Watershed week for Greensboro’s culinary scene

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Noma

by Eric Ginsburg

Watching from Washington, DC, NC A&T University graduate Brittney Drakeford can hardly believe her former city’s evolution.

“I feel like Greensboro has changed so much in four years!” she wrote on Facebook, responding to the news that Hops Burger Bar will open a second location.

It must be hard to truly tell, from a distance, how true Drakeford’s words are. But maybe locals have an even harder time taking a bird’s-eye view of the rapid metamorphosis Greensboro has experienced.

The first Hops, which now feels like an old hat, only opened a hair over two years ago.

Forget the last four years — students who left town for the summer are currently returning to a city with a culinary scene that is markedly different. And this is another watershed week.

The first wave of the summer splashed ashore in May with a quick succession of openings — Crafted: the Art of Street Food, Preyer Brewing, 1618 Downtown and Freeman’s, all quick heavyweights deserving of praise. Not long before that LaRue showed up as the city’s only French restaurant, though the late-night menu ranging from tamales to pho may be more exciting.

The steady pace of progress continued almost as assuredly as shark attacks along the shores of the Carolinas. Cheesecakes by Alex completed a long-awaited expansion just as Harlem Express arrived onto the scene across South Elm Street. A few blocks down, PB & Java welcomed the public, and makes the Gate City look like a veritable hipster haven.

Here and above: Noma
Here and above: Noma

And now in the last week, another massive wave has pummeled the beachhead established at summer’s start. On Monday, Noma Food & Co.  launched as Greensboro’s first Thai & Vietnamese fast-food joint, the same day as former fancypants Josephine’s Kitchen reopened as a breakfast spot called Scrambled. Just two days prior, Urban Grinders coffeeshop headed by artist Jeff Beck kicked off downtown. Two days before that, on Aug. 20, Hops declared it would expand to Lawndale Avenue, coming on the heels of the soft opening of Mac’s Speed Shop — a small restaurant chain with good ribs — down the road.

Oh, and this week is the inaugural Downtown Greenway Restaurant Week, with three of this summer’s centrally located eateries participating.

When you look at the rapid evolution all at once, it’s baffling for even a food writer to take in. Brittney Drakeford, if she’s reading this, is no doubt astonished. And the incoming first-year class of 2015-16 may never hear the city’s unflattering nickname “Greensboring.”

Greensboro isn’t alone in its dining-oriented development, of course. This summer, Camel City BBQ Factory and the Famous Toastery trumpeted their intentions to open on the northern side of Winston-Salem’s downtown. We’re lucky enough to start seeing more cross pollination too, with High Point’s Penny Path Café disclosing plans for Trade Street in Winston-Salem and Greensboro’s Spring Garden Bakery opening its doors to a High Point outpost.

Some of the development is liquid — rather than food— oriented. This month Winston-Salem’s Hutch & Harris opened its Side Bar, not long after Wise Man Brewing said it would actually open in the Camel — rather than the Gate — City. Greensboro Distilling signed a lease behind the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship where Triad City Beat is housed, and bottle shops like the Beer Growler in Winston and Craft City Sip-In in Greensboro invited the public in this summer as well.

It’s a banner season for food and drink, to be sure. And the changes aren’t just the same-old-same-old; many of the new restaurants are innovative (at least around here), hip and delicious. The bulk of it, at least as of press time, has occurred in the previously caterpillar-esque Greensboro. Or maybe a hibernating bear would provide a better metaphor for the city’s nascent potential that is just now being woken up.

The vegan banh mi, the coffee, the beef empanadas, the PB&J sandwiches with bacon, the watermelon cocktails, the falafel waffles, the marrow butter… It’s easy to see there’s a shift underfoot, most of it in previously abandoned storefronts, even from Washington, DC.

Maybe it will lead to more people reacting like Drakeford, who added: “I want to come back!”

  • However good the ribs may be, Mac’s Speed Shop’s music has been obnoxiously loud. They have an outdoor stage and we’ve been able to hear everything, lyrics and all, inside our nearby apartment until they quit at 11pm.

  • Kristen E Jeffers

    You’ve just expressed in words what I feel right now and why I’m planning at least an extra week of holiday time back in the Triad. I need to sample all of this stuff. Plus, super proud of the proprietors that I know personally for stepping up our food game!