COVID-19 has been something of a poison to Durham’s local food scene, causing beloved establishments to suffer and contaminating the area, preventing any new growth. Still, a few places seem to have found a way to overcome these incredible obstacles and open new doors, like The Honeysuckle at Lakewood, which hosts its grand opening tomorrow, Saturday, Sept. 19, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. With more than a half acre of outdoor dining and drinking space, much of which will eventually be converted into a garden that the restaurant will source ingredients from, there’s a lot to discover about the new tenants of the large red barn off Chapel Hill Road at the front of the Lakewood Shopping Center.
Tom Meyer, the owner of Southern Harvest Hospitality Group, and Jeff Fisher, a real estate attorney and board president of nonprofit Unique Places to Save, acquired the space in June. With a vision driven in part by “the new normal” of the pandemic, they wanted to recapture a neighborhood restaurant where customers didn’t have to travel very far and gather safely.
We had the opportunity to experience the restaurant during a soft opening night. Here are some of our takeaways:
– Walking in, it’s impossible to ignore the woodwork. Jeff Fisher’s father-in-law, Andrey, a former Russian satellite engineer, milled all the wood that was built into the bar backsplash, plus some of the tabletops and shelves in the indoor dining area. He even incorporated parts of limbs pruned from the trees on the property.
“Quite literally, the vision came right from the property,” Tom says. “[We’re] trying to make this place a warm, inviting, welcoming, friendly kind of vibe. Not that there was anything wrong with County Fare, [but] we just didn’t want that hoedown kind of feeling.”
– Get a spot on the covered patio, which can be heated or cooled. Tables are spaced more than the recommended 6-foot distance. QR codes are strategically placed on opposite sides of the table to browse the menu on your phone.
– The mead program is a big focus on the drinks menu. Beverage Director/Mead Maker Erick Hurtado currently offers three meads on tap in addition to a seasonal selection. Both draft meads are done in a Saison style with a lower alcohol content.
“They’re effervescent, and they’re highly mixable, so they find their ways into most of our specialty cocktails,” Tom says. Try the Meadhattan, garnished with blueberries rather than cherries. Or The Bee’s Knees, featuring bourbon, lemon, ginger mead and a miniature honeycomb dipped in honey from King Cobra Apiary, which supplies most of the base for all of Honeysuckle’s meads. “We’ll use mead as a way to bind literally everything together in the restaurant,” Tom adds. “We do mead vinaigrettes [and] we poach different fish in mead. So it finds its way into almost everything on the menu.”
– Chef Mark Mishalanie takes elevated bar food to the next level with secret sauces and unique plating. For your first order, the Lakewood Sprouts are a must-try. Big Brussels sprouts are fried and tossed in thyme and French bleu cheese and served with Mark’s garlic aioli, which took five years to perfect. Although Mark would argue that he’s still trying to perfect it.
Speaking of special sauces, someone at the table has to order the Hail Caesar with Parmesan crisps, Spanish white anchovies and spicy Caesar dressing, which also took Mark years to get just right. Mark says his wife, Meghan Mishalanie (who happens to be this year’s winner of the Beaver Queen Pageant!), will only eat this Caesar salad, and no other. Instead of your typical lettuce shreds in a bowl, expect four hearts of Romaine wedges delicately lined down a plate. “You’ll never see anything else like it,” Mark says.
Whether it’s the burger – hand-pattied to order – or the Bull City Philly with beef tenderloin – “I bet you haven’t had that before,” Mark says – most everything, down to Mark’s secret sauces, is made in-house. “We’re trying to bring that love for fine dining to a casual environment,” Tom says. “Just because you’re not paying $30 a plate doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a lovely experience.”
– Of course, you can’t miss the large outdoor area that surrounds the restaurant. In the coming weeks and months, the team will be planting everything from honeysuckle and blueberry bushes to edible plants and herbs of all kinds. While it may take months or years for the beds to mature, it just goes to show that the folks at Honeysuckle are in it for the long run.
“The idea is bringing a little bit of the farm into Durham,” Tom says, “and creating a place where we can showcase our mead, showcase a very inventive kitchen and a whole beverage program that revolves around inventive cocktails.”