A deep white bowl, mounded with elbow noodles wrapped in a blanket of Jarlsberg, Grana Padano, and sharp white cheddar, graces every third table. The blackboard menu on the wall above red vinyl booths lists macaroni au gratin as a side dish. That’s ungenerous. At Poole’s, Ashley Christensen’s bistro-meets-diner in downtown Raleigh, that macaroni is appetizer, entree, side, dessert—and talisman. Gone craggy and brown beneath the broiler, it’s a marker of the goodness this restaurant puts on tables and reflects back to its community.
Before December 2007, when Poole’s opened, the outside world often saw Raleigh as the cultural and culinary also-ran in a triad of North Carolina cities dominated by Chapel Hill and Durham. Red mud coursed downtown streets, runoff from construction of the nearby convention center. Too few people walked those streets. Then came Poole’s. At its tables, forking into vinaigrette-dressed salads of Bibb lettuce topped with fluffy white bonnets of shredded Parmesan, Raleigh people learned to expect more from a restaurant, and more from their city.
Christensen revived a space with a history. Poole’s began in 1945 as a pie shop that then morphed into a luncheonette. Generations of college students and factory workers came here to eat meat-and-three plates. When Robert “Fox” Christensen, Ashley’s late father, moved to Raleigh after high school to sell newspaper ads, he stood in line here to grab a chrome and red leather stool at one of the two horseshoe counters by the door.
The bones of the restaurant that Fox Christensen knew remain. Topped in green Formica now faded to chambray, those old-fashioned counters still draw. But Poole’s is not a throwback. Fifteen years ago, when Christensen opened, she painted the ceiling tiles bright silver and the trim a glossy black, built a playlist around indie phenoms like Neko Case, and replaced the back-bar coffeepots and tea urns with stocks of Burgundy and bourbon. Seen through her eyes and aspirations, this old diner, in her old college town, would become a laboratory for progress, a place with a past, ideal for imagining a future.
Christensen wrote an opening menu that revolved around gently reinvented classics, like a roasted half chicken served atop whipped potatoes. Swaddled in a sauce made of double-reduced chicken stock, that dish, along with that macaroni and that salad, shows on the blackboard today. On a recent Saturday night, I joined Christensen and Kaitlyn Goalen, her spouse and the executive director of their company, for dinner at Poole’s.
They ordered everything that remains from the opening menu. And a whole bunch of newer dishes: Beef tenderloin carpaccio, dressed with tarragon horseradish buttermilk, crowned by fried matchstick potatoes. Braised greens, spiked with chile flakes and garlic. Black-tea-brined pork chops, served atop rice grits bound by sweet corn. And a roasted banana crème caramel, showered with crumbled vanilla cookies. A smile on my face, I watched them watch their flagship come alive. And I listened as regulars stopped by our table to reminisce about beloved dishes and dinners.
The Raleigh skyline has soared in the years since Poole’s opened. And so has Christensen. She’s won the big food world awards and picked up an honorary doctorate from NC State, her old university. For her work in the kitchen, and as an inspired fundraiser for local and national causes, Christensen has earned the respect of chef peers across the nation. The AC Restaurants portfolio now includes three more restaurants, a bar, and a catering company.
Chefs run risks when they expand beyond the restaurant on which they built an audience. Regulars fret, wondering if they’ll get lost in the shuffle. Pilgrims, on the trail of the next great restaurant, worry they’ve arrived too late to the party. Christensen has sidestepped those concerns by growing Poole’s from a chef-driven experiment into a classic restaurant, devoted to repertory cooking and to the guests who gather at those horseshoe counters.
I first dined at Poole’s a few weeks after it opened. I’ve returned a couple dozen times, despite living two flights and seven-hundred-plus miles away. In those lipstick-red booths, I’ve begun raucous dinners with bourbon and macaroni au gratin and ended with calvados and late-night karaoke. What began at Poole’s has tentacled through my life. As I worked to grow the Southern Foodways Alliance in the 2010s, Christensen emerged as a generous benefactor and connector. When Christensen and Goalen married in 2019, I stood proud before them and their loved ones as officiant.
This is a roundabout way of saying, I’m not an impartial observer. I deeply connect to this restaurant, the people who run it, and the many people who love it. In January, people like me from all kinds of places will converge in Raleigh to celebrate what Poole’s has accomplished and where it’s headed. The restaurant will stage panel discussions about the hospitality industry. And host guest-chef dinners. To get ready, Poole’s will prep bowl upon bowl of macaroni au gratin. Each will emerge from the broiler capped by a rumpled shag of brown and bubbling cheese. But just five diners will pick up a bowl to find a Willy Wonka–style golden ticket taped to the bottom, entitling the bearer to a year of gratins. Instead of Fizzy Lifting Drink, Poole’s will pour Champagne.