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is magnolia grill a must-not-miss if coming to Durham?

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I am coming to Durham for 3 days from NYC with a 2 year old. I would generally NOT be able to go out but if Magnolia Grill is not to be missed, I can arrange babycare. That won't be easy but if chowhounds tell me this is a really not-to-be-missed experience, I will try.

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  1. I would say yes, it is not to be missed. It is the one place I always make sure to take my big-city hound friends, because it is not only fantastic but just as important the feel and the flavors are authentic and local.

    Ben and Karen Barker are in attendance and hands on seemingly every night (I've never been and not seen Ben presiding over the kitchen) and they have a deserved reputation for doing inventive, interesting and excellent things with food.

    MG is a casual, open kitchen kind of place -- if you miss out on reservations they keep an array of tables open every night for walk-ins -- and it is one of the best restaurants we have to offer in NC. The menu is as likely to feature riffs on southern dishes as it is to pull some NY classics (Karen's blackout cake is ridiculously good). The dishes are complex and use a lot of different flavors, which they somehow manage to do in a disciplined and restrained way.

    Hope you can make it and (now that I've given you the hard sell) hope you like it.

    1. It really is pretty darned good. I've had some so-so experiences, but never for a whole meal - the appetizers are always killer and the desserts to die for. Sometimes the mains can be a little off for me, but I think that is simply because I don't eat pork, which cuts way down on my choice. But overall it really is very very good.

      1 Reply
      1. re: LulusMom

        I always tell folks if there's a pork chop on the menu when you go, get it. You might want to reconseder that no pork thing-haha.

      2. I agree with both of the above. It is my absolute, go-to, special meal restaurant. Lulu's Mom has it right. Apps and desserts are wicked. I've often been tempted to make a meal out of several appetizers alone. I've also threatened to drop in at the bar for desserts and coffee (although I tend to find their coffee almost always disappointing).

        Flavors are not merely heaped one on top of the other for the sake of being there. They're well-thought-out and all there for a purpose. Dishes come together harmoniously.

        And GP, the odd NY influence on the dessert menu is because Karen Barker is from Brooklyn. We're about the same age, have the same ethnic background and upbringing, and are from the same neighborhood. I like to say that we're very similar. The only difference between me and Karen Barker is that she has serious talent and I don't. In my next life I'd like to be reincarnated as Karen Barker.

        2 Replies
        1. re: rockycat

          Rockycat - that is a brilliant idea, and I think I will do it the next time. Have a couple/few appetizers then dessert. And please please please let her coconut cake be on the menu ...

          1. re: rockycat

            When we lived on Knox St. several blocks down from Magnolia Grill we used to do that all the time, just go get coffee and dessert. if you sit at one of the cozy tables near the bar they're quite accomodating. Best dessert I had there was like abuckwheat crepe with fig compote with cinnamon ice cream. Still daydream about that dessert on occasion.

          2. Normally I'd say yes but given you are coming from NYC, where there are dozens of not-to-be-missed restaurants, I temper my enthusiasm.

            1 Reply
            1. re: bbqme

              Good point. NYC has so many good restaurants that this won't shine *quite* as brightly in comparision. Still a very good place.

            2. I'd also temper my enthusiasm just because you're from NYC, but Magnolia Grill is one of the best, if not the best, "fresh local ingredients"-themed restaurant I've been to. My recent experience at Chez Panisse in Berkeley didn't come close. That said, would I turn down Magnolia Grill for an opportunity to eat at Per Se or Daniel in NYC? Quite possibly.

              2 Replies
              1. re: mikeh

                My only (though it is a large one) quibble with Magnolia Grill ever has been that you are squeezed in like sardines and the acoustics are bad.

                This is true also of another great local restaurant called Lantern, in Chapel Hill.

                In the "fresh local" realm, Lantern and Pancuito in Hillsborough compete very well, particularly in their use of local pastured meats.

                Bonne Soiree in Chapel Hill has the food (and the prices), but the atmosphere is more subdued.

                1. re: fussycouple

                  In my opinion, Bonne Soiree is the best restaurant out of all mentioned, but it all depends on the type of atmosphere one wants.

                  As it happens, Bonne Soiree/Magnolia Grill/Lantern/Pancuito are my four favorite restaurants around. fancy that!

              2. I originally wasn't going to weigh in on this thread, because I've never been to Magnolia Grill despite living in the area for 8 years and therefore I cannot attest to the quality of the food myself. But ... why haven't I been there? Because all too often I've heard the 'too crowded and loud' comment fussycouple mentions. I detest 'crowded and loud' so much that it trumps the quality of the food - I want to feel like I can take my time and have a private convesation with my dinner companion(s), especially for lots o' $$$.

                Of course, coming from NYC, adorno, maybe my (and others' here) definition of 'crowded and loud' wouldn't be yours though - I find the whole of NYC to be just that , so hmm :). But there are other places here that offer excellent food in what I find to be very pleasant environments .... Bonne Soiree to be one. And you'll find their prices to be quite reasonable in comparison to where you are coming from. So that's my plug for where to go in this area for fine dining. And I have to wonder - if you talked to Tina Vaughn, who runs the front of the house (and is the wife of the chef) at Bonne Soiree, perhaps a well-behaved little 'un might just be welcome depending on the circumstances ... and in that vein, have you considered something less formal but just as good in its own way? We have lots of great food here that is kid-friendly too. There's fantastic barbeque and southern specialties that are to die for - no babysitters necessary. I personally like finding those little hole-in-the-wall gems that aren't on some national list of Places Not To Be Missed - often those places just can't live up to the hype/expectations.

                2 Replies
                1. re: romansperson

                  although i have'nt been in a few years due to my move to asheville....if it's not true "fine" dining you want panzanella (in carrboro) was always a great staple for me and mine...i know they've had a few chef changes so i can't speak intelligently of the food now but it was really local and really good when i lived and ate there

                  1. re: delikid10

                    Panzanella is a big favorite of mine too. Went the other night and was disappointed in two things. They've taken the 4 cheese pizza off the menu, which was saddening. But I had a white pizza that was really good. Also shared the chopped salad. This has always been a favorite, but this time just wasn't as good, especially the caponata, which had a weirdly sweet or off taste. I asked (based on the salad) if the chef was new, and in fact they do have a new chef. So ... hoping that it retains it's quality. The pizza was definitely still up to the old standards, the salad very much not so.