Reflections on Taste Carolina’s 5 Year Anniversary

It’s been five years since Joe and I launched our food tour business. I just looked through my 2009 Facebook posts, and I saw my status from March 17th of that year: “Lesley is launching a business…. NOW…” A group of five people signed up for our Durham tour that same weekend, and we were in business. A few weeks later I reported on Facebook that there were six tours booked in one week, and a few weeks after that I mentioned a record 49 people in a week. As reported that summer in a News & Observer article, I lost ten pounds from walking so much. Sure, I was eating a lot, but in small portions throughout the day. Yes, I gained it back when I started hiring tour guides!

We continually adapt to the changing landscape of dining out and the increasing popularity of foodie experiences. Running this business has gone from somewhat simple to really quite complicated, but that’s one reason why I love it. I’m proud to have brought over 15,000 people downtown, to have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at downtown restaurants, and to have employed a dozen people.

What is my favorite part of owning this business? It’s the process of facilitating an experience during which couples, families, companies, and groups of friends can have fun together, enjoy lots of yummy food, and explore our historic downtowns with a friendly guide. I get to do this for a living, and I am indeed very lucky. I love showing off my favorite restaurants and their talented chefs over and over again. And I dig the fact that some of the coolest people around – restaurants folks – are really nice to me and my customers.

Thank you for being part of our five years. Thank you tour guides, past and present, for being gracious hosts and good friends. Thank you restaurant partners for treating our customers like VIPs… every week for five years. And thank you, Joe, for being a supportive business partner and friend.

My husband and my parents believed in this business from the start, and for that I am most grateful.



Joe and I during a Chapel Hill Magazine photoshoot. We’re at LocoPops with my dog, Marley, who is enjoying a pupsicle.

Valentine’s Day Tours, 2014


Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours’ Valentine’s Day Tours 

To see the full list of Taste Carolina tours on a calendar, and to register, click here. To visit Taste Carolina’s website, click here.

February 13th, Raleigh Downtown Dinner Stroll

February 14th, Taste Carolina Loves Raleigh

12:15, Raleigh Loves Lunch Tour, $50 per person.

1:45, Afternoon Delights Tour, $50 per person.

4:00, Downtown Dinner Stroll, $59.50 per person.

4:00, Dinner Stroll of Seaboard Station/ Mordecai/ Oakwood, $59.50 per person.

5:30, Raleigh Loves Cocktails Tour, $50 per person.

February 14th, Taste Carolina Loves Durham

1:45, Afternoon Tasting Tour, $50 per person.

February 14th, Taste Carolina Loves Winston-Salem

11am, Winston-Salem Loves Lunch Tour, $50 per person.

4:45, Winston-Salem Downtown Dinner Stroll, $59.50 per person.

February 15th – Food tours take place in Raleigh at 1:45 and 3:30, in Durham at 1:45 and 3:15, in Chapel Hill/ Carrboro at 11am and 3:00, and in Greensboro at 2:00.

Gift certificates are available online. Register for all tours in advance at or call 919 237-2254 for more information. Space is limited.

Taste Carolina’s walking tours of downtown Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill/ Carrboro, Historic Hillsborough, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem are scheduled for every Saturday, all year ‘round. Registration is open to the public and available on Private and corporate tours can be arranged for any day or night of the week for groups of eight to two hundred.

Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours

919 237-2254

My Own Personal Food Tour of Raleigh, Minus My Awesome Pictures

I bought a new iPhone this week. With its upgraded camera and increased space, I vowed to start taking lots of food and restaurant photos and uploading them to Twitter, Facebook, and to this blog. So I bought the phone on Wednesday and immediately drove to Raleigh to try four new places in one night. One of the Taste Carolina tour guides, Adrienne, joined me in this adventure. We had so much fun! And I took wonderful pictures, particularly at Garland, which is beautiful.

