Dec 18, 2023 - News

The best restaurants that opened in 2023

The Ajja team, from left: Paul Siler, Cheetie Kumar, Gaëlle Laforest, Lindsay Ogden and Chris Gamble. Photo: Baxter Miller

2023 has been one of transition for the Triangle's restaurant landscape, with acclaimed chefs swapping neighborhoods and old favorites closing their doors.

  • But as always, green shoots have sprouted in their place and great chefs have taken more risks and daring new menus have emerged.

Here is a list of some of the best new restaurants, which we compiled by eating our way across the region and chatting with fellow diners.

Ajja

Ajja's menu features veggie plates, like summer squash wrapped in zucchini (left) and tomatoes and peaches (top). The grilled meats, like the lamb seekh (right), are tender and richly seasoned. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

Chef Cheetie Kumar may have decamped from downtown to the Five Points neighborhood with the closing of Garland and the opening of Ajja — but her presence in the Triangle's dining scene has not been diminished.

  • Ajja, which has one of the city's best patios, is a journey through Near East and Middle Eastern cuisines, featuring delightfully grilled kebabs, complex dips and a fresh and juicy medley of vegetables.

Kumar is one of the Triangle's star chefs, but Ajja is a team effort. The kitchen is co-helmed by her, sous chef Chris Gamble and chef de cuisine Scott McKenney. And beverage director Lindsay Ogden has designed one of more eclectic wine lists in the area.

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Location: 209 Bickett Blvd., Raleigh

Bombolo

Bombolo on a busy Thursday evening. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

At first blush, you'd want to call Bombolo, which opened in Chapel Hill in February, an Italian restaurant thanks to its front-and-center dedication to fresh pasta.

  • But the restaurant refuses to stay within the lanes of a typical Italian eatery — even going to the lengths of tattooing "Ceci n'est pas un restaurant italien" on its walls.

Instead, what you get is a menu that marches to the taste buds of Chef Garret Fleming and pastry chef Eleanor Lacy.

  • That could mean a starter of bratwurst, New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp, or a hearty noodle dish like khoa soi.
  • But make no mistake, despite the menu's twists and turns, the fresh pasta is still worth the price of admission.

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Location: 764 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill

Little Bull

The birria dumplings are a standout on Little Bull's menu. Or try the $6 corn covered in mayo, guacatillo and queso enchilado (right). Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

Oscar Cortez, the James Beard-nominated chef behind Cortez, is one of Raleigh's most exciting cooks.

  • So his arrival to Durham with the opening of Little Bull in the Old Five Points neighborhood was greeted with great expectations.

Little Bull serves what Diaz calls "pocho" food — a reference to a slang term in Spanish for Mexican-American kids that use Spanglish.

  • In this case, it's a mixture of everything Diaz has absorbed so far in his life, from the Mexican food of his heritage to the dishes he has discovered on his own.
  • It's led to the creation of an exciting menu consisting of items like birria dumplings, which nestle slow-cooked Mexican goat and broth inside crescent-shaped potstickers most often found in Chinese cuisine, as well as gambas a la plancha and a ceviche.

Location: 810 N. Mangum St., Durham

M Test Kitchen

Chef Michael Lee. Photo courtesy of M Restaurants

Triangle eaters have followed Michael Lee wherever his burgeoning restaurant empire has grown, from the highest-quality sushi of M Sushi to the celebration of Korean going-out food at M Pocha and the fried delicacies at M Tempura.

  • M Test Kitchen, located next to M Sushi's Cary location and possessing a wild card of a menu, has been no exception.
  • M Test Kitchen is truly that: A place where Lee tests out new ideas and creative flights of fancy, like kung pao brussel sprouts, a lobster shumai, raw Scottish trout, and whatever rotates onto the menu next.

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Location: 4 Fenton Main St., Suite 120B, Cary

Madre

Madre's moody dining room is located in the Smoky Hollow development. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

A long-awaited addition to downtown Raleigh's dining scene, Madre is an upscale dining experience worth trying.

