Nestled into North Carolina’s central Piedmont region, you’ll find the quintessential college town of Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina. At the westernmost corner of the area’s famed Research Triangle, Chapel Hill has grown steadily in both population and reputation on the national dining scene over the last two decades.
There are flagship restaurants like the critically lauded Lantern and the beloved Acme, and scores of wine bars, bottle shops and wineries. The “Southern Part of Heaven,” as the locals call it, has fast become one of the South’s most talked-about culinary destinations.
Whether you stroll down the town’s main strip of Franklin Street or head to the lush hills just west of downtown, you’re never far from good meals, leisurely hangs and great wines.
Though it’s located on Chapel Hill’s idyllic main thoroughfare, a few hours at Caffé Driade can transport you to a European mountainside wine shack. Tucked on a quiet hillside that overlooks wooded Bolin Creek Nature Preserve, this tiny wine bar, espresso bar and teahouse is perfect for quiet daytime reflection. Evenings become more communal, as the candlelight from the tables sparkles off the trees and live music lilts through the air.
It’s also a place to indulge in limited-release wines that co-owner Elizabeth Meunier’s husband, Thomas Meunier of Authentique Vin, imports after they cultivate relationships with some of France’s most exciting sustainable winemakers.
“Because of these relationships, we are often able to receive wines specifically imported to be available at our cafe,” says Michelle Temple, retail manager of Caffé Driade. “You’ll find organic, biodynamic wines from small multi-generational farms where the identity of a soil, a grape and a climate are present.” For example, the fall 2019 wine menu will exclusively feature the Jean-Baptiste Duperray Glou-Glou Gamay, a sustainable wine made with carbonic fermentation and no additives.
West End Wine Bar
The Piedmont region of the Eastern U.S., comprised of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, slices through North Carolina and creates one of America’s most temperate climates. Aside from a few hot weeks in the summer and a handful of icy mornings, most days are something close to perfect. That means the West End Wine Bar can open its massive front windows and allow live music to spill out onto Franklin Street.
With a list that offers “true representations of varietal and regional terroir,” as general manager Olivia Gray puts it, West End’s focus is on variety and international appeal. With recent selections including an Austrian Grüner Veltliner from Pratsch and Old World Spanish reds like a Mencía from Descendientes de J. Palacios, West End offers a look into the widest reaches of winemaking around the world.
Restaurants with Great Wine Lists
For more than 20 years, Acme has been a mainstay of the hip little enclave of Carrboro, an independent town adjacent to Chapel Hill. Kevin Callaghan, the owner/executive chef, crafts seasonal dishes with flavors from his childhood in the South. He believes that wine needs to enhance the narrative of a restaurant.
“Why this wine?” asks Callaghan. “Why this food?”
He insists that Acme’s wine list reflect that philosophy. Callaghan compares his list to a “well-tended garden,” as opposed to a “scary jungle.” The aim is to create an environment of ease, one in which his patrons focus on the wine at hand, its sensibilities and how it complements the cuisine.
Acme offers bottles like Weingut Knoll Loibner Riesling Federspiel from Austria, Marietta Cellars Game Trail Cabernet Sauvignon from Yorkville Highlands. There’s even Monastero Suore Cistercensi’s Benedic, a small-production red from Lazio, Italy, that’s grown and bottled by nuns. It’s evidence why this is one of the premier spots in town for wine.
Elements Restaurant and Wine Bar
One of Chapel Hill’s decidedly higher-end restaurants, Elements blends elegance and sophistication with an exciting and forward-thinking fusion menu and a robust global wine list.
Elements maintains a wide-reaching focus for its ever-evolving selection. Of course, it stocks plenty of the standard bearers from the rolling hills of Italy, California and France. But you can also indulge a bit of adventure with a Riesling from the Fingers Lakes region of New York, South African rosé and plenty of options from the Pacific Northwest.
Lantern is one of Chapel Hill’s most acclaimed restaurants. Helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing, the Franklin Street staple offers an urbane and classic experience. It sports a progressive menu that blends a variety of East Asian flavors with hyperlocal ingredients.
Lantern features two very different dining experiences: a buttoned-up, white-linen dining area up front and moody, red-and-black bar in the back. Both have extensive wine lists that pair expertly with a world-class menu. The list is organized by feel, taste and vibe, rather than region of origin or grape variety. It’s centered on wines produced by biodynamic and sustainably practicing growers.
Bottle Rev Chapel Hill
Known more as a craft beer oasis, Bottle Rev is a diamond in the wine-selling rough that’s tucked away in a gleaming mixed-use complex off NC 54. Part of a small, independent regional chain, Bottle Rev blends the laid-back attitude of a beer bar with a staff extremely well-educated in wine. The shelves are stocked with tons of great local and regional bottles alongside imports like a Conti Costanti Brunello di Montalcino; Paleokerisio, a semi-sparkling orange wine from Domaine Glinavos; and Alejandro Fernandez’s Tinto Pesquera Crianza from Ribera del Duero.
Bottle Rev hosts regular tastings, and it features a self-serve wine station with varieties that rotate weekly.
“The wines I select for Bottle Rev Chapel Hill are primarily from family-owned estates around the world,” says Julie Paddison, Bottle Rev’s co-owner and chief wine aficionado who oversees selection. “These wines and families have history and amazing stories, and Chapel Hillers love great wine stories.”
Chapel Hill Wine Company
One of the town’s top bottle shops, the Chapel Hill Wine Company prides itself on a staff as well-informed as its shelves are stocked. Its selection represents nearly every winemaking region in the world.
Recent finds included the Marcelle de Changey 2017 Abbaye de Morgeot Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru, a Domaine le Galantin 2018 Bandol Rosé and a stunning Raúl Pérez 2015Los Arrotos del Perdón from Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León. With Thursday night tastings and bottles that cost from less than $10 to several hundred dollars, this is a must-visit for locals and visitors alike.
“We seek out values from all over the world,” says Todd Wielar, owner of Chapel Hill Wine Company. “But we understand that ‘value’ is not a specific price point. A wine has a great value when it delivers higher quality than others comparably priced.”
A bottle shop, gift store and high-end cooking retailer in one, Southern Season is a gourmet marketplace with a bit of everything. Nearly a quarter of the store’s massive space is packed with more than 5,000 wines, and its expert staff is well-versed in the stock.
You can browse in the Rare Wine Room that features hard-to-find gems like a Domaine Dujac Burgundy, a Bordeaux from Château Pavie Decesse, and rare Champagnes from Ruinart, Jacquesson and Roederer. It even has a good selection of grower Champagnes that are all the buzz right now.
“It is important to understand the fluid demographic of Chapel Hill and the surrounding areas,” says Chetan Reddy, Southern Season’s beverage director. “I keep in mind the growing population of well-traveled students and university staff, along with the casual everyday drinker. It is important that we keep a challenging and diverse selection.”
Chatham Hill Winery
Open since 1999, this winery in Cary, North Carolina, was not only the Old North State’s first urban winery, it was also the first in the Research Triangle region. Using grapes sourced from North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), near the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Chatham Hill takes a minimalist approach to winemaking. The winery focuses on Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Viognier. It’s open to visitors Wednesday through Sunday.
Cloer Family Vineyards
Located in nearby Apex, North Carolina, Cloer Family Vineyards sits near the geographical center of the Triangle Region, yet feels worlds away from the suburban bustle. Green hills and solemn pine forest surround the big red barn that houses the winery, shop and tasting room. That’s not to mention the rows and rows of muscadine grapes that provide the base for its sweet wines. Other varieties are made from grapes imported from Western North Carolina wine regions, which means that even the most distant grapes used here have only traveled a few