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Happy Birthday Progressive Dinner 2023

For those of you that have not reached the ripe old age of 67 years, as I have, I can assure you that the day will inevitably come when birthday cake will loose it's charm and allure. If you are like me, you will grow to find it impossible to prevent copious amounts of the traditional way to celebrate another trip around the sun without trading it for more inches around your waist. Let me be perfectly clear, my zeal for celebrating my birthday has not diminished over the years, As a matter of fact, quite the opposite. I am always humble, grateful and most of all blessed to celebrate each birthday the Almighty's Grace and Mercy allow me to see,

I just don't celebrate the way I used to.

I have had my share of birthday parties filled with frolicking and fun attended by friends, family and guests. Birthday cake, balloons and music set the stage for what has become the "traditional" way to celebrate a birthday. I have even staged "surprise" birthday parties for others as well as been the guest of honor at these auspicious events.

I can not neglect how travel can also make a memorable framework for creating a birthday to remember. Whenever I think of turning 50 years old I always remember that my family and I spent it on Hilton Head Island. Virtually every picture from that trip is etched in my memory with me always flashing a five zero gang sign.

But yesterday was special.

On the advice of my daughter I decided to celebrate my 67th birthday with a "progressive dinner" around downtown Raleigh! For those of you who are not aware of this popular dining experience, a progressive dinner is merely a meal composed of multiple courses but served at multiple locations. My very first experience with this was orchestrated by my dear friend Anna Kizer at Vino Wine Shop in Pittsboro. It was three courses well within walking distance and our dear friends Bryant and Michele joined us for the event making it even that much more special.

I was hooked.

So to celebrate my birthday this year I arranged a journey of destinations within reasonable walking distance from each other starting with cocktails at the Green Light Bar, followed by appetizers at Second Empire Restaurant and Tavern, afterwards dinner at Poole's Downtown Diner and finally the finale dessert at Bittersweet. Of all the aforementioned destinations the only one I had previously visited was Second Empire, all the rest it was my very first encounter.

How did it go? Read on.

First Stop: Cocktails at The Green Light Bar, 108 E Hargett St, Raleigh, NC 27601

I have always wanted to visit the Green Light Bar located in the Architect building in downtown Raleigh. I am a big fan of "speakeasy" bars or establishments that attempt to replicate the old speakeasy bars that became popular during Prohibition when selling and consuming alcohol was illegal. These retro style establishments were havens for those seeking to indulge in spirits and their allure never quite went away. I can attest to this being a proud member of not one but two speakeasy bars (The Atlantic Lounge downtown Raleigh where members have to have a special key to enter and Dot Dot Dot in Charlotte where the entrance staring you in plain sight can not be seen). Okay, maybe I am more than a fan, maybe i am a speakeasy aficionado.

From the outside, the awning clearly welcomes you to the Architect Bar and Social House, but if you look carefully to the right of the flag you will see a green light, a subtle reference to the unique experience that awaits you at the top of the stairs - and behind the bookcase.

That's right, behind the bookcase.

The entrance to the Green Light Bar is behind a bookcase with the only clue to what lies behind being the host/hostess stand located just in front of the bookcase. I strongly encourage you to make reservations at the Green Light. Although there are times I am sure when you can walk in off the street and be allowed to enter I can assure you from personal experience to get in on a busy night at peak times without a reservation is unlikely. After visiting I now fully understand why - the space is small and can only accommodate a small number of patrons.

But if you are fortunate to get a reservation what awaits you behind the bookcase is a quintessential speakeasy vibe with dimly lit tables, soft music, a classic bar, well trained mixologists and classic cocktails. Whether sitting at the bar looking down at the hustle and bustle of the street or sitting at the bar watching the mixologists create stunning cocktails I encourage you to visit. I kept waiting for Gatsby himself to enter!

Second Stop: Appetizers at Second Empire Restaurant and Tavern,

330 Hillsborough St, Raleigh, NC 27603

As the maître d at this renowned establishment for nearly a decade, I am no stranger to their award winning cuisine and impeccable décor, service and ambiance. It is for this reason and many others, including seeing my old friend Executive Chef Daniel Schurr) that I choose to have my appetizer course here. Not only that, but here my all time favorite appetizer is Pan Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras. I can assure you that this decadent and controversial item is a rare indulgence for me and one that I save for extra special occasions.

