Updates from the Tar Heel State

Reflections from living in Raleigh, NC for a month

Annie L. Lin
20 min readJan 7, 2024

About a week before Thanksgiving, four and and a half months after we first set out on our grand nomadic adventures, Paul and I found ourselves in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Portland and Denver had exceeded our high expectations. Minneapolis was a total surprise gem. Philly won’t make it onto our shortlist as a place to live longer-term, but we still had a fantastic time there. We had stayed a month in every U.S. timezone. We had journeyed all the way from the west coast to the east coast.

2023 has been a year of road-tripping. North Carolina was the 22nd US state we visited in 2023.

But we knew that the South was an exceptionally different place than the Northeast, with a very distinct set of histories, cultures, and climates. For all the positive and negative perceptions associated with “The South,” we wanted to experience and understand the region more deeply. Raleigh stood out as a relatively progressive Southern city known for its vibrant culinary and creative scene, rich culture, and excellent access to nature — all things we value greatly. As part of the Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill), it also had easy access to other interesting cities, and at a population of ~480,000, it felt close to our sweet spot for city size.

A month of living in Raleigh later, Paul and I have decided that for us personally, the city isn’t quite a contender for potential places to call home. However, we had a grand ol’ time, and can 100% understand why Raleigh — and the Research Triangle area in general — was named one of the best places in the U.S. to live in 2023. On our drive out of North Carolina, we recounted our experiences by doing the same thing we had done for every city on our itinerary: we wrote questions ahead of time, asked them of each other, and shared and recorded our answers live, which formed the basis of this blog post. Here are the questions:

  • Describe Raleigh in 3 adjectives. Why those adjectives?
  • The South has a lot of unique regional slang and phrases. Which was your favorite, that you may want to adopt?
  • Raleigh is part of an area (the Research Triangle) that has a very regional identity. What do you like and not like about that?
  • Which do you prefer: Asheville or OBX (Outer Banks)?
  • “Southern charm”: are you charmed or smarmed?
  • Our five favorite restaurants in Raleigh!
Blue Ridge Mountains (photo by Clark Wilson on Unsplash)

Q1. Describe Raleigh in 3 adjectives. Why those adjectives?

Paul: My three adjectives are soulful, chill, and sprawly. As I like to do, each of these has a few different connotations and meanings.

Starting off with soulful. First is the food, obviously. Soul food is a big part of the South, including North Carolina. The soul food is so good, and it makes me soooooo full.

Annie: Oh boy.

Paul: Yea, it’s delicious. There’s barbecue, like biscuits everywhere you go, mac and cheese. Like, seriously, I’ve never had so many good, carb-y things as when we were in Raleigh. (Carb-y: another good adjective for Raleigh.) It’s so much so that sometimes all the food I had was a near religious experience, so that made me so full and soulful at the same time.

North Carolina BBQ, with its emphasis on whole-hog pulled pork, is one of the main styles of BBQ in the US

The other connotation of soulful, I think, is that a lot of folks in the South can be quite religious. Raleigh had a lot of churches. We were staying right near Moore Square in Downtown Raleigh and there was constantly folks out preaching. You can tell that it was a really important part of the culture to a lot of people there.

Soulful also refers to the kindness we experienced. Going from Philly to Raleigh was a pretty intense whiplash of friendliness. Everyone in Raleigh was very polite, really kind. Like in grocery stores someone would offer for you to go first or hold the door open for you, or just like the chatter when you’re in line at Bojangles or something.

Big Ed’s Restaurant, a kitschy old-school breakfast joint in Downtown Raleigh brimming with Southern friendliness

Okay, my next adjective is chill. This is about the attitude of the folks there, again, not only being really kind and nice, but also very relaxed and laid back. Raleigh was a place where you’re on the road a lot, and I felt the drivers there were rarely speeding. They were attentive and very courteous. If you’re at a four-way stop, people would let you go first. Cars stop for pedestrians. No one seemed to be in a huge hurry ever. It was just like a leisurely, pleasant place. That was certainly in contrast especially to Philly, but also to really any other city on our itinerary. Just a much slower pace, laid-back place. It actually became pretty contagious in some ways. In the same way that Philly kind of forces you to be more aggressive, I found myself being slower and more polite in Raleigh. I I ended up calling people ma’am and sir, which is something I had never called people.

Annie: Yea, I’m usually a pretty fast walker, and I remember that one time, I was walking down the street from our Airbnb to Downtown, and there was a group of people in front of us who was really casually strolling down the street, taking up the sidewalk. And they saw me just like huffing by and they were like, “oh they got places to go!”