When I got home, I immediately went to delete the photos from my Pictures folder. Photos were always saved into two folders on my old phone, and that’s what took up so much memory. But that’s not how it works on the iPhone 5. I lost all of them. Except one – the one I texted to my husband to brag about what I was eating. Here’s a picture of two different kinds of meatball sliders, mac & cheese, and collards at the brand new Oak City Meatball.


So that’s all I have for now, but I promise to recreate my magical night and get all great new photos up here. In the meantime, here is what we ate and drank:

1) The Green Light Bar, Raleigh – I had never been to a bar called The Architect before, but I had heard of it and I knew where it was. A few months ago I noticed a Twitter spat between a blog called New Raleigh and a local restaurant owner. New Raleigh tweeted something like, ‘Green Light Bar. Discuss.’ The restaurant owner tweeted back something like, ‘Why so smug?’ New Raleigh: ‘What? I’m just letting out a little secret.” Restaurant owner: ‘Letting out a little secret would be to say something like, Hey! Has anyone been to The Green Light Bar inside The Architect behind the secret bookcase?’

And I’m like, WHAT? I LOVE secret bars! Especially behind secret bookcases. I immediately texted tour guide, Jeanie, who lives downtown, and she texted back that she would head right over. It took her a bit to find it, even though she’s been to The Architect many times. But when she did get there she texted back that it was perfect, that her drink was the best ever, and that we know the owner and he’s happy to host our tours. Best night, and I wasn’t even there.

Fast forward to this week. I finally got there to check in out, and it’s awesome. My drink, made from fresh juices and homemade syrups, was delicious, and the bartender was very friendly. There’s a neat view of Hargett Street, too. I can’t wait to go back and to bring lots of people by.

Oh, and here’s something cool. There’s a light out front of the bar. When it shows green, there are seats available. When it’s red, no seats available – and no entry.

Here’s a picture of fresh juices and homemade syrups from a completely different restaurant:Image

2) Bida Manda, Raleigh – We have been working with Bida Manda for about a year, but they took a break from our Saturday tours (but not weekday tours) in December due to high volume and a trend toward 5:00 and 5:30 reservations filling the restaurant. Bida Manda is ranked number one on Trip Advisor, currently, and it’s well deserved. The owners, brother and sister Van and Vanvisa, are delightful. They hire nice people and they’re perfectionists: they make sure each customer who comes in has an experience that exceeds expectations. The food is unique and delicious and shows off their Laotian heritage. Bida Manda is only the second full-on Laotian restaurant in the country.

In the past I’ve had pumpkin curry, summer rolls, spring rolls (my fave), a shrimp and bacon crepe, and a green papaya salad with beef. This time, Adrienne and I split a roasted pepper stuffed with herb sausage, and crab cakes. Van sent us over a couple of hot toddies with homemade maple syrup, Evan Williams bourbon, and orange peel. Yummy and comforting on a very cold night.

Fortunately for Bida Manda, but sad for Taste Carolina, reservations continue to pour in, and there’s just no room for our Saturday groups. But Van was sweet to suggest a Friday evening tour, and I can’t wait to get that going! And we’ll continue to bring in weekday and weeknight corporate groups.

3) Oak City Meatball, Raleigh – OCM opened just this week. It’s the same owner as one of our favorite places, Calavera, and both are super fun. The night we were there, it was hopping with young, happy people. The service was terrific, the food prompt and yummy, and we had a great time.

We tried three different meatballs. Our favorite was the meatball of the day, which was a spicy chicken one. We also enjoyed the traditional beef meatball and the spinach and lentil ball. And that mac & cheese and collards were decadent and terrific. Oh, and because we were so hungry (not), we also ordered cake balls, which are made in-house. We loved the cookies and cream one and were happy to share our leftovers with a couple of random guys sitting next to us. After all, we still had one more place to hit.

