The best of 2012

by Brian Clarey

By my count, I’ve written 37 food stories this year in the Chow section — not counting cover stories and columns — and consumed roughly a billion calories in the process. I did it gladly, in the name of journalism, and also because writing about food is one of my favorite things to do.

Some meals were better than others, some dining experiences more memorable, some dishes more interesting. And some deserve mention at the end of the year as the best… at least in my book.

Best new restaurant: I saw a lot of great places come to be in 2012, but the one that I keep thinking about, even months after I ate there, is Dame’s Chicken and Waffles in downtown Greensboro’s Southside neighborhood. I liked chicken and waffles a great deal more than I thought I would — Dame’s version, anyway — and though I have yet to be back, I will definitely be making another stop there soon.

Best closed restaurant: It’s a tough business, and we see great restaurants close in the Triad all the time. But I was particularly dismayed by the closing of the Red Onion in downtown Greensboro, where I enjoyed a fabulous house bratwurst done up Chicago style way back in February. Since then, the gastropub has closed and another — Crafted, the Art of the Taco — has opened in its place.

Best pizza: Back in November, I ate pizza every day for a week for a cover story exploring the best in the Triad. Honestly, I could barely choke it down by the end of my mission, but one place still stands out to me. Wolfgang Puck’s Pizza Bar in Friendly Center, one of just two in the country, makes great pizza, with dough that takes a week to make, artisanal toppings, a stylish atmosphere and a very cool bartender. When I can finally eat a pizza again, it will be at Wolfgang Puck’s.

Best tacos: Eric Ginsburg may disagree with me on this one, because we eat at Villa del Mar together at least once a week, but I prefer the tacos as the Mercadito No. 2 on High Point Road because the meat so damn fresh.

Best openings: Winston-Salem scored big with the opening of a Trader Joe’s earlier this year, which I explored on opening day back in October. And Greensboro landed a Whole Foods Market back in April. The story I wrote about it bore one of my favorite food-related headlines of the year: “New Whole Foods fills food hole.”

Best burger: The Burger Spot in Greensboro makes a dynamite burger, particularly when paired with the truffle fries.

Best food-related event: Fire in the Triad, a cooking competition that pitted the area’s best chefs against one another in an Iron Chef-style cook-off, was amazing. I had the honor to be a judge back in September, when Chef Leigh Hesling of the Green Valley Grill and PrintWorks Bistro was bested by Chef Michael Harkenreader of Undercurrent. The eventual winner, Chef George Neal of 1618 Seafood Grille, competed in the 2012 Final Fire against Chef Ryan Payne of Chapel Hill’s Weathervane. He lost, but so what? Can’t wait until next year’s event.

Best food trend: The most important development in the Triad culinary scene this year was the introduction of food trucks. Winston-Salem got things going with Joaquin’s Taco Truck, while in Greensboro the city council took an active role in shaping the trucks’ presence in the city with a pilot program in October and November. The trucks are here to stay, and all I can say is that it’s about damn time.

Best brunch: I ate two amazing brunches this year, both in Winston-Salem. I hit the Screaming Rooster back in January and was pleased to see them carrying on the tradition started in the same spot by Mary’s of Course! I hit Five Points just after it opened in August for a more high-end experience. Both are not to be missed.

Best temporary menu: The Mardi Gras Menu at Fincastle’s Downtown in Greensboro, curated by my friend Jody Morphis, is the next best thing to actually eating in New Orleans: po-boys, gumbos, etouffe, house boudin and andouille… I love it all. Look for it in January this year.

Best date: I took my wife to Blue Water Grille in High Point for her birthday in March, and we had our best joint dining experience of the year: indulgent yet casual, expertly prepared and professionally served. It was like a mini vacation.

Best new chef: The locals may take umbrage at this, but I believe the best new chef in the Triad is actually an old chef from New Orleans. Chef Adolfo Garcia brought his Crescent City flair to Greensboro with the GrandeLuxe movie theater, a concept that pairs moviegoing with restaurant-quality dining. You should definitely check it out.

There’s more, of course. I loved the duck at Van Loi II, the crepes from the Great Escape food truck, the shawarma at Nazareth and a dozen or so other dishes, but I’m out of space and the year is up. It has been a pleasure eating for you this year, one I hope to repeat in 2013.