Paul: Yea I’m pretty sure they thought you were training for the Olympic speed walking competition. So yeah, Raleigh is laid back, chill in that way.

And then also, interestingly, Raleigh was more chill that I anticipated in terms of temperature. We were there in December, and I thought being in the South and all, it was going to be more moderate. But it got down into the 30s pretty often. I found myself wearing heavier coats. A couple days even had crazy torrential rain and tornado warnings. And I didn’t realize that it also snows in North Carolina, which we didn’t experience ourselves but sounds like it happens frequently in January and so forth. So the December weather was a little more chilly than I expected. Frankly I like cold weather, so it wasn’t necessarily a negative for me. Just a surprise.

Apparently Raleigh gets an average of six inches of snow in the winter

And then, finally, my number three adjective: sprawly. So, I mentioned how polite everyone on the road was. Well, I noticed that because I was actually driving quite a bit more than in any other city we’ve been in. We specifically tried to stay in the most walkable part of Raleigh, and our Airbnb was indeed near a lot of restaurants and places to go out. But there still wasn’t like a good grocery store or gym we could walk to. For a lot of daily errands, or if you want to go out to dinner or go see a movie, or go do some Christmas shopping or something, or certainly if you want to go to other parts of the Research Triangle, it’s just more efficient to drive. It’s not a 15-minute city the way some urbanists talk about. So yea, definitely more car-dependent, more sprawling.

Photo by Elijah Mears on Unsplash

Annie: Those are great adjectives. So many layers as always! Okay, my three adjectives. I originally actually had a few that were very similar to yours, like casual and sprawling. But my updated three are: forested, friendly, and country-fried.

So, forested. One thing that was pretty noticeable coming from a huge metropolis like Philly, was just that Raleigh seemed to have trees everywhere. Not only were residential streets tree-lined, but there were also just a ton of areas inside the city, and outside of it too, that are big forests. Driving around Raleigh will take you past a lot of wooded forest areas. We also went to Umstead State Park, which is this beautiful, large park just outside the city. We were there in December so a lot of trees didn’t have any leaves, and I’m just imagining how beautiful the city must look in like spring or the fall. So I thought that made for an unique landscape for the city. Raleigh also had a really large network of greenways, just these beautiful biking and walking paths that went through a lot of the forested areas within the city and going beyond Raleigh too.

We went on a beautiful bike ride along part of Raleigh’s very extensive greenways

My second adjective has some overlap with what you were talking about: friendly. People talk about “Southern hospitality,” and I think sometimes people actually associate that with negative connotations, like being fake or something. But I actually really appreciated how friendly people were. At some of the old-school Southern breakfast diners we went to, the older waitresses would address me as “honey” or “sweetheart” or “baby.” I feel like there are parts of the country where if somebody said that to me, it would feel really offensive and infantilizing, but when you’re in an old-timey Southern diner ordering Southern food, from an older lady with a thick Southern accent, it can actually feel very endearing. It just makes me feel like, actually, kind of welcomed. So that’s one aspect of friendly. But to your point, I think people were open to striking up conversations, let you in front of them in lines, and there’s just this level of politeness, right? Maybe courteous is a good word. And it didn’t necessarily feel superficial.

Okay my third adjective, which is also kind of food-related because of course, is country-fried. So there’s literally a lot of Southern food that comes country-fried, which I guess means it’s smothered in brown gravy. I’m very happy I get to use the word “smothered” again, I haven’t gotten to do that since we left Denver. And country-fried food, like chicken steak, is so good. But beyond a particular way of prepping food, I also mean that, more broadly, the food we had in North Carolina was amazing, and in a very specific way: rich, heavy, not necessarily fancy but so satisfying, very comforting, and you absolutely have food coma afterwards. Like fried chicken, barbecue, brisket, pulled pork, mac and cheese. It’s not exactly healthy but it’s very healthy for the soul, like you talked about. And you just like crave it. I think as far as regional cuisine goes, all in all Southern cuisine might be one of my favorites, because I love almost every staple dish. We had barbecue like four times in North Carolina and honestly that’s too few times.

Country fried chicken steak with gravy

Q2. The South has a lot of unique regional slang and phrases, for example these and these. Which was your favorite, that you may want to adopt?

Annie: So there are really a lot of good ones! I talked about how I got addressed as “honey,” “sweetheart” a lot. Honestly that was pretty endearing to me coming from older Southern ladies at diners, although I don’t think I will start doing that to other people. I don’t think I could pull that off to be honest.