Oak City Meatball’s menu shows a number of different types of meatballs, and you can eat them on a sub roll, a brioche bun, a slider bun or have them over spaghetti, gemelli, polenta, or risotto – or plain. You also pick a sauce, like marinara (perfect), pesto, cream, mushroom, etc., and a cheese. We ordered three sliders and let the kitchen choose the sauce and cheese.

The drinks were all superb. Great beer list, too. I can’t WAIT to go back.

Here’s a picture of Adrienne in a completely different context:Image

4) Garland, Raleigh – While the Garland crew was building their restaurant last year, owner Cheetie took advantage of the completed kitchen and opened a walk-up window featuring her Southeast Asian fusion/ street food dishes. It was very popular and a fantastic way to preview the restaurant. Cheetie also cooked for our tours and served the food paired with a craft cocktail at her downstairs bar, Neptunes Parlour. It’s been a couple of months since the restaurant opened, but Wednesday was my first time in. It’s beautiful beautiful beautiful. And looked so pretty at 10pm on a cold winter night. Hence all the awesome but deleted photos.

But the food and drink were great, too. We had Bhel Puri, an Indian street food dish with crunchy puffed rice, crunchy chick pea noodles, cucumbers, and greens mixed with an herb vinaigrette. The flavors were different for me, and I loved them. I had a similar dish recently at Vimala’s, Aloo Chat, and loved that one, too. We also got corn cakes with local greens and a drink made from toasted coconut, cinnamon, and orange. I told them they should bottle it and sell it immediately. (It tasted a lot like a delicious bourbon liqueur that’s currently being bottled and sold in North Carolina only called Mystic.)

Will upload my phantom pictures as soon as I take them again!

Here’s to good eating. And thanks for reading.


Taste Carolina’s Parties Revisited

Last night, Taste Carolina celebrated the holidays with a dinner party. I try to give two parties each year where all the tour guides get together, one in January for the holidays and another one in the spring to celebrate Taste Carolina’s March anniversary. Over the years we’ve celebrated at Toast, Acme and Carrboro Beverage Company, Panciuto and The Wooden Nickel, Bull City Burger and Brewery, Centro and Foundation (with Crumb), Vimala’s and TOPO, and, last night, Jose & Sons and Crank ArmImage

After beer hour at Crank Arm, where we enjoyed really delicious beers, we arrived at Jose & Sons, where yuca fries with chimichurri, beef flautas, and, my favorite bite of the night, tostones (fried plantains) topped with pimiento cheese and bacon, were out on the table. We all ordered margaritas and other drinks. I really loved my cucumber margarita.

I’m fortunate to have fantastic tour guides. I make it a point to hire people who are way more bubbly than I am, who are wonderful hosts, resourceful, and who love the concept of Taste Carolina and the cities they show off each week. I think Dean has been with Taste Carolina the longest, and Neesey is the newest. I’ve never had to let anyone go, but I have had turnover: guides who want their weekends back, whose day jobs have become too demanding to have a second job, or who have moved. It’s hard to lose talented employees because they are very hard to replace – and because I like everyone a lot and miss them when they leave the company.

I can’t wait for the next party, and I’m thinking that it won’t be a sit-down dinner. Perhaps some kind of stand-up, cocktail-like party. Something high energy for this high energy group! And with an awesome cake.



PS: If you are interested in working for Taste Carolina or who know anyone who would make a great guide, please contact me.

It’s Getting Haute in Winston

Jiliana Dulaney, owner of Haute Chocolate in Winston Salem, has a great thing going. Her chocolate shop on Burke Street showcases unique flavor combinations, like pumpkin curry. Each truffle is inspired by an experience or person that Jill has encountered. Just as the flavors work together to highlight their best features, Jill and Winston-Salem bring out the best in one another. Jill will offer her perspective on foodie entrepreneurship in part 2 of this interview, but first, she opens up about herself, including her deep dislike of mayonnaise.

