In honor of Triangle Restaurant Week, in which local restaurants entice diners with prix fixe lunch and dinner menus, Recess interviewed one of the area’s most ardent food promoters, Johanna Kramer. author of 2012’s The Food Lover’s Guide to Raleigh, Durham, & Chapel Hill, Kramer sat down with Recess staff writer Cord Peters at The Federal to discuss the Triangle’s reputation as an emerging food mecca.
R: How do you decide which venues to promote?
JK: I try to help the lesser-known restaurants more than the ones that are already well known. I want to help the ones with good food striving to attract customers by giving them a little push. I am constantly going to restaurants, but I mostly push food events.
R: What has made Durham a “foodie” city? Why is there such a concentration of good places to eat?
JK: People are very interested in food and supporting local. Food brings people together. Families come together, friends meet, and the common thing that helped this is food. In Durham we’ve elevated the quality of food and the community has been made to feel part of the process. What’s important to me is that I can shake hands or give a hug to a farmer.
R: Durham has been receiving a lot of attention lately. How would you characterize Durham on the national scale?
JK: We should be called the “Southern Dining Destination.” There may be other cities with just as good food like Charleston, but Durham is not only delicious, it is affordable. For that matter, the whole Triangle area is.
R: Do you see a lot of Duke students coming downtown?
JK: I have noticed that. I was at Geer Street Garden earlier this week and it was a mostly Duke crowd. The downtown revitalization is drawing more people to a central locale.
R: With so many restaurants, do you think there is a saturation of venues?
JK: The beauty of all of them is that they are small. Every restaurant can be busy without being overwhelmed. Of course, restaurant openings can bog down others’ business, but once the novelty wears off the new places become part of the great selection of restaurants.
R: What is one distinguishing quality about the Durham food scene?
JK: Buying local. If you go to the farmer’s market you are most likely bump into owners of various restaurants.
R: They’re buying right from the farmer’s market?
JK: Absolutely. I saw the owners of Toast just this weekend buying ingredients from the local farmers. They were one of the first to start downtown, and one of the ways they did it was by buying locally. There are even restaurants partnering with local farms. There’s the Eno Hospitality Group that is a partnership between the Piedmont Restaurant in Durham and Zely & Ritz in Raleigh and Coon Rock Farm, this great sustainable farm in Hillsborough. Here you have a farm that’s part of the restaurant group.
R: Do you think this contributes to the quality of the food scene?
JK: Yes. Being able to buy locally and knowing the farmers created a food community. Farmers and restaurateurs are both part of the process. It’s like the goal of Competition Dining, which I’m covering this week—bringing the chef, the farmer and the diner together. I think this encompasses what Durham’s all about.
R: What type of events do you promote?
JK: I am promoting various food events throughout the year. Sometimes I judge; sometimes I am the official blogger. One event people should go to this spring is the Bull City Food and Beer Experience, which will feature 20 restaurants and 50 breweries together. When it comes to the Triangle area, it not just about supporting food, it’s also about supporting breweries.
R: Is [beer] becoming a big thing in Durham?
JK: Yes. Asheville, which has been named “Beer City USA” four years in a row, and Durham are building a local brew scene. There’s three major brewing companies [that are] opening breweries in Asheville – Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Burial Beer. This says that beer in Asheville, and for that matter, in all of North Carolina, is for real. I promote local North Carolina beer left, right and center. When I go to a restaurant, I always order a local beer, and if that place doesn’t have it, I’ll go to another place.
R: You’ve mentioned food trucks and great restaurants/bars. What about higher end restaurants?
JK: We’re well known for our fine dining as well. You can’t pick up a national food magazine without a local North Carolina food restaurant being mentioned. Chefs are put on a national stage and do well. It draws people here.
R: How has the revitalization downtown enhanced the dining experience?
JK: One of the things that has elevated the food scene is that it is walkable. You can park your car in one spot and go to many different places throughout the night. This is definitely a national trend in cities the size of Durham. You are finding that there is a push for downtown resurgence across the country. People are trying to save local. What brings it together is food. If there is good food, it is a domino effect, and the downtown thrives.