But one thing I might actually start using more myself, is “bless your heart.” One of the reasons I love it is that it feels like a saying that’s so full of salt. It’s just a way to be, like, oh, honey, like you don’t know, like someone is a little naive or don’t know how things really work. So it’s kind of insulting, but also said in this endearing way.

Like, I don’t know, if somebody was like, “Oh I just went to a nice breakfast spot and got me some sunny-side-up eggs, some sausage, some toast and I only had to pay $18 for that!” then I would be like, “Bless your heart — you should have just gone to Waffle House.”

Photo by Simon Daoudi on Unsplash

Paul: That should definitely be in Waffle House’s new advertisement. Ok so for me, I think my runner-up, that I might also start using, is “fixin’s.” I love it very much. It refers to, like, all the stuff that goes on top of or in addition to your main item. It’s more specifically for food but I think you could apply it more broadly. Like — you can’t go snowboarding unless you bring all your warmin’ fixin’s.

But my #1, that I think is quite useful and that I’ve used time to time even before we came to the South, is “y’all.” As a second person plural, I think it’s so useful. It’s better than “you guys” which I think is often people’s default. Just an effective way of addressing a group of people that can include all genders identities. And I also think it’s just kind of fun. It’s got an apostrophe in the middle of it!

The State Farmers’ Market Restaurant, another very kitschy and great Southern breakfast joint, full of waitresses calling me “sweetheart” and people using Southern slang

Q3. Raleigh is part of an area (the Research Triangle) that has a very regional identity. What do you like and not like about that?

Paul: So, you know, the Research Triangle is named that because there’s three cities that are all pretty close to each other: Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. And with that, three big universities: NC State, Duke, UNC. Then if you go a little further, there’s another “triad” (Piedmont Triad) with Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point. So it really opens up a lot of diversity and stuff to do. It always feels like it makes the city of Raleigh feel much bigger because it’s in the same area as a bunch of other cities.

It’s a bit like the Bay Area, you know, where there’s San Francisco but you can also go to Oakland, you can go up to Marin, you can go to the South Bay, etc. and access a bunch of different restaurants, hiking trails. It’s the same, I think, for North Carolina, except maybe even more diverse. So something I’ve super enjoyed about that was it felt like there’s always somewhere new to explore that was relatively accessible. Right? Like you do have to drive, unless you can make Amtrak schedules work for you, but it is still fairly accessible assuming you own a car.

College sports is huge in North Carolina, and the three big Research Triangle universities (NC State, UNC, Duke) all boast great teams

So, you know, we went out to Chapel Hill to watch a movie. We went to Durham for you to meet up with a co-worker and went to a brewery. We checked out Cary and besides having pretty good Chinese food, we also came upon their holiday night market and all the Christmas and Hanukkah lights they had up. One weekend we drove three and a half hours and got to the beaches, and another weekend we drove three and a half hours and were in the Blue Ridge Mountains. That is just super cool. I loved that any weekend can be a getaway adventure with something different to do.

The drawback, I guess, is that you do need have a car, right? We have the privilege of being able to have a car and, you know, we were in it a lot. I’ll say, I put more miles on the car in North Carolina by a significant factor that in any other place. You can certainly take advantage of that and listen to a bunch of playlists or audiobooks or podcasts though.

We drove out to Cary, about 15 min outside Raleigh, one evening — and were very impressed by the holiday lights and holiday night market they had going

How about yourself? What do you like and don’t like about this sort of regional affiliation?

Annie: I think my answer has some overlap with yours. Something I also really like is having relatively easy access, mostly by car although Amtrak and biking are possible too, to other cities and terrains. For me one of my favorite things about North Carolina is that it has mountains on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. And from Raleigh, like you said, we can get to either in three to four hours. You have just a lot of very different options of what you could do for a couple days, and I think that’s super cool. You can take advantage of the strengths of each part of the state relatively easily.

From our hike up the Blue Ridge Mountains

I think the thing I don’t like about the regional nature is that everything just feels really spread out. Like you said, it feels like you need a car to get to a lot of places. I think of all the cities on our trip, Raleigh is by far the least walkable, right? Our Airbnb was in probably the most walkable neighborhood, which was great, but even then we found ourselves having to get in the car a lot. I don’t know if that has to come with a place that’s really regional, but it feels like it may have something to do with it.