Starting with the basics:

Occupation: Chocolatier and Owner of Haute Chocolate in Winston Salem. Where are you from?  Chicago, Illinois. When did you move to North Carolina? September 2006. My parents had moved here because my dad took over a new sales territory. They loved it here, and I was like “Oh, I’ll try it out and see what happens.” I thought I was going to hate it, and I gave myself six months to save up money to go back to Chicago. That never happened… I met my husband a week after moving here. He’s the reason I stayed. 

What do you love best about North Carolina? Probably the weather, and the fact that you  can go to the mountains or the beach within just a few hours, even though I don’t get to enjoy that as much as I used to.

What type of music do you listen to when you’re cooking in the kitchen? It varies. It’s a lot of angry girl music, like Ani DiFranco and Metric. And sometimes I’ll listen to Nicki Minaj or Dead Mouse – it just depends on my mood. But when I’m in the kitchen working, I need music.

Top 5 favorite foods? (anything goes) (1) Number one would be my grandma’s spaghetti sauce. Even though she’s not alive anymore, that would be my number one, hands down, of all time; (2) I love Thai food and Indian Food, like Pad See Ew and Vegetable Korma; (3) Meatloaf. I don’t know why, but there’s something about it; (4) Obviously chocolate; (5) Cupcakes and desserts.

What is your comfort food? Ice cream. I like coffee and chocolate ice cream.

Are there any foods you won’t eat/try? Oh… no insects or brains, for sure. I’m not really into seafood, so probably nothing seafood-related. And I hate mayo, mustard and ketchup. Anything that those three in it, I will throw away.

What is the last memorable meal you’ve eaten recently? I would say it was probably when my sister, my friend, Carla, and I went to Sweet Potatoes for dinner after a cupcake tasting we had here. We just had so much fun. It’s just nice to have good girl friends – and a sister, obviously.

The ingredient you currently can’t stop using is: Probably cinnamon, or pumpkin pie spices. I love cinnamon; I put it in everything.

You have a day with absolutely no obligations. How do you spend it? I would probably waste part of the day sleeping, laying in bed, or watching TV. I recently took up golfing. My husband has been teaching me, so we would probably go out to the driving range. And then we would go out to dinner.

What kind of cooking do you do at home? I don’t do this often, but I’d do a three-course meal. First there would be lettuce wraps, like PF Change’s, for the appetizer. One of my favorite things to cook at home is potatoes des faire (fancy name for scalloped potatoes), and Lemon Chicken Paillard. I’d try to make Crème Brulee for dessert. We used to go to Print Works Bistro a lot, because we got married at Proximity. And they had that [chicken and potatoes], and I was obsessed with it. That dish was actually the inspiration for my Lemon Rosemary Truffle. 

What are some cooking challenges or techniques you would like to tackle? Making Crème Brulee. I’ve never even tried it, and I know it’s not the easiest thing in the world to make. And making croissants – I’ve always wanted to know how to make a croissant. I don’t think it’s necessarily hard, but rather it’s the time that it takes to make them. But man, they’re so good.

Who is one person you’d love to cook with? My husband. And we do cook together. I usually do the side dishes and he does the main course.


Susan leads Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill/ Carrboro tours. She’d be hard pressed to say which she likes the best, but it’s probably Durham. Or Chapel Hill/ Carrboro. No, Raleigh. She has tons of information to share, and she exudes passion for these cities and their restaurants and chefs!

What is your occupation? Creative Project Manager at an ad agency (Capstrat).

Where are you from? Indianapolis, but lived in Boulder, CO for 5 years after college, and Salt Lake City as a kid!

When did you move to North Carolina? April of 2008.

What do you love best about North Carolina? There’s so much! The food, the charming towns, the stunning beauty and the deep, rich history. But most of all the coastline! Sea oats, waves, barrier islands, ponies.

What do you love best about leading food tours? Helping folks discover the amazing food culture here – from hi-end restaurants to mom-n-pop deli’s, and visiting with farmers and chefs. Showing them places and people they might not readily find or meet. It’s an absolute blast getting to show people around, and probably one of my very favorite things to do!

