I moved to the research triangle (that's what we call Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) a year and a half ago. Upon arriving, I quickly realized how wonderful the food culture here is. Southern Living recently named Durham the South's Tastiest Town. New Orleans is certainly better, but it's likely the only town I've ever spent time in south of the Mason-Dixon that's better than this area. The ingredients are fresh and interesting. Old restaurants that would get by on name alone in Mississippi either change or fail here. There are too many great options here.
The bars are good too, though the good ones are really expensive. Beer is king in North Carolina, with state regulated ABC stores (no private liquor sales). This yields great beers but never a whiskey special to be found. Either way... it's alcohol.
Because of the unique nature of the triangle, I'll need to break down each town. We'll start with Raleigh, where the regional is actually held. I should point out that I've given most of this responsibility to a former poster (who lost INTEREST due to his time-consuming banking job... get it? interest???) since he's a friend of mine who actually lives in Raleigh. I live in Durham, so I'm able to do that myself.
Let me say that I know I'm leaving out a lot of restaurants and bars. Please feel free to include some you know about in the comment section. I don't claim to know about every place in a location as diverse as this area.
Seriously, this is the best place in Raleigh. Ashley Christensen is one of those James Beard types; imagine if John Currence had a twin sister. Poole's is a cool atmosphere with good drinks and an even better menu. There are no reservations so get there early and enjoy some drinks. It's expensive, but nearly everyone when asked about the best place in Raleigh will bring it up. The menu changes weekly, but everything is good.
Christensen has a handful of places in Raleigh, this is the second best. The burgers are incredible. The fries are better. The spiked milkshakes (homemade vanilla and bourbon? yes please) are worth making a special trip even if you're nowhere nearby. It's pricey for a burger place, but it's just exceptional food. A word of advice- don't get everything you want. The servings are enormous. You'll feel terrible if you get a full-sized burger, an order of fries, and a milkshake all to yourself. If there's a wait when you go, you can drop in to Fox Liquor Bar while you wait. More on that later.
Lilly's is a local hole-in-the-wall. The pizza is great, atmosphere is fun and it's in the 5 Points neighborhood so there are several other bars and restaurants if you want to try something else.
4. The Pit
Actually my second favorite barbeque in Raleigh (Clyde Cooper's is my favorite but isn't open for dinner) but it's good, has a diverse menu for those who want something else and has a good bar. They offer both Eastern NC style (vinegar based) and the typical tomato base. If you get the vinegar base, which I've grown to like, don't put much sauce on it. The point of a vinegar base is that you want to taste the meat primarily with a little sauce thrown in. It's quite different than what we're accustomed to eating.
You must go here. The porch at Boylan is the best view in Raleigh. They brew their own beer and have some others as well. The food isn't bad either.
This is a local hangout near NC State. You'll see Raleigh's elite slumming it with students. It's cool. Also at the intersection of Hillsborough Street and Cameron Village, so there are lots of other things to walk to in the vicinity.
This is a Cameron Village watering hole with 100 or so beers on tap. It's close to campus, so there are lots of students, but it's not overly crowded. The food here isn't bad either.
This is a great downtown spot. The only reason it's 4th on my list is that it's not really a beer place like the others. It's a restaurant/bar that has good beer. Everything about this place is great though. Also, Friday night is First Friday and there will be lots going on in front of Raleigh Times.
This basement bar in downtown Raleigh has Raleigh unique drinks that are very high quality. Also, they have a great bourbon list.
This is Ashley Christensen's bar (it's actually underneath Chuck's). I need not say more.
3. C. Grace
This bar has great cocktails and live jazz every night. It's on Glenwood South, which can get a little shore-ish, but this is an exception.
If there's only one place you go on this whole list, go here. You'll have to wait a long time for your food. You'll wonder why you listened to me. Then your food will arrive, and you'll want to find and hug my neck. It's my favorite restaurant in the area regardless of price, and it's not expensive. For 12 dollars, you get a huge meal that's potentially the best fried chicken you've ever had in your life on top of phenomenal waffles. Then they drizzle something over it (my favorite dish has a whiskey cream sauce) and put a flavored butter on it. So so good.
2. Rue Cler
I have to admit that I've only gone for brunch, but the chef here is a master of flavors. I got the duck confit crepe, and it was delicious. I've heard wonderful things about the Steak Frites, Moules Frites, Coq Au Vin, L'Escalop de Saumon, and others. It's french, y'all.
Pizzeria Toro is one of those places over which people go crazy. If you don't want pizza, too bad. It's wonderful. The service is good, and the ingredients are really unique. Next time I go, I'm getting lamb meatballs and kale. BOOM!
There's a bartender at this bar who's a huge, huge asshole. There's another who's maybe the best bartender I've ever had. Either way, the whiskey selection is excellent (there's a bottle of Pappy on the non-smoking second floor). There's often live music, and the people there know their stuff.
This brewery is located in the heart of downtown Durham. The beer is hit or miss, but it's a fun place to hang out. They have darts and other parlor games, but the best game of all is an arcade game set off to itself in the corner that's free 99. It's only fun when playing against someone else, but if you've got a friend you love to spew hate at, this is your game.
3. Surf Club
Surf club is great. They have indoor and outdoor seating, make good drinks, and don't charge a ton for them. I've only been there a couple of times, but I've enjoyed myself each time.
I don't actually like this bar all that much. That said, a lot of people do. They've got a good beer selection, but the atmosphere is just weird. It's an Irish pub, but the last time I was there, they were playing "The Real Slim Shady" on the speaker system.
Let me just say.... I actually don't like eating in Chapel Hill. It's either not good or expensive. I wouldn't advise it. That being said, here are a couple of places to check out.
This is quite expensive. It's also apparently the best place in the town. I've never eaten here due to the cost, but it's owned by a James Beard winner. It has to be good.
2. Um... I guess... Amante Pizza?
Truth be known I don't spend a ton of time in Chapel Hill. Amante Pizza is a local chain that's really good. Go there if you find yourself in the area.
3. Somewhere in Carrboro
Carrboro is a weird suburb-but-not-suburb of Chapel Hill. It's full of hippies. They have some good places to eat. Venables, Acme, and Elmo's Diner are the only ones I like. Don't... I repeat DO NOT eat at Southern Rail. It's gross.
It's the best bar in the area. In an effort to deter college students, the bar owner made a rule that you have to be 23 or older to enter. It's expensive. The drinks are phenomenal, and the vibe in the place is complete class. If you're going to Chapel Hill, you have to go here.
The drinks aren't special or anything, but it's essentially a rooftop bar, so the view is pretty great. It's worth a trip up to see the area.
So there. That's it. If you were looking for parking information or something, too bad. I've got none of that. Eat. Drink. Watch baseball.