  • It's the place to go for both special occasions and last-minute weeknight dinners. It's cozy and intimate yet large enough to accommodate some walk-ins. Plus: It's one of the few restaurants open Mondays.
  • Try our favorites of the sharing-style dishes on the menu: Roasted Cauliflower and the Pulpo.

Location: 518 N. West St., Raleigh

La Montaña

La Montaña opened in Carrboro in November. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

For chef Yung Nay and his kitchen collaborators, the new Carrboro restaurant La Montaña is an attempt to marry the cuisines of his birthplace in Vietnam and the Latin American-style dishes he fell in love with growing up in the U.S.

  • Inside of the colorfully-decorated restaurant, you'll find lemongrass chicken delivered via an empanada, an al pastor tandoori, Asian-beef tacos and a tequila-focused cocktail menu.

La Montaña is Nay's second restaurant after the Japanese whiskey bar Iza Whiskey & Eats, located next door.

  • It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Nay's partners include Chuan Tsay, of Heirloom in Raleigh, and Samantha Garcia, Chapel Hill Magazine reported.

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Location: 370 E. Main St., Suite 170, Carrboro

Nanas

The bar at the reopening fine-dining restaurant Nanas. Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Nanas is back — though the iconic Durham restaurant has gotten quite the face lift from Matt Kelly, the celebrated chef behind Vin Rouge and Mateo.

For years, Nana's (how it was previously stylized) provided Durham with the type of fine-dining experience people would plan their birthdays and anniversaries around and was a vanguard of the area's growing culinary scene.

  • But the pandemic brought the long-running restaurant's demise, and it closed in 2020.
  • Kelly and his kitchen partner Nate Garyantes bought the restaurant last year.

Now, its fine-dining menu — featuring classics like risotto, a chicken liver mousse, a tagliatelle ragu with duck, and roasted chicken and whole fish — and its neighbor-friendly bar have been resurrected with a more modern feel.

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Location: 2514 University Dr., Durham

Nikos

The entrance to Nikos at Brightleaf Square in Durham. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

Giorgios Bakatsias went back to his roots with the opening of his newest Durham restaurant, Nikos in Brightleaf Square.

  • Decades ago, when his now large restaurant empire was still young, Brightleaf Square had been home to a different Greek restaurant of Bakatsias': Taverna Niko.

This Nikos pays homage to that one with its many Greek staples, including a rich moussaka, but the menu explores dishes from other parts of the Mediterranean.

  • The dining room is tightly packed together, creating a lively atmosphere, and the menu is heavy on the meze spreads, like a smoky eggplant dip, and roasted vegetables, like beets and cauliflower.

Location: 905 W. Main St., Unit 21B, Durham

Saap

The crispy pork belly, coconut curry and egg drop soup at Saap. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

Nestled right next to Cary's new downtown park, Saap serves Laoatian dishes you didn't know you needed — and some of the best comfort food around.

  • The menu has something for everyone, with classic offerings as well as adventurous ones. We loved the Mee Ka Tee (Pork belly, coconut and egg drop soup) — just a couple of spoonfuls had Lucille craving the dish for weeks.

Location: 370 S. Walker St., Suite 100, Cary

Seraphine

The bar at Seraphine. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

The American Tobacco Campus has started feeling like its back to its old ways, with crowds once again returning from the pandemic-era doldrums.

  • And the arrival of several restaurants, including the Louisiana-indebted Seraphine, is a big reason why.

Seraphine — located in the former Tyler's Taproom space — is run by brothers Brad and Graham Weddington, who are managing partners at the upscale Durham restaurant NanaSteak.

  • The menu features cajun staples like gumbo, boudin sausage, crawfish and beignets, and it possesses a large patio that spills out onto the ATC's common area.
  • But the restaurant's long bar, with its extensive cocktail list and marble countertop, feels like the heart of the bustling restaurant.

Location: 324 Blackwell St., Suite 4, Durham

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