Almost daily, people ask Preeti Waas when she’ll expand to Durham. Her popular Cheeni Indian Food Emporium (1141 Falls River Avenue) in north Raleigh — which won the Eater Carolinas 2022 North Carolina Restaurant of the Year Award and later earned Waas the 2023 Best Chef: Southeast semifinalist nod from the James Beard Awards — draws people from much further away. But it consistently attracts diners from neighboring Durham.
She finally has an answer for them: as soon as possible.
This week, Waas signed a lease to open a second location of Cheeni in the heart of Durham, inside the former Jack Tar space (202 Corcoran Street, Suite 100). She already has the keys and hopes to open on November 1, the four-year anniversary of when she opened the original (and now defunct) Cheeni location at Raleigh’s downtown YMCA.
“We have people coming from Durham all the freaking time,” Waas says, “They’ll no longer have to come to us; we’re coming to them.”
The new location, which will just go by Cheeni, is significantly bigger than the current emporium space, particularly the kitchen. That’s the whole point. “With this location, I feel like I can spread my wings and fly,” Waas says, “It’s a little terrifying, but I kind of thrive on that terror.”
Right now, Cheeni operates out of a former bagel shop in a strip mall, with a kitchen small enough to fit inside the kitchen of some homes in the area. Waas is limited by the space, and it prevents her from offering the full array of regional Indian cuisine she wants to provide. With the Durham location’s twin kitchens, particularly the “giant” prep kitchen in the back, Cheeni will be able to prepare all food for both shops in one space.
“This is a way to make more possible and more available in Raleigh, too,” Waas says, “They’ll be differentiated but connected.”
The new location will offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner most days of the week, but won’t follow the all-day cafe model the Raleigh restaurant currently uses. It will be more “service-oriented,” Waas says, with a host and table service rather than the existing cafe-style, bus-your-own-plate approach. With time, she’ll add a bar with a small bites menu in the adjoining, semi-hidden bar. Named Bar Beej (Hindi for “seed”), customers can expect dishes like an Indian fried chicken brined in full-fat coconut milk, twice-fried, and tossed in their choice of three masalas.
Some menu items will be familiar to regulars; Waas has already started testing some dishes out as specials in Raleigh. “We’re really leaning into the regionality of Indian cuisine,” she says, “It would be great for a country as large as ours, as diverse as ours, to have an appropriate amount of representation here.”
Several regions will be featured on the standing menu, including Waas’ native Tamil Nadu in southern India, Kerala, West Bengal, and North India. Rotating specials will be driven by “whatever I feel like cooking that day,” much like Cheeni runs now. Waas described the forthcoming menu as more of a “guide,” clearly indicating regional origins and differences to customers in an attempt to make it more approachable and spark curiosity.
Like the Raleigh restaurant, there won’t be some of the Americanized Indian food staples that some diners might expect such as butter chicken or chicken tikka masala.
“It’s nothing more complicated than it’s what I like to eat,” Waas says, “I am a home cook; I’m not culinarily trained. I just like to cook, and I like to feed people, so I’m going to feed people what I like to eat. It’s what I like to eat now, and my food memories.”
Some dishes evoke specific family members or her kids’ childhood favorites, while others recall her travels. Waas previously worked as a flight attendant in India, jetting to different states for work and eagerly exploring food on her layovers. She wants you to experience a taste of what she did.
“At this point, people trust what I put on the plate,” Waas says, “I’m hoping to build on that trust. Just come in and enjoy. If you don’t like it, that’s okay, but at least you’ve tried it. I’m not dumbing it down.”
Waas is changing little about the Jack Tar building. The fact that it’s a second-generation restaurant space that’s virtually ready to go is part of the appeal. But she’ll still “Cheeni-fy” it, with visual cues that align with her Raleigh digs —black and white floors, similar fabrics and colors, and more. She’s aiming for upscale but unpretentious, appealing to nearby hotel guests looking for a quick breakfast and locals celebrating a romantic anniversary dinner alike.
The new location will also mean some changes for Cheeni Indian Food Emporium in Raleigh. The hours will shift away from all-day cafe to something more sustainable for staffing, such as an “abbreviated” lunch window. Raleigh will continue offering events, emporium-item shopping, and classes. Waas will still be there too, she stressed, just less often. In anticipation of the changes, her daughter Amy has joined the business to be Waas’ right hand.
After opening and finding their footing, Waas plans for Cheeni in Durham to be open for three meals a day on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday through Saturday. Sunday will offer brunch only, and Wednesday will provide a reprieve for staff. Waas emphasized that she sees the venture as a compliment to Durham’s existing options, distinct from Viceroy a short walk away and other Indian restaurants in the city, too.
“India is so vast and it has so many different things to offer that if somebody walks into Cheeni and we don’t have what they want, we can send them to five other places,” Waas says, “and vice versa.”