If you have never visited Second Empire all you need to to is read TripAdvisor, Yelp, Google Reviews or any of the online forums and see what the majority of reviews say. Here you will see that this establishment not only perennially ranks among the cities best but it has literally withstood the test of time being in it's current and only location for over 20 years. Dwarfed by skyscrapers towering in the distance it is a testimony to a style of architecture and reputation that must not be forgotten.

While I savored my foie gras (which I enjoyed with a Sauterne from my dear friend Kimberly aka Vintage Hill Wines) my daughter enjoyed her Latin Seasoned Georgia Quail with black bean & chorizo ragout, shiitake mushrooms, plantains, avocado, roasted corn salsa, ancho chili & lime cream sauce. My wife selected an impressive charcuterie board. Not a fan of Sauterne, she opted for a glass of Valpolicella.

Every visit to Second Empire is more than a meal, so much more. It is a chance to experience fine cuisine and service that matches, a rare combination in today's dining options. As the former headwaiter of two fine dining establishments I appreciate good precise table service. As a sommelier I am saddened to see the number of places to experience it rapidly decreasing. Plus, the décor and ambiance are second to none and for me it is a chance to go home.

Third Stop: Poole's Downtown Diner, 426 S McDowell St, Raleigh, NC 27601

With the possibility of visiting the legendary Poole's Pies no longer an option due to their recent closing I felt motivated to visit a downtown Raleigh dining institution - Poole's Downtown Diner. This iconic restaurant under the supervision of the legendary James Beard Award winning chef Ashley Christensen has been on my bucket list for way too long. They describe the cuisine as "a modern diner with reimagined comfort foods". This definition is spot on because everything I tasted there was familiar - but elevated. My wife, daughter and I were fortunate here at Poole's to be joined by our good friends Bryant & Michele for dinner.

Let's start with their macaroni and cheese. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I NEVER eat macaroni and cheese in public because I was spoiled by my dear mother eating her version for many years in my youth. Fortunately for me, both my wife and my daughter have studied under her tutelage and can produce a pretty good version of their own. But I now go on record that there is one and ONLY one version that is as good or better than my own mothers and that is the one I experienced last night at Poole's. Creamy, cheesy (and not that fake artificial looking orange cheese color, but a creamy white) and topped with bread crumbs I found myself "skimming" the top of the casserole.

A Bibb lettuce salad was delivered to our table that was covered with enough 24 month grated aged Parmesan to satisfy even the most ardent lovers of this cheese. Dressed in a light red wine vinaigrette it was quickly devoured by our table of five.

In addition to the macaroni and cheese, I can also proclaim their Pimento Cheese spread also the best I have ever had. Creamy, cheesy and spicy it was irresistible and when the pieces of sliced baguette were long gone we used our spoons as tools to retrieve what remained.

As I have said many times you know when the food was really good when you realize you have no pictures of the entrees! Their nightly offerings were displayed on a chalkboard and I can assure you that our Coffee Brined Pork Tenderloin, Roasted Chicken and Pan Seared Drum were outstanding. As a matter of fact, that will be my "excuse" to plan a return trip in the near future and this time I promise more entrée pictures. I also promise to get a pimento cheese to myself.

Final Stop: Dessert at Bittersweet, 16 E Martin St, Raleigh, NC 27601

Here is yet another downtown Raleigh location that I have never visited. So what influenced me to select here for de? Simple, social media. If you do a search for "best downtown Raleigh dessert" there is one name that consistently appears on the list - Bittersweet. After visiting them for the first time last evening it is no wonder that this downtown cocktail and dessert lounge is immensely popular.

Their dazzling array of spirit infused coffees, cocktails, desserts, wine, beer, coffee and tea have something for everyone and could easily be a fitting end to a night on the town or a late night confectionery adventure.

I was surprised with a cupcake and a candle in celebration of my birthday and i couldn't have though of a sweeter or more delicious way to end my very first ever Happy Birthday Progressive Dinner. Plans are already in the works for December 27, 2024. The BIG question is where will I celebrate. Although I am leaning Chapel Hill, Durham or even Holly Springs the decision will be a tough one. My daughter is lobbying for Charlotte saying "go big or go home". No worries, I have a whole year to make up my mind where I will celebrate No. 68.

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