I think my ideal “regional” setup is actually Philly’s. What I mean is that, Philly is a distinct city which in and of itself has a lot going on, and is really walkable and accessible by public transit. But then two hours away, you also have New York City and Washington DC, which you can also get to easily via buses or Amtrak or other forms of transportation that aren’t just driving. I don’t think Philly, NYC, and DC consider themselves part of the same region at all, right? Like they’re very distinct cities. That have invested a lot into the identity of the city itself. I don’t think they think about each other as part of the same thing at all. And yet, they are extremely close and quite frankly really convenient to travel between, and actually less car-dependent to get between. I think that has a lot to do with just how dense the Northeast is and how many major metropolitan hubs there are in the Northeast, but to me that is a more ideal, “best of both worlds” regional arrangement.

Throwback to when we lived inside of a Philly cheesesteak for four weeks

Q4. Kind of a followup question. We talked about how NC has both mountains and ocean. On the mountain side, we went to a really cool town called Asheville. On the ocean side, there’s a really unique, thin strip of land out in the Atlantic Ocean called the “Outer Banks.” Which do you prefer: Asheville or OBX (Outer Banks)?

Annie: So this might be a surprising answer coming from me, as someone who loves water as we’ve established in previous recordings. But I’m gonna go with Asheville.

So both Asheville and Outer Banks are pretty touristy places, right? Asheville’s reputation precedes itself and I feel like I’ve heard a lot of people talk about it especially over the past five years. It’s right at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are gorgeous, and I think there’s definitely some romanticizing there, driven in part by songs and so forth. So definitely both touristy, but I get the sense that in the summer, when the weather is nicer, Outer Banks is super touristy and just like absolutely overflowing with visitors and tourists. We went to OBX in December, it was not at all tourist season and so there were actually very few people there, but we drove by just miles and miles of hotels, motels, resorts, amusement parks, things that are extremely tourist-facing. That makes me think that in higher tourist seasons, Outer Banks is absolutely overrun, which isn’t something I normally love.

Having relatively easy access to the ocean AND the mountains was absolutely one of our favorite things about North Carolina

It also felt like Asheville maybe has a greater diversity of things you can do. It has museums, a lot of great restaurants, some of the best breweries we went to in North Carolina, a lot of art, obviously near a lot of great hiking in the mountains. It also seems pretty compact and walkable, which is something I like a lot.

What about you: Asheville or OBX?

Downtown Asheville, NC

Paul: I will say that I thought OBX was quite cool. I think it deserves a moniker ending with an X. We got to visit some neat lighthouses, the abandoned colony of Roanoke is by there, obviously the beach is right there. We went to the Wright Brothers National Memorial and learned about the history of aviation. We also had, like, one of the best seafood meals there. All the great things that come with the #BeachLife.

All that said, I also would choose Asheville. As a boy born in the mountains, I found Asheville just really, really cool. It’s like an enclave of creative weirdos, and super accepting, inclusive folks. There’s a lot of great art there, and breweries. Loved Wicked Weed Brewing, their Pernicious IPA was probably one of my favorite beers I discovered on this trip. My folks came to town for Thanksgiving which was super awesome, and we went to Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River, and we had an amazing, beautiful time hiking around the Blue Ridge Mountains. They had this old school radio station that you could tune into as you drove in, that felt like something from another era, like just broadcasting bird sounds half the time and strange facts about the park the other half of the time. It was shockingly helpful, really informational actually. Just a really cool mountain town.

The Bodie Island Lighthouse, one of several lighthouses at Outer Banks

Q5. “Southern charm”: are you charmed or smarmed?

Paul: I am, for the most part, charmed by the South. We’ve talked a little bit about how friendly everyone was. And in Raleigh and its surrounding areas, I actually found it to be fairly inclusive. Some of the little markets we went to, there were people making really cool LGBT+ and ally art, mixed in with like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney art (ask me about my super cool OBJECTION! pin). Asheville had a bunch of cool, pro-LGBT stuff too. That was pretty different than the reputation that the South sometimes has, of being more racist, homophobic, transphobic. Of course, as a white dude, I acknowledge that I probably am not gonna be confronted with that as much anyway so there’s a lot of privilege there, but, you know, I did find everyone to be really friendly.

The one thing that I did find smarmy, was there were more Confederate flags than I’ve seen anywhere else, which was certainly off-putting to me. I don’t think we were there long enough to go super deep and really get to the more insidious parts of the South, but through the Confederate flags and such we did maybe get some glimpses here and there.

I will say that I was also tickled by like, the lovely public radio stations there that would frequently have stories about like the local fauna or strange community history. I thought that was cool and nice. So I would say that I was, like, 90 percent charmed. How about you?

