Review: Poole’s Downtown Diner (Raleigh, NC)

Despite it’s name, Poole’s can only be loosely characterized as a diner; the top-notch ingredients (all local and sustainable) and high end cooking ensure that the restaurant goes far beyond any run-of-the-mill greasy spoon joint.  That said, the elements of a diner that are retained are some of the best: the inviting counter seating, the easy informality, the simplest of platings, and the loud bustling ambience.  Indeed, it is a dark, small space that fills up quickly.  If I had to liken Poole’s to any other triangle restaurants, they would have to be Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill (for the elevation of simple American cooking) and Lilly’s Pizza in Raleigh (for the rollicking atmosphere).

The menu at Poole’s is scrawled on chalkboards that line the upper reaches of one side of the restaurant.  Depending on where you’re seated, you may be able to study it easily, or you may have to get up and find a better vantage point.  Everything is a la carte, but side dishes are large and meant to be shared.  Service can be slow at Poole’s, but the food is worth the wait.

To begin with, the bread that came out first was heavenly.  A salad with pomegranate seeds was nicely dressed and refreshing.  My chicken and mashed potatoes dinner entree was starkly simple but perfectly executed.  And what of the restaurant’s famed macaroni and cheese?  It was creamy and decadent – borderline sublime.  I can’t recall better iteration of these classic comfort foods.  Similarly magnificent was the royale with cheese – a squashed tennis-ball size open face burger on brioche.

If dinner was nearly perfect and reasonably priced (although I can’t recall the exact figures), a recent brunch visit was a small step down and downright expensive.  I ordered a pimento cheese BLT ($12) and my wife opted for an omelette with squash, chevre, and basil ($11).  We ordered hash browns on the side for $4.  A blueberry hotcake looked extraordinary (complete with a giant pat of butter), but for $12?  A biscuit with blueberry jam for $5?  To be fair, my sandwich was enormous.  It was stacked about 6 inches high, primarily on account of two half-inch thick tomato slices.  And it was undeniably delicious, although I felt the cheese/bacon ratio was too far in favor of the cheese, which  was verging on overwhelming with its very strong taste.  Moreover, the sandwich was not served on challah bread as the menu described, but on simple toasted white bread.  The omelette was also quite good but relatively unremarkable.  The hash browns were fabulous as chunks of softened pan-fried potatoes with a nice charry, smoky note.

Since moving on from the excellent Enoteca Vin, chef Ashley Christensen has garnered widespread acclaim and growing stardom, and found even greater success with Poole’s.  It’s the best restaurant in Raleigh, in my opinion, and one of the top handful in the entire Triangle.

Note: seating is limited, and Poole’s does not take reservations.  The menu changes frequently and therefore is not posted on the restaurant’s website.

Rating:  * * * * 1/2

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