in downtown Apex. The restaurant reflects its name in terms of its simplicity—but it’s a sophisticated simplicity. The food on the small menu is exquisitely fresh, with a focus on seafood—the Tuna Poke Tacos being a crowd favorite.
“People tend to linger at our outdoor tables,” said Kristyna Alcaide, whose Caribbean rum cake and dark chocolate brownie provide a decadent reason to prolong a meal. “When the weather is nice, downtown Apex is a special place. All the shops have their doors open, and lots of people are walking around.”
The Provincial’s sidewalk seating is limited to four tables, available on a first come, first served basis. 119 Salem St., Apex, North Carolina, 919.372.5921.
Hillsborough’s historic downtown is the perfect spot to enjoy European-style sidewalk dining. A foodie haven, the town claims several restaurants offering outdoor tables when the weather cooperates. Antonia’s is a local favorite, offering authentic and locally sourced Italian cuisine.
“You slow down life when you eat outside,” said owner Claudia Salvadore, in her warm Italian accent. “People love the people-watching.”
And Salvadore’s midweek regulars love bringing their dogs to dine with them at the outdoor tables. Antonia’s is known for its housemade fettuccine, fresh seafood dishes, grilled and roasted vegetables and warm service.
“We are proud to partner with our local farmers,” Salvadore said, whose menu always reflects seasonally available food. 101 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, North Carolina, 919.643.7722.
The Veggie Cart in front of Lucky 32 in Cary says it all: This place is all about fresh, local ingredients. The restaurant features not-quite-traditional Southern cuisine, and relying on locally sourced ingredients means the menu changes seven times a year to reflect the seasonal harvest. Think Meyer lemon cake with blueberry ice cream in the summer, and butternut tots with spicy mustard in the fall.
The terrace at Lucky 32 has been given just as much attention as the interior. The “garden dining room,” with its trellises and well-tended greenery, is “quiet and relaxing,” said general manager Shane Garrity. And romantic. Garrity’s brother proposed to his now-wife over a candlelit dinner on the terrace.
Garrity recommends the Sunday brunch on the terrace.
“Nothing nicer than sitting in that relaxing space on a Sunday morning, enjoying cornbread, eggs benedict with fried green tomatoes. Maybe a mimosa.” 7307 Tryon Road, Cary, North Carolina, 919.233-1632.
Crooks Corner, the famed Chapel Hill restaurant consistently ranked by Southern Living as a top 100 in the South, is on an unassuming street corner, next to an oil change shop and across from Al’s Garage. Hidden from the street by a stand of bamboo, the spacious patio offers an eclectic getaway.
“The public loves it,” said owner Gene Hamer, “especially on a nice Southern evening.”
The shaded patio is ever-changing.
“We use a lot of large ceramic pots,” Hamer said, “because we can change them out depending on the season.”
Back towards the kitchen, the pots are filled with peppers, both ornamental and for use in their hot pepper sauce. The bamboo and Japanese maples soften the setting for the more varied collection of hubcaps and the twisting blue fish sculpture in the courtyard fountain.
Evenings are busy, even in the heat of summer, when the drink of choice is the “frozen mint julep,” made with mint sorbet and bourbon.
“In the garden area, behind that nice stand of bamboo, people feel as if they are separate but part of—tucked away, the world goes by around you, and here you are in this lovely, tucked away garden eating fabulous food,” Hamer said.
Crooks Corner's recipe for shrimp and grits was published in Southern Living magazine. Be sure to try the classic Hoppin’ John. 610 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 919.929.7643.
Glasshalfull, a chic wine bar, wine shop and restaurant would fit right in in Paris. Which is perfect given Carrboro’s nickname, the “Paris of the Piedmont.”
“This neighborhood lives up to that name,” said manager Michael Klinger. “From our patio, you can see the street and feel as if you’re part of that.”
Glasshalfull offers a rotating selection of wines carefully curated from around the world, along with an inventive menu of small plates. These are not tapas, but a fresh, seasonal, American play on that concept. While seafood is a strength, the restaurant is also known for excellent vegetarian and gluten-free options. Klinger recommends the savory cauliflower cake or the beet salad, featuring red and golden roasted beets.
“And the lobster roll for lunch,” he added.
The lush side patio garden was designed by the University of North Carolina's chief gardener and is protected by an artistic system of canvas squares. Klinger said the patio appeals to patrons for both lunch and dinner, and that they often wait for a spot outside even when there’s an indoor table.
“What could be better than to sit outside and sip fine wine?” Klinger asked. 106 S. Greensboro St., Carrboro, North Carolina, 919.967.9784.
The Fearrington Granary
The Triangle has gained renown for its farm-to-table cuisine. At The Fearrington Granary in Pittsboro's Fearington Village just 15 minutes outside of Chapel Hill, you can literally walk from farm to table and enjoy excellent food with a view of the farm’s iconic Belted Galloway cows. Fearington Village is probably best known for The Fearington House Restaurant, an award-winner that has been featured in the New York Times and is recognized by Forbes and AAA as a top restaurant in the country.
To cater to its residents, the village also developed The Fearrington Granary, an upscale-casual garden restaurant. Converted from an actual granary, the space embraces its outdoor orientation, offering tables all the way around the building. Guests enjoy the red, orange and yellow flowers and peppers of the restaurant's “hot garden.” The fig trees lining the entrance provide plenty of fruit for fig salad in the summer.
The Fearrington Granary's chefs keep things as fresh as possible, changing menu items as often as every other week. According to marketing manager Missy Fournier, outdoor customers tend to order lighter items on the menu like the fried oyster salad, salmon salad or the cup-and-a-half, which consists of The Granary BLT and a cup of soup.
Chefs like to play up nostalgia, offering upscale twists on the classics. For example, the housemade gelato is tucked into the “Beltie sandwich,” which mimics the coloring of the black and white “belted” cows just beyond the garden with its dark chocolate cookie crust and pale gelato. The village includes boutique shops and an excellent bookstore, and makes a good weekend destination. 210 Market St., Pittsboro, North Carolina, 919.5422.2121.