Herons: Most Underrated Restaurant in the Triangle


Herons, the ultra-swank restaurant in the even ritzier Umstead Hotel in Cary, must be the “poor” stepchild of the Triangle’s restaurant community. It gets no love at all from the foodie community. Greg Cox didn’t include it in his top 20 restaurants in the Triangle. There’s been little discussion of Herons from the local food blogging community, or at Chowhound or eGullet. Quite frankly, Herons has been overlooked, dismissed, and cast aside by the same folks who debate endlessly about the local food scene (myself included). And that’s a crying shame, as this is one of the finest restaurants in North Carolina, let alone the Triangle.

I’ve now eaten three lunches and a dinner at Herons, and when it comes to upscale dining, there may not be another restaurant in the area that can match the full package Herons offers: the decor, the ambience, the service, the wine selection, and, of course, the food. The Umstead Hotel is essentially one big, plush art gallery. This carries over to Herons, where that plushness is complemented by the most comfortable chairs and banquettes anywhere. The staff is extremely attentive, with a touch of formality, but not overly so and never intrusive. The wine list, put together by sommelier Steven Eudy is top-notch. Chef Phil Evans is extremely talented and has put together a well-rounded, very tasty menu, featuring mostly local ingredients. Pastry chef Daniel Benjamin creates whimsical desserts such as a chestnut “Moon Pie” or a somewhat deconstructed version of key lime pie. Everything about this restaurant is great, not good. But where is the love?

The lack of attention can be attributed to two things: (1) Herons is a hotel restaurant, and frankly, foodies don’t like hotel restaurants. They like small, chef-owned eateries; and (2) the price. Yes, Herons is expensive — probably the priciest place in the region. When Greg Cox published his list of the top 20 restaurants in the Triangle recently, one notable absence was Herons. He stated that although the restaurant had “top 20 potential,” he didn’t include it in his list because, “especially given the price – [Herons] didn’t quite live up to expectations.”

I myself have been taken aback by the prices, at one point saying they weren’t just New York prices, but in excess of those. But let’s take another look. A three course dinner at Herons, excluding wine, will cost you about $60, before tax and tip. That’s based on an average appetizer of $15, entree of $35 and dessert of $10. Oh, don’t forget that Herons will throw in an amuse and petits fours afterwards. Now let’s look at a few restaurants awarded two stars by the New York Times (and frankly, I’m thinking that Herons is probably more closely aligned with a three star establishment). Nothing ultra-deluxe, but something remarkably good. A three course dinner at Danny Meyer’s The Modern, which is actually in an honest to goodness art museum (and not a hotel posing as one) will run you $85 for those same three courses. Charlie Palmer’s Aureole charges $84 for its prix fixe three course dinner. Heck, Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50, where the food is certainly more avant garde, but is occasionally not all that tasty (and where the service and comfort are nowhere close to what you’ll get at Herons) will cost 59 bucks on average. I’ll gladly put the food at Heron’s up against any of those NYC restaurants.

So, could it be that we folks in the Triangle just won’t pay that kind of money for a dining experience here, when we’ll gladly pay it (and more) in New York? Maybe they need to go to a prix fixe menu, where you choose three courses for a set price. Would we be taken aback as much by a $60 fixed price dinner, that includes three courses, an amuse and petits fours? I don’t have an answer to that.

With Greg Cox, I just don’t understand. Go back and read his review from last June. With the exception of a couple of minor miscues, he raves about the place (and I want to know if some of those miscues came on his initial visit: Valentine’s Day, when restaurants always struggle, but particularly when they’ve only been open a month!). So why no love? I say because Cox set his expectations unbelievably (and perhaps unrealistically) high, he downgraded it. He awarded Herons 3-1/2 stars (now 4-1/2 under the new rating system), when even the review appears to come off as if the place warranted his highest rating. Compared to other 4-1/2 star restaurants on Cox’s list, can we truly say that Vin Rouge is objectively better than Herons? Of course not. Can we say that if someone else were footing the bill, is Vivace better? No, no, no! I love Vin Rouge and Vivace, but Herons is in an altogether different league than them. I may be wrong, but Herons may have been the only 4-1/2 star restaurant not to make Cox’s top 20 list, with some lower ranked places finding their way on his favorites.

A similar phenomenon occurred in New York several years ago when Alaine Ducasse opened his restaurant in the Essex House Hotel. People were looking for flaws, rather than just sitting back and enjoying the restaurant in all its glory. In the end, the initial criticism may have been a major factor in its ultimate demise.

