These days, Hillsborough Street exists in a state of tension.
During the last several years, the venerable, modest college strip has undergone a heavy cycle of redevelopment, meant to transform it from its sleepy status into a buzzing commercial zone. Landmarks like Sadlack’s and Schoolkids have been banished, while bland condos, apartments, and chains have charged in, shaping the street as something you might recognize from somewhere else. Nowhere else in Raleigh are history and the future more at odds in the present. That became painfully obvious for many last weekend when The Alley shuttered after seventy-five years to make way for an experimental Target.
We’ve been hard on the lack of vision and veneration on Hillsborough Street, but it’s not yet some total loss. Indeed, for the last few weeks, we biked and walked up and down the street, taking note of the hidden gems that aren’t chains and the little trends that still draw us to the one-mile-plus stretch between the Player’s Retreat and Reader’s Corner.
In that mile, we found ten things that, at least in November 2016, still draw us back to Hillsborough Street.
Three Generations of Coffee Shops
Moving from west to east, you can witness a veritable timeline of American coffee shops in three stops. Cup A Joe opened in 1990, in those vagabond days when cigarettes were legal inside and when Hillsborough Street still at least smelled like the memory of sin. The coffee bar is busy, but with three rooms, it’s big enough to sit around for hours on end and be left alone. As the name implies, Global Village, which opened in 2000, is a little more communal and cozy, like a Hillsborough Street reflection of Central Perk. And in the ground floor of Aloft, Jubala, which opened this year, is a fully modern coffee shop, with sleek design, intense pourover and espresso programs, and perfect biscuits. Best wireless: Cup A Joe. Best coffee: Jubala. Best quiet corner table: Global Village.
Long Live Old Media
Since Enoch Marchant and Brian Shaw acquired Nice Price Books three years ago, it has become Raleigh’s best all-purpose record store, with a selection that’s broad enough for your general-interest rock fan but savvy enough for those of us looking for deeper cuts. They have big dollar bins, where you can grab lots of music for very little money, and high-end items that turn collectors into regulars. Just down the street, Reader’s Corner steers clear of new merchandise, but their used inventory can sometimes stun. And there’s generally an overlooked passel of folk records worth spying. Their book selection is also full of surprises—and items you didn’t even know you wanted to take home. If you’ve only got pocket change, check the outdoor stacks for the occasional Easter egg.
Head Shops And Bottle Shops
Long ago, Buddha’s Belly was the stoner’s delight of Hillsborough Street. It’s long gone, but Kitsch, in the Electric Company Mall on Pogue Street, has quietly slipped into that role. It’s appropriately mellow, dim, and not awkward. (A few others dot Hillsborough Street, but take our word.) And there’s a comic book shop next door and a neighboring burger spot set to open soon, so, yeah. One block over, on Horne Street, Hillsborough Street has also added a legitimate bottle shop, Red Line. It delivers within a thirty-minute drive, even if the selection isn’t as intense as you might find downtown at Tasty or the like. But it’s not so bad for where the post office used to be.
The Institutions: Mitch’s and the Player’s Retreat
In the last few years, there’s been a lot of handwringing about the legacy businesses along Hillsborough Street that have closed or been demolished. And for good reason, as much of the strip’s character has been filched by chains and outside developers. But Mitch’s and the Player’s Retreat need historical markers and national designations for their long runs. They don’t take time for granted, either, as they’re both still really good. With its mix of homey comfort foods and exotic surprises, Mitch’s is one of the city’s most overlooked great restaurants—especially given the how-do-they-stay-in-business prices. And with a new kitchen expansion and coveted chef Beth LittleJohn, the Player’s Retreat menu is similarly stocked with old favorites (the sausage dip has a cult) and unexpectedly ambitious specials. Also, scotch. Both have vibes to spare on a street that needs them.
Free Espresso Friday
Yes, we’ve already written about Hillsborough Street’s wealth of coffee shops, but only one will routinely give you complimentary coffee with no strings attached. That’s Jubala, where the Free Espresso Friday program is meant to educate regulars and first-timers alike about the breadth of flavor possible in a coffee bean. Just walk up to the register, ask for a shot, and wait. You might love some of the shots more than the others, but that’s the point, you know?
H Street Kitchen
H Street Kitchen is the sort of restaurant that an old collegiate thoroughfare deserves. First, housed in a former theater that later became a university bookstore, it makes good on a historic structure by using the wide room and high ceilings for distinct zones and by using the marquee to express school spirit. Second, the interior is loaded with Wolfpack pride, and it’s owned by a guy who was actually on the bench during that most iconic Valvano moment. And third, the food is often better than you expect it to be, reflecting both the rising standards of the city around it and the need for accessibility, given the kids across the street. We’re told they’ll soon start doing live music, too, which is another thing Hillsborough Street desperately needs.
The Lunch Buffet at Kabab and Curry
If you’re not looking or if no one has ever told you to pay attention, you might entirely overlook Kabab and Curry, which is tucked into a recess with minimal signage near Mitch’s and H Street Kitchen. Well, look for it, especially at lunch. The buffet is delicious, with vegetable pakoras that are fried until they’re extra crispy and badami kheer that’s perfectly creamy and not too sweet. It’s $9.95 on weekdays, and the staff is so warm you’ll feel like staying, no matter how little time it takes you to fill up.
And Even More International Cuisine
As the chains along Hillsborough Street seem to self-replicate, it can be easy to overlook the ethnic diversity of its food offerings. There’s Kabab and Curry’s Indian and Nepalese food, just a few doors down from the Mediterranean fare of Jasmin. There’s Mexican food and French dessert. Shanghai Express is beneath the hidden Korean enclave Waba, and there’s the standby Golden Dragon. New Thai and pho spots are weeks away from opening, too.
The best pizza in Raleigh isn’t on Hillsborough Street, not by a long shot. But there’s at least a lot of pizza between Reader’s Corner and the Player’s Retreat, because of, well, college. You can build your own at the new Pieology, get sick on Pokey Stix at Gumby’s, grab a slice at I Love NY Pizza, or get a decent late pie at Marco’s. Checkers even has pizza and a big Mediterranean menu. Hillsborough Street may be the most dense pizza buffet in the city.
One of the best neighborhoods in Raleigh
Though it’s actually outside of the bounds of our survey, Cameron Park sits just beyond the Player’s Retreat as you head into downtown. And if you’ve only driven past the neighborhood on your way to somewhere else, park the car and stroll along the wide streets of this century-old former suburb. These are some of the finest houses in Raleigh with (apologies to Oakwood) some of the best tree cover, too. No matter how many chains take to the main drag, Cameron Park will remain a place worth a seasonal visit—and, if you can afford it, a mortgage.
(Top photo courtesy of N.C. State)