Today we’re excited to announce the winners of the 2022 Eater Awards, celebrating just a few of the new restaurants that have made a major impact on the Carolinas dining scene. Across North and South Carolina, chefs and restauranteurs were eager to dive into delayed projects due to the restraints from the COVID-19 pandemic. It seemed like a wave of new spots opened across the states and brought an updated interest in the scene. From Filipino fare in Asheville, North Carolina, to Puerto Rican barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, there were exciting ideas and menus in unexpected places.
Please join us in celebrating this year’s incredible group of winners. Without further ado, here they are.
Best New Carolinas Restaurant: Neng Jr.’s
Chef Silver Iocovozzi set out to introduce Asheville to the food they grew up with in North Carolina and the Philippines, and Neng Jr.’s (701 Haywood Road, Asheville) was born after months of anticipation.
Iocovozzi’s menu comes from their mother, Marissa Cousler, and their Filipino heritage. Plates are always rotating, based on what’s available and the whim of the kitchen. Some nights you might find a deconstructed lobster special or supple sweetbreads inihaw with bok choy or beefy eggrolls credited to a recipe from “mom.” Always order the seasonal fruit dish if it’s on the menu — perfectly ripe fruits come with a snappy dipping sauce that highlights each bite.
The vibrant red dining room at the West Asheville restaurant feels like an embrace from your effortlessly cool best friend — the staff is genuinely welcoming (seriously, you’ll want to follow them all on Instagram after you leave). A warm smokiness emanates from the kitchen, and ‘90s pop hits play overhead in the 17-seat dining room. It’s an intimate space perfect to highlight the thoughtful menu.
“Americans are familiar with Italian food, Mexican food, Chinese food,” Iocovozzi told Eater in a previous interview, “Filipino food is not only new to Asheville, but it has not hit that mainstream avenue even in bigger cities. It has been getting more attention and exposure the last six or so years. I think the moment is now, and I’m excited to do it here, in my town.” — Erin Perkins
North Carolina Restaurant of the Year: Cheeni Indian Food Emporium
At least once a week, a potential customer turns on their heels after reading the overhead menu at Cheeni Indian Food Emporium (1141 Falls River Avenue, Raleigh) and walks out. Owner Preeti Waas knows why, because they often ask her: “Where’s the chicken tikka masala?”
But Waas is undeterred. Cheeni — which looks across its Raleigh, North Carolina, shopping center parking lot into an Ace Hardware store — isn’t meant to be a classic American-adapted Indian restaurant. In a way, it isn’t a restaurant at all. And that’s what makes it so remarkable.
Part all-day cafe and part community hub, Cheeni offers an alternate, more complex vision for restaurants as a third space. A small but growing market boasts everything from cookbooks to pints of masala chai ice cream. Waas — a former culinary professor — teaches classes and welcomes guest chefs in her stately demonstration kitchen in the adjoining room, which has also hosted events such as a Diwali party and a book tour.
Cheeni focuses on lighter, snackable items during the day, with the tiffin section of the menu offering everything from spiraling, heavily seasoned masala fries to the springy rice-lentil dosa waffle with sambhar. At night, large plates reign, especially the ginger and green chili-rubbed, tandoor oven-cooked Hariyali whole fish, and braised Bengali roast chicken. That makes it unlike anything else available in the region, but pared with Waas’ overall concept, it’s earned national distinction — Eric Ginsburg
South Carolina Restaurant of the Year: Vern’s
Many people say they want to create a neighborhood restaurant, but husband-and-wife team Daniel “Dano” and Bethany Heinze nailed it on their first attempt with Vern’s (41 Bogard Street, Charleston). Nestled in the mostly residential area of Cannonbourough/Elliotborough, the American bistro pulls from the couple's strengths, with Bethany on the adventurous wine list and Dano in the kitchen. Dano was previously the chef de cuisine at former Charleston institution McCrady’s, and Bethany ran the bar before they departed for Los Angeles in 2016 to work with famed restaurateurs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. They returned to open Vern’s.
The menu draws from Dano’s work with hyper-local produce at McCrady’s, ingredient-based cooking in California, and travels through Europe with Bethany. Dishes include perfectly roast chicken in a brown butter jus or bouncy charred sourdough with allium butter.
Long-time Lowcountry residents have remarked that Vern’s feels like the beginning days of legendary Charleston restaurant FIG (232 Meeting Street, Charleston), which isn’t a punch against FIG now, but means Vern’s is executing James Beard-worthy food with impeccable service — but the hordes of tourists haven’t quite found it yet. — Erin Perkins
Best Carolinas Restaurant Design of the Year: Pink Bellies
After years on the food truck and food hall scene, Charleston was fondly familiar with chef Thai Phi’s Vietnamese cuisine, but no one expected that the permanent location of Pink Bellies (595 King Street, Charleston) would be such a vibe.
Phi worked with Thomas & Denzinger Architects to create layer upon layer of undulating surfaces for light to bounce off, which creates an underwater effect once the sun goes down. Pinks, blues, purples, and hints of orange bounce around the room as customers clink glasses and slurp garlic noodle bowls.
Phi previously told Eater, “I really love Japanese architecture and James Turrell’s art installations. Momofuku Toronto and Tartine Manufactory SF were huge influences. Both spaces seamlessly showcase the craftsmanship that goes into the food with their open kitchens. And both have really thoughtful usage of lighting throughout their dining rooms. This space feels more representative of the Saigon that I know, where modern architecture lives alongside historical French buildings in a tropical climate.”
With such stunning interiors, it’s always a party at Pink Bellies. — Erin Perkins
Best Carolinas Barbecue of the Year: Palmira Barbecue
Pitmaster Hector Garate wanted to join the new wave of smoked meat aficionados putting their unique cultural spin on what is typically considered American barbecue. What started as a hobby, smoking brisket for his family, became pop-up Palmira Barbecue and is now set to be a brick-and-mortar establishment (2366 Ashley River Road, Charleston). Garate pulls the best bits of flavors and techniques from Texas, North Carolina, and his native home Puerto Rico to create his menu of juicy beef cheeks, smoky pulled pork, and rich barbacoa.
Palmira started as a brewery pop-up highlighting Garate’s partnership with heritage hog farmer Marvin Ross of Peculiar Pig. The popularity of the barbecue led to a residency at food hall Port of Call (99 Market Street, Charleston), but now Garate has gone out on his own and hopes to have a permanent home for Palmira next March in West Ashley. The pitmaster promises more sides and specials at the new space. “I’m pretty sure everything’s gonna evolve and evolve and evolve,” says Garate, “Because just this past year, we evolved so much from the beginning.” — Erin Perkins