image courtesy of raleighcitizen.com
Although I’ve lived in Raleigh for years and enjoy it, I used to consider it’s downtown restaurant scene to be the least appealing of the Triangle’s three cities. Chapel Hill has a vibrancy, courtesy of the university, that Raleigh lacks, and downtown Durham is both more architecturally interesting and more gastronomically exciting than the capitol city. But things are starting to change a bit in Raleigh, thanks in no small part to the efforts of one woman, Ashley Christensen.
Poole’s Diner, her flagship restaurant, has for quite some time been one of the top restaurants in the entire Triangle, and now Christensen has opened two new restaurants (and a liquor bar) on Wilmington St. in downtown Raleigh. Beasley’s Chicken & Honey and Chuck’s share a clean, modern look, a kitchen, and a commitment to the most straightforward of menus: fried chicken at Beasley’s, burgers and fries at Chuck’s. Their recent openings generated a lot of buzz and instantly boosted Raleigh’s culinary cachet, and I have been eager to try both.
We almost flipped a coin to pick which one to try first, but ended up going with Beasley’s based on the warmer, more inviting lighting on a recent Friday evening. The space is clean and modern, with one very long communal table running down the middle of the room as well as numerous smaller tables. You’re seated on a sturdy metal stool. The aesthetic is rigorous and austere, with a consistent palette of reds, silvers, and blacks, but the quality of the appointments lends a sophisticated urban feel. At night, small votive candles on each table give a touch of elegance to the space; I imagine that during the day the space is flooded with sunlight from the huge plate glass windows. Either way, Beasley’s seems better suited to a casual lunch than to a romantic dinner.
As is the case at Poole’s (and Chuck’s), the menu is displayed on a large chalkboard above the bar. If it seems as though you’re struggling to read it, they’ll bring you a small card describing your choices. As mentioned, there aren’t many – the menu is extraordinarily simple: you choose between fried chicken or a chicken biscuit (chicken & waffles being a third option, available only for brunch or late at night). When we were there, the waitress also offered one special, a spicy chicken salad biscuit. My wife and I each chose the º chicken, dark meat ($7.50). There are about seven or so side items to choose from, and they all sound fabulous, but it’s probably best to go with just one, as it’s likely to fill you up, and they are priced individually ($3.50). I went with the “Kennedy biscuits with honey” and my wife chose the “big bad bacon yukon gold potato salad”.
Our food arrived alarmingly quickly. In keeping with the overall feel of the place, presentation is starkly simple, with the chicken placed upon a bare bones industrial metal plate. The skin was thin, dark, and very crispy, and the meat was beautifully moist. For me, the slight drizzle of honey added almost nothing to the chicken; in fact I’d probably rather have chicken without honey. Although it’s a reasonable portion – a drumstick and a thigh – my wife and I both picked the bones clean and wanted just a little bit more. It was certainly delicious, if not incredibly flavorful or terribly exciting. The side items, on the other hand, were brilliant. The potato salad was heavy with smoky bacon-ness. It really packed a punch without being overwhelming. The biscuits, which were served as three very thick triangular wedges, were my favorite part of the meal. Being partially soaked through with a liberal amount of honey, they were sweet, dense, moist, and addictive. The honey did much more for the biscuits than it did for the chicken. Both side dishes were ample portions, with the biscuits in particular being a lot for one person to finish. It might be nice if Beasley’s offered just one biscuit, a la carte, to go with your chicken and another side dish. Otherwise, I think the pricing is just right – $11 for high-quality chicken and a side seems like a good deal to me.
Beasley’s is a spot I would absolutely return to for a casual meal. The restaurant’s take on traditional Southern fare is comforting enough to keep you coming back, but tweaked enough to make it modern and interesting. With it’s refined aesthetic and prices to match, Beasley’s is perhaps a curious fit for Raleigh, but one that certainly enhances the appeal of the city. After all, this is one of the aspects that’s wonderful about Durham, for instance: ambitious restaurateurs serving great food in neat spaces. In the case of Beasley’s, the communal seating, friendly service, and a lack of pretentiousness soften the edges enough to capture some of the warmth of a classic Southern joint; if people take to it like I hope they will, over time I could see Beasley’s becoming an institution. Christensen appears to have another winner with Beasley’s, so here’s hoping that her empire, and indeed Raleigh as a whole, continues to flourish.