Lake Johnson, another scenic nature spot in Raleigh that we got to spend a nice afternoon at

Annie: Yeah, that’s a great answer. I am also mostly charmed. Even if the area might not make sense for us as the place to live longer-term, I can 100% understand why somebody from the South would think that it is such a special place, that there’s nothing like it in the country, maybe the world, and that it’s home. There is just a particular lifestyle, which we touched on a bit earlier, right? A little slower pace. People are really, really nice. Very chill. Great nature — the mountains, the ocean, forests. The climate is unique. The regional food, which is so distinct and comforting and great. So, for the most part, I was really charmed.

I totally agree though that seeing the Confederate flags was a bit jarring. I think we primarily saw them as we were driving toward Asheville, going through the less populated parts of the state. I sort of knew that there would be Confederate flags around, but there were more than I expected. And some of them were massive. You know, we’ve had some conversations about how the Confederate flag is in some ways a symbol of the South, so someone who displays them in today’s age is maybe just expressing their local pride and not necessarily racist or something. I do think that might be one of the most generous takes one could have about it. I feel like there must be other ways someone could show their local pride. Maybe there could be a logo-designing contest or something, and I think people in the South would have a lot of great material that could make for some really good symbols of the South because the area has so many cool aspects that have nothing to do with racism, so then it does make me question why someone would feel they still have to use the Confederate flag to represent their local pride. But that’s just my take, the perspective of somebody not from the area.

All that aside, overall I would say that I was 95 percent charmed by the South. I do want to point out that obviously we were in the Research Triangle for the most part. And the Triangle is a really highly-educated, technology-forward part of the South, probably one of the most progressive parts of the region, and that likely had a lot to do with our impressions.

Driving through a more rural area of North Carolina

And finally… our five favorite restaurants in Raleigh, plus a few extras for other parts of NC — jointly decided!

In no particular order:

  • Poole’s: a North Carolina establishment that serves up classic Southern dishes in a diner-like atmosphere. Highly recommended by our friends Carl and Jenn, and now, we will highly recommend it to others too. Every dish was great, but their mac-n-cheese has a cult following for a reason. We’ve never had mac-n-cheese like this, and I don’t know we can ever look at mac-n-cheese the same way again.
  • The Flying Biscuit Cafe: local brunch chain with classic and creative breakfast dishes. Everything we got was so satisfying. Their biscuits, true to name, are amazing. And, randomly, their staff has the coolest shirts?
  • SmokeStacks Cafe: not quite a typical barbecue joint but very much a barbecue-inspired place, with creative, smoky, Southern dishes. Situated in what appears to be just someone’s house converted into a restaurant. Super unpretentious, even though the quality of their dishes certainly can give them a lot of bragging rights. They also change their menu every day. We got their baby back ribs, chicken & dumplings, duck crostini, and a salad — and I’m drooling just thinking about them.
  • Alpaca: casual, fast, no-frills Peruvian chain, expanding like wildfire. Rotisserie chicken, lomo saltado, and a bunch of other classic Peruvian dishes that are exactly what you’d expect and want, without the price tags that often come with fancier Peruvian restaurants.
  • Stanbury: considered by many to be the best restaurant in Raleigh. Beautiful interior decor and memorable dishes. Small plates meant for sharing. Their bone marrow is decadent, heavy, and a must-try.
  • [Outer Banks honorable mention] Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe: one of the best seafood meals we’ve had. Situated in OBX, the seafood is super fresh and pretty affordable for the quality. The restaurant offers amazing water views on almost every side given the Outer Banks is a long narrow strip of land between the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Also this restaurant had the most massive Christmas tree we have ever seen.
  • [Asheville honorable mention] Rhubarb: a gem in downtown Asheville, with fresh, creative “contemporary Appalachian cuisine” and fun drinks, in a classy ambiance. We got their Pimento Cheese Hushpuppies, Smoked Pork Meatballs, and Apple Brandy Beef Bourguignon. And they are every bit as delicious as they sound.
  • [Annie’s honorable mention] State Farmers’ Market Restaurant: located at the North Carolina State Farmers’ Market, which is by itself a fun produce, meats, and crafts market to check out. Old-school Southern breakfast full of kitschy decor, that seems to still charge prices from ten years ago. Serving up comforting and oh-so-satisfying (even if not oh-so-healthy) dishes such as fried chicken, country ham, waffles, cornbread, and hushpuppies.
  • [Paul’s honorable mention] Sam Jones BBQ: Raleigh certainly has no shortage of great barbecue places. We were able to try several, and each had their specialities. Sam Jones was one of our favorites, with excellent whole-hog pulled pork (one of NC’s most famous BBQ dishes), local sauces, and great sides including delicious mac-n-cheese.