I recently came across a Yelp review about a popular Raleigh eatery from Esther L. from New York City that amused me:
“This James Beard award winning restaurant was full and I was the only Asian person in it that night (and there was only one other non-white person). But still, one of the top 3 restaurant meals I’ve had in the last 6 months.”
Esther L. was talking about Poole’s Diner, the flagship new American restaurant helmed by James Beard Award-winning Chef Ashley Christensen. Esther’s observation about the lack of diversity in Poole’s clientele was certainly an odd comment to make in a restaurant review, and perhaps slightly amusing to others given her review was labeled three times as “Funny” by other fellow Yelpers, but it did resonate with me as a minority citizen of Raleigh.
Presumably, Esther lives in New York City, a booming metropolis filled with a revolving influx of immigrants and a diverse population where the broad range of ethnic eats are parsed down to such specificity that you’re left deciding between Yemini saltah and Japanese yakitori. Not so much in Raleigh, North Carolina, Esther. We are lucky enough to even have pho, an “ethnic eat” that is still considered pretty exotic, in the downtown vicinity.
Your venture out into downtown Raleigh as the only non-white person in a food or drink establishment is one that’s an unfortunately common occurrence. To be blunt, Raleigh, and specially downtown Raleigh, is hardly a bastion of diversity. Go out on any given weekend night on Fayetteville Street or Glenwood South, and you’ll likely run into a rather homogeneous swath of folks, composed mostly of white Millennial types bespectacled in the latest Warby Parker acetate release or older hand-holding empty-nest couples seeking a nice candlelit meal to accompany a couple goblets of red wine. It’s a truth that I’ve long encountered night after night out for years in my late 20’s and early 30’s in the downtown area.
Is the lack of diversity in the downtown Raleigh nightlife really a problem that needs to be addressed though? I suppose it depends on who you ask. But, during a time when race and diversity remains a hot button topic in the news, and throughout Hollywood and Silicon Valley institutions, you’ll still hardly find any mention of cultivating a diverse nightlife in any of the local publications, both mainstream and independent, around Raleigh. Even the independent publications in the area seem content to rotely praise the same constellation of hipster, farm-to-table eateries that already garner plenty of publicity from national outposts (we badly need a ethnic eats ambassador in town like Los Angeles Times’s Jonathan Gold).
As an Asian-American living in Raleigh, I’ve often found going out into the downtown areas a very lonely and bleak experience in terms of its diversity landscape. The feelings and emotions wrapped up in being the unique-looking one out in a trendy crowded restaurant or bar is hardly relatable to my Caucasian friends, but believe me, every minority is always keenly aware of it whenever they walk into any packed burger joint or dimly-lit speakeasy (i.e. Esther’s review).
The breakdown of Raleigh’s Asian population would lead you to expect that you might see a more diverse clientele in downtown, but from my experience, that’s hardly the case. The City of Raleigh reports that Asians make up 3.7% of the city’s population according to the 2014 American Community Survey. But where are they? Not downtown at night (or even the daytime) from what I’ve seen over the past couple of years.
I suppose that part of the problem is Asians themselves. Many people from Asian populations, especially those like my parents who are first generation immigrants, tend to favor restaurants that serve authentic fare that are closest in flavor and style to those of their respective homelands. These authentic ethnic restaurants tend to take residence in dingy outposts, often in strip malls, on the periphery of Raleigh proper and many times, closest to the ethnic enclaves of Cary and Morrisville (good luck finding a decent Taiwanese or South Indian restaurant in Raleigh) where rents are often much cheaper than those in and around the downtown vicinity.
This preference automatically excludes the hip eateries in downtown, those restaurants that often command higher prices to pay for elevated rents, fusion fare and fancier decor. No matter how cool the mid-90’s hip-hop is blaring through the speakers or how refreshing the Moscow Mule libation is in its super-cool copper mug, it’ll never be enough to entice my Mom and Dad through the doors of any downtown establishment to pay $6 for a trio of fried dumplings.
Raleigh’s lack of diversity often has me fleeing towards Durham, where the nearby university populations help to bolster the mix amongst the evening population that are out and about. I’ve always thought that the palpable feeling of ease and relaxation in Durham was almost disconcerting in relation to self-conscious exclusion I felt in Raleigh.
And, don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been treated better or worse in either city because of my status as a minority. It’s just that I wish badly that Raleigh’s nightlife reflected the diverse population–it doesn’t seem to currently. I’ve always longed for a multi-cultural mix of people downtown–where different people from diverse backgrounds can converge to share and revel in stories and experiences–but I understand that I don’t live in place like New York City, San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Despite plenty of accolades and praise as one of the best cities to live in, Raleigh is just not of those integrated cities yet. But perhaps for now, I should be content with a smattering of places to snack on pork buns in downtown. I suppose that those are morsels of progress, but I can’t temper my wish for even more.