Just like Ben Barker, Andrea Reusing, and Ashley Christensen, Chef Phil Evans reaches out to local artisanal vendors and farmers. Hell, he even names them on his menu and grows his own herbs. But he sure isn’t getting the love from the media, print or electronic. The food is creative. It is tasty. And just order the cheese plate to really shock you, making you forget that you’re in Cary (I want a set of those cheese knives). You’ll notice little touches such as serving a dainty pitcher of simple syrup to accompany your iced tea. And if you want a lower priced bargain, go to the bar and order their wine flights paired with food. You’ll get three healthy pours of either red or white, each paired with a small dish. For 30 bucks. In a beautiful room. With beautiful art. And a piano player, to boot.

So maybe Herons will never be the darling of the region. But if you have an out of town guest, particularly one from a big city, take them to Herons and see what they say. I did that recently with some individuals from Boston, both of whom travel extensively and seek out the top dining destinations across the country. They told me after the dinner concluded that they had no idea that this region had such an amazing restaurant. They were impressed, and so am I.


7 Responses to Herons: Most Underrated Restaurant in the Triangle

  1. blewgo says:

    I think some of it is a backlash against the owners. I seem to remember Mr Goodnight blocking the completion of Cary Parkway because he didn’t want it going past SAS property. A lot of people did not like that.

  2. Varmint says:

    I stay on top of local politics, and I wasn’t aware of what Jim Goodnight did. I really don’t think that could be a reason why it’s not even discussed. And I doubt that the Goodnight’s ownership of The Umstead is a major factor, either. I suspect the hotel could be owned by Jim Goodnight, Jim Goodmon, or Jim Beam, and it would still be the same. It’s the fact that it’s a hotel, I believe, that makes the difference.

  3. phoebe says:

    i don’t know if I agree Varmint: I LOVE hotel bars, and don’t discriminate against restaurants in them either. I think that it has to do with it’s location. The park and Cary have never been destinations that come to mind when I think of good dining, except for cheap ethnic.

  4. Lurker says:

    I rarely get to Cary but thanks for the heads-up; a trip to Heron’s may be in my future. I agree with you about local foodies being weird about certain restaurants – Il Palio in the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill is *good*, regardless of what the trendies are seemingly looking for. And Fearrington House is one of the top restaurants in the Southeast, but they are continually maligned on local blogs. Both of these rastaurants also source from local farms, the atmosphere and service are top notch, the food is high quality and tastes great. but still some people insist they suck. I don’t get it, but whatever.

  5. detlef says:

    We have actually been planning a dinner there with another couple and are really looking forward to it. We were supposed to go this Saturday but I had to postpone because of a work obligation. None the less, I have been to a wine tasting down there and went upstairs to one of the rooms for an after-party of sorts. Very beautiful place indeed.

  6. Cheryl says:

    We celebrated our 25th anniversary this past December at The Umstead overnight and of course, had dinner at Heron’s. You’re spot on when you describe this place as being a big plush art gallery…even the hotel gift shop sells high end artwork, pottery, blown glass, etc. not found elsewhere in this area. The hotel and Heron’s are indeed pricey—what I’d think of as an expense account place. I believe I read somewhere that part of the motivation behind the project was so that SAS clients, especially international ones, would have a convenient place to stay when here on business. Perhaps the prices are on par with those in Europe and you know how the dollar is over there right now…. And in fact, several key staff members are European. Indeed, the whole operation seems to have sort of a European ambience to it. Even the staff in both the hotel and Heron’s wear outfits/uniforms similar to what we’ve seen in European hotels. But back to Heron’s….I can’t recall exactly what I ordered (even after looking back at the on-line menu); I do recall that dinner was wonderful. And after considering the various dessert concoctions, I ended up ordering ice cream—a treat I don’t allow myself at home. If you haven’t been to Heron’s, do yourself a favor and go there—-even if you have to wait for a special occasion. Actually, being there is a special occasion in and of itself.

  7. Vanessa says:

    Someone labeled me an “Umstead enthusiast,” and, no, I have no connection to the Goodknights. My husband gave me a Spa Membership to The Umstead for my 40th bday because I was in love with the entire place. We’ve had food throughout the hotel — at Herons, room service, in the Spa, at the bar, by the pool. It has all been fantastic. We had their Thanksgiving Buffet and it was fabulous in presentation and quality. I’d rather have a few amazing dishes than lots of mediocre ones. I would consider myself a “foodie” and am working my way through all the “best” lists in the Triangle as time permits. I thought there was a slight dip in quality when Phil Evans left earlier this year (we were there for a long weekend in May), but I think the new chef has found his groove. Most of all, I love the quiet, elegant atmosphere so it’s just fine with me that there are no crowds.

    You could almost write the same thing about An, the restaurant Mrs. Goodknight backed, and located down the road. The food and atmosphere are amazing there. Maybe it’s the location?

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