Today we’re excited to announce the winners of the 2023 Eater Awards, celebrating just a few of the new restaurants that have made a major impact on the Carolinas dining scene this year. Across North and South Carolina, chefs and restaurateurs continue to serve their communities with food, drink, and hospitality. Exciting spots from diverse voices sprouted up in unexpected spaces, and familiar names expanded their empires. From Southern barbecue in Durham, North Carolina, to Filipino fare in Charleston, South Carolina, there were numerous thrilling projects to sample this year.
Please join us in celebrating this year’s incredible group of winners. Without further ado, here they are.
Ajja: Best New Carolinas Restaurant
There’s a level of vibrancy to the food at Ajja (209 Bickett Boulevard, Raleigh) that makes it feel like someone turned up the volume.
And in some cases, owner and chef Cheetie Kumar has — using tamarind for the whole fried trout, schug hot sauce with the lamb croquette, or a fistful of herbs in the kuku sabzi, a Persian frittata, to dial up her dishes. But there’s nothing heavy-handed or forced about Ajja, which exudes effortlessness in its refreshing food, breezy-yet-earthy design, and impeccable service.
Giving Kumar this recognition isn’t perfunctory. Yes, she’s one of the region’s most acclaimed chefs. But the newly opened Ajja affirms her ability to adeptly evolve beyond her popular and recently closed Garland restaurant. Kumar, a guitarist and vocalist with the band Birds of Avalon, proved she’s no one-hit wonder. And the inventive, light, and transporting menu at Ajja is like your favorite albums — no skips. — Eric Ginsburg
Kultura: South Carolina Restaurant of the Year
Chef Nikko Cagalanan’s food is inspired by his Filipino grandmother, Mansueta, but it’s not serving the conventional dishes found on family tables across the Philippines. For one, Cagalanan doesn’t put lumpia on the menu at his Charleston restaurant Kultura (63 Spring Street, Charleston). Instead, the kitchen creates bright bowls of pancit topped with Lowcountry crab meat, tender pork ribs in banana ketchup barbecue, and yellow adobo salmon over crispy rice with a delicate salad of local vegetables.
Cagalanan previously worked in fine dining kitchens using moleculeur gastronomy, and even though his plates are artful, this isn’t fussy or pompous fare at Kultura — it’s honest cuisine with an absence of ego. For a dash of fun, the bar mixes bright purple halo halo cocktails topped with Fruity Pebbles cereal, ’90s hits play loudly in the dining room, and brunch features karaoke (Cagalanan says Sinatra is a popular choice).
The 10-seat chef’s counter at Kultura takes up most of the dining room, so customers can watch Cagalanan and his team working the line and delivering dishes. With such a tight space, customers are usually involved in each other’s menu decisions, looking to the seat next to them to confab on the selections. A recent special of local shrimp in a rich curry sauce stacked on top of thick sourdough toast created a wave of orders across the room as soon as the first diner declared it a hit. — Erin Perkins
Bombolo: North Carolina Restaurant of the Year
Does a restaurant need to have a set cuisine? What if the chef wanted to roll rigatoni for a spicy red-sauce dish, but they also wanted to crisp up rice noodles for comforting khoa soi? What if the chef put whatever they wanted to cook on the menu? Most ambitious home cooks don’t stick to one cuisine in their home kitchen, so why should a restaurant? At Bombolo (764 MLK Jr. Boulevard, Chapel Hill), the only predictable menu item is noodles (in all forms) and a sense of adventure.
Chef Garret Fleming and pastry chef Eleanor Lacy opened Bombolo to reject the old-school idea of only serving one cuisine — “Ceci n’est pas un restaurant Italien,” it reads over the windows, which means, “This is not an Italian restaurant.” Though Fleming says that regulars forbid him from taking the rigatoni all’amatriciana off the menu.
Diners can order an earthy beef heart tartare, share crispy fried chicken with biscuits, or sample the massive bo ssam with fresh oysters. The flavors and inspirations really do come from everywhere. — Erin Perkins
Mike D’s Smokehouse: Best New North Carolina Barbecue
A lifelong barbecue aficionado, Michael De Los Santos honed his pitmaster skills over the years while creating his own line of award-winning barbecue sauces and dry rubs. After opening a small retail shop on Driver Street in East Durham, the next logical move was to make the leap into his own restaurant, and he didn’t have to look far to do so, opening Mike D’s Smokehouse (455 S Driver Street, Durham) just down the road.
Wood-smoked pulled pork, juicy barbecue chicken, and fork-tender brisket have been drawing crowds since the doors opened earlier this year. The sides are as much an attraction as the meat, with the beans, with a subtle smoky sweetness, being a standout. All are served alongside Mike’s sauces, which can also be purchased at the retail portion of the business right next door — offering nearly everything a backyard barbecue enthusiast might need to reach Mike D’s level, from charcoal and grilling tools to professional backyard smokers. — Matt Lardie
King BBQ: Best New South Carolina Barbecue
Restaurateurs Shuai and Corrie Wong have a way of taking a well-worn idea and introducing a fresh touch that, for some reason, no one else is doing, and creating a spark. With their first project Short Grain, they sourced Lowcountry seafood for Japanese rice bowls when most Charleston sushi spots were using imports. Their follow-up restaurant Jackrabbit Filly sparked a fervor for Chinese American fare in the Park Circle neighborhood.
Now with their third project King BBQ (2029 Carver Avenue, North Charleston), the Wongs have reimagined the status quo with the help of sous chef Brandon Olson. The North Charleston restaurant marries traditional barbecue techniques and flavors from China and the American South.
On the menu, customers will find five-spice duck and char sao ribs next to smoky chopped pork and barbecue hash. Starters include an updated take on Cantonese shrimp toast and crab rangoon hushpuppies. And where else can you find fried rice served with ranch? — Erin Perkins