Tiny cubes of sunset-pink watermelon sit nestled with boiled peanuts and Japanese eggplant on the baba ghanoush dish at Ajja (209 Bickett Boulevard, Raleigh), adding a brightness to the dish, but also serving as a reminder of the final days of summer sun and crisper weather on the horizon. With fall on the way, thousands of university students have returned to the Triangle to attend the new semester, and local families have returned from vacations to also settle into the school year and tuck into their respective communities.
At Ajja, acclaimed chef Cheetie Kumar’s new ode to “the Mediterranean, the Middle East and beyond,” customers from the Five Points neighborhood and avid fans of her previous restaurant Garland gather in the backyard of the Bickett Boulevard restaurant to dine on dayboat shrimp grouped with sweet corn, peach-tamarind pork ribs, and Za’tartinis. The building is nestled among family homes, warehouses, and a few shops. “That block has always been really kind of this secret, little hideaway that we were just really attracted to,” says Kumar.
During the pandemic, Kumar and partner Paul Siler were presented with the opportunity to move into the space behind Anisette Sweet Shop. They thought they would open a new restaurant in addition to their acclaimed Indian-meets-Southern spot Garland, but diners stopped coming downtown when offices shuttered, and they decided to close the space. Now, their new spot overlooks the tall buildings in downtown Raleigh that once nestled their former restaurant.
Ajja is just one of the many Triangle restaurants stepping away from the main streets of downtowns as real estate prices rise and rampant construction hinders customers from venturing to visit, on top of complicated parking situations, traffic, and behaviors altered by the pandemic. “I think, across the globe, people’s eating habits changed and their routes changed — what they do and where they are is just different. There were a lot of factors that added up to us really being excited about being in a neighborhood,” says Kumar.
Over in Durham, chef Oscar Diaz decided to open Little Bull (810 North Mangum Street) his homage Mexican American cuisine, in the historic Old Five Points neighborhood. Customers looking for the restaurant will pass by family homes, a few barber shops, and a commercial garage to reach the address. “We wanted something that was tucked away,” says Diaz, “We really wanted a quaint restaurant without the hustle and bustle of the main street strip. We wanted somewhere where it felt like we were adding to a community.”
The lower cost of rent also allows Diaz to offer his staff a livable wage. “Sometimes opening a small restaurant in this area becomes difficult because the real estate cost per square foot can get absurd,” he says, “So while we need to make a profit, we also want to keep our prices reasonable for our guests and produce quality products.”
Just north of the downtown scene, the space at Little Bull is hip, but not in an intimidating way. It’s a comfortable spot for friends and family to gather over Diaz’s menu of comfort food through his view as a first-generation Mexican American who grew up in Chicago and ended up in the South. Plates include birria dumplings, local catch ceviches, and beef cheek barbacoa on top of bone marrow with fresh tortillas. The plates come out and customers want to keep ordering more to try everything and to keep the party going with the rest of the dining room.
In Chapel Hill, non-Italian restaurant Bombolo (764 M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard) sits off the main drag of Franklin Street behind the homes and apartments off of Martin Luther King Boulevard. The dining room is filled with professor-types and young families. They dine on halibut khoa soi, rabbit pappardelle, and New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp from chef Garret Fleming. As Eater writer Matt Lardie explains, Fleming basically takes the concept of “pasta” and expands it to include noodles and dumplings from around the globe plus whatever else inspires him at the moment. It’s almost like going to a friend's house for dinner and not knowing which cookbook they are working from that evening.
From an outsider’s perspective, the strip mall location of Bombolo may not scream “neighborhood restaurant,” but Chapel Hill tends to feel like one large community with the lines between the University and the medical system blurred with the town. Fleming and co-owner/sister Eleanor Lacy say they originally looked at a Franklin Street location, but ultimately decided against it. “The majority of Chapel Hill doesn’t regard Franklin Street as easily accessible or in their neighborhood,” says Lacy, “One delightful thing that has happened is that we get a lot of people who live around us and remember this place as the previous restaurant Kitchen, and they are excited to have something in the neighborhood again.”
While each of the restaurants, Ajja, Little Bull, and Bombolo, are relatively new to their locations, they all seem to be part of the neighborhoods already, as if they’ve been there for years. With the arrival of fall, each of the owners expects to be a bit busier with friends and families venturing out more with the chiller weather and holidays on the way. One can imagine that their menus will become the flavors of the community, and there might even be a time when diners can’t remember an evening before their favorite neighborhood restaurant showed up next door.