6 Retro Restaurants in Raleigh, Durham, Pittsboro and Chapel Hill

From a vintage walk-up sandwich shop to a ’60s mod cocktail lounge, here are the Triangle's best culinary time machines

Can it be that it was all so simple then? In this digitally-obsessed, fast-paced, rapidly changing era, there’s something comforting about a meal that takes you back to the “good ol’ days.”

Thanks to local restaurant owners' deep reverence for the days of old, the Triangle offers a nice selection of restaurants that can take you back to simpler times. From a vintage walk-up sandwich shop to a ’60s mod cocktail lounge, here are some of the Triangle’s best culinary time machines.


Hayes Barton Cafe

Hayes Barton Cafe

In the center of Raleigh’s Five Points district, Hayes Barton Cafe is owners Frank and Margaret Ballard’s ode to the ’40s. Covered in chrome and featuring a checkered floor, horseshoe bar and photos of ironic figures from the ’40s covering the walls, this cafe has earned a reputation for plentiful portions and oversized desserts.

The cozy diner’s confines are consistently packed with lines of eager patrons waiting for the restaurant to open its doors. After enjoying home-cooked favorites like meatloaf and chicken pot pie, save room for the cafe’s legendary desserts. Mountainous slices of lemon blueberry cake, peanut butter pie, chocolate hazelnut cake and tiramisu cake dwarfs the dishes they’re plated on. These gargantuan sweet treats aren’t just impressive in size; each forkful is sinfully decadent.


Clockwork bar in North Carolina

Clockwork

Walking into clockwork on West North Street in Raleigh is a psychedelic experience. Dramatic wallpaper, a funky color palate and off-the-wall decor capture the ’60s mod feel in this cocktail lounge and eatery.

Priding itself on timeless food and libations, the restaurant pairs its offbeat surroundings with crafted cocktails and eclectic dishes. Cleverly named libations like the "Pussy Galore"—a tequila and amaretto drink—are not only a nod to classic ’70’s films, but also refreshing and sophisticated drinks. From clockwork’s selection of tacos—with everything from fafal to carnitas—to the restaurant’s pimento cheese sandwich, the international food menu spans the globe.


Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater

The only way families used to be able to watch a film together—drive-in theaters—have nearly gone extinct. But just a little drive north of the Capital City, Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater keeps this old-time medium alive. Whether laying back in the reclined seat of your car, or sprawled out in the outdoor theater’s lawn, the drive-in is an ideal spot for those who would rather watch new and classic flicks under the stars than confined inside a stuffy theater.

As with any movie experience, concessions are a necessity. Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater goes beyond popcorn and candy by serving an all-American menu that includes burgers and cheesesteaks. Freshly cut fries and nachos provide movie-watchers something to snack on while enjoying the flick. Desserts like funnel cake fries and Oreo churros ensure any film has a sweet ending. 


This retro walkup has perfected the classic Carolina dog, complete with homemade slaw, chili and the restaurant’s King's sauce. (Courtesy Chase Olivieri)

King’s Sandwich Shop

No fuss, no nonsense, all sandwich. In the heart of Durham’s DIY district, King’s Sandwich Shop bridges the gap between the historic Durham and the emerging new Durham.

Located next to the Historic Durham Athletic Park since 1942, the beloved walkup temporarily shuttered in 2007. A few years later in 2010, T.J. McDermott stepped in to revive the sandwich shop. Since reopening its doors, King’s Sandwich Shop has been the Bull City’s spot for hot dogs. The retro stand has perfected the classic Carolina dog, complete with homemade slaw, chili and the restaurant’s own King’s sauce.


Antique bar stools belly up to S&T's traditional soda fountain bar and vintage Pepsi machine. (Courtesy 4L Consulting)

S&T’s Soda Shop

West of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the quaint town of Pittsboro plays host to an iconic Americana classic: the soda shop. Though S&T’s Soda Shop opened its doors in 1997, the building retains its original charm from when it was built in 1916.

Antique bar stools belly up to S&T’s traditional soda fountain bar and vintage Pepsi machine. Order egg creams, fizzes and other old-time soda classics. While S&T’s massive banana split is an Instagram favorite, the restaurant’s lasagna is a true classic. Adopted from a defunct iconic Chapel Hill restaurant, the nickname “Bowl of Cheese” is true to its name, since tender sheets of pasta drown under the dish’s mountain of molten cheese.


Level Up Kitchen + Barcadium serves a jalapeño, cucumber and ginger burger known as the Full Metal Jacket. (Courtesy Local Hero Hospitality)

Level Up Kitchen + Barcadium

Memories of classic video arcades live on in downtown Raleigh’s Level Up Kitchen & Barcadium. This retro hot spot lines its walls with vintage video games like PAC-MAN and Mortal Kombat, along with an expansive pinball collection. From pictures of Ferris Bueller to a painted mural featuring characters from famous games, the "barcade" marries figures of the ’80s and ’90s to a contemporary ambience.

As you lead your small, pixilated character to victory, order from the kitchen’s menu of handheld food and a collection of 25 beers. Try Level Up’s take on the Canadian poutine or choose from its selection of burgers which includes a jalapeño, cucumber and ginger burger known as the "Full Metal Jacket." Conveniently, each dish is designed to help you keep one hand on the joystick and the other on your food.

Elliot Acosta is a Raleigh-based food blogger and creator of the eatRaleigh Blog, where he explores the culture, history, passion and people of the Oak City and surrounding areas.