Several folks have asked N&O restaurant critic Greg Cox and myself for a printable version of his annual best restaurant list. So here it is:
Restaurant of the Year
1002 Ninth St., Durham, 286-3609
Cuisine: contemporary Southern
The first question I'm invariably asked when I'm introduced as a restaurant critic is some variation on "What's your favorite restaurant?" I never answer with the name of just one. Because my tastes are wide-ranging and my "favorite restaurant" can change depending on my mood, I always mention at least two or three - and not always the same two or three.
But I always include Magnolia Grill.
It's an obvious choice, I know. The restaurant has won two James Beard Awards, after all. And it's hard to imagine what the local dining scene would look like without the dozens of culinary proteges of owner/chef Ben Barker and his wife, pastry chef Karen Barker - many of whom now run restaurants of their own.
But my reasons for including Magnolia Grill among my short list of favorites - and for naming it Restaurant of the Year - go beyond the obvious. They date to November 1986, when the restaurant opened just a month after I moved to the area. It didn't take me long to discover this oasis in a culinary landscape that looked vastly different than it does today.
Fine dining options are much more plentiful now. There are plenty of restaurants with a more elegant dining room decor than Magnolia Grill's, and a few that can match the level of professionalism of its wait staff. But when it comes to the food, Magnolia Grill stands alone.
That the kitchen has continued to perform at such a consistently high level over so many years is impressive enough. That it does so with a daily changing menu that focuses on local produce (and did so long before it was fashionable) is even more impressive. And that Ben Barker and his crew are able, again and again, to surprise and delight with flavor combinations you'd never have thought of (and, unlike so many other "creative" presentations elsewhere, rarely come off as overwrought) is nothing short of amazing.
Magnolia Grill is, in other words, a foodie mecca in the purest sense. It seems especially appropriate to choose this year to name Magnolia Grill the Restaurant of the Year. A few weeks ago, the restaurant celebrated its 25th birthday. You could call this year's award a belated happy birthday wish, and a thank you from a grateful foodie.
Click READ MORE to see the list.