What are your favorite foods? (List three) Vietnamese rice noodle bowl with chicken, fresh veggies, herbs and a pork roll. Low Country Boil with fresh shrimp, corn, red potatoes and sausage — Especially when it’s made by my hubby’s uncle in Charleston, with shrimp he caught himself. Crusty french bread w/ tapenade and smelly cheese (preferably Epoisse). Mmm!!

What is your comfort food? A really great roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and butter beans.

What is your favorite drink? Bulleit bourbon, fresh ginger simple syrup, club soda and fresh lime. Or ginger tea w/soy milk!

What food/s won’t you eat/ try? Liver. Foie Gras.

Who is the one person you would love to cook with? Amy Sedaris.

What are your hobbies? I’m completely obsessed with traveling – near and far, and finding out more about the region by eating where the locals eat. I dig and dig to find great hidden spots and love sharing what I find with others. I can’t sit still! Kayaking, hiking, camping. My hubby and I absolutely love cooking together, and entertaining our friends.

Favorite restaurant? Wow. No way to pick just one. Could be a little pub in tiny Doolin, Ireland called McGann’s Pub, or maybe it’s  Eddy Pub in Saxapahaw. In Raleigh – Centro and Poole’s In Durham – Scratch Bakery. In Carrboro – Neal’s Deli In Chapel Hill – Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe.

Favorite sandwich? That fresh tomato sandwich with homemade mayo and a pinch of salt on super soft bread that Bill Smith brought to a Stir The Pot Southern Foodways Alliance potluck dinner. Each sandwich was wrapped in brown waxed paper and you reached into a crinkled brown paper bag to get them. Absolute perfection. My mouth is still watering…

Favorite cookie? Shortbread with cranberries and pepitas. And I don’t even really like shortbread. But the recipe I have is delicious!


Neesey leads Raleigh tours. As she says, “I need an outlet for this personality!” Neesey is full of information and enthusiasm.

What is your occupation? Bank Branch Manager.

Where are you from? Fort Wayne, Indiana, by way of New Bern, North Carolina.

When did you move to North Carolina? 1993.

What do you love best about North Carolina? Our geographical diversity.

What do you love best about leading food tours? Food, exercise, and company.

What are your favorite foods? (List three) Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.

What is your comfort food? Cupcakes.

What is your favorite drink? Moscato.

What food/s won’t you eat/ try? Tomatoes (although I think they look like they taste so good!)

Who is the one person you would love to cook with? My grandmother.

What are your hobbies? Singing, dancing, and acting.

Favorite restaurant? Side Street Cafe.

Favorite sandwich? Turkey and Swiss croissant.

Favorite cookie? Peanut Butter.


Rebekah leads Raleigh tours. She’s everyone’s best friend by the end of every tour… she’s fantastic at taking care of people and sharing her love of all things Raleigh!

What is your occupation? Youth, Young Adult and Families Program Coordinator at The Jewish Community Center of Raleigh-Cary.

Where are you from? Mill Valley, CA

When did you move to North Carolina? Summer of 2008.

What do you love best about North Carolina? I love the easy living life style North Carolina has to offer. Great food, beautiful warm beaches, majestic mountains, and accessible city entertainment. I recently read: Say what you will about the South, but no one ever moved North to retire.

What do you love best about leading food tours? I love sharing my knowledge of the city and the region. And meeting new people from all over. I always finish a tour having learned something new. Once people have eaten some great food, they are very comfortable sharing about themselves and their own food finds. RebekahPicture2

What are your favorite foods? (List three) I love anything with great quality. Fresh North Carolina shrimp, Coffee and dessert (together), Pesto pasta.

What is your comfort food? Homemade macaroni and cheese.

What is your favorite drink? In the winter, it’s really for children… but I love steamed milk with vanilla. In the summer, a tall Arnold Palmer. Beer: Pale Ale. Cocktail: Dark and Stormy.

What food/s won’t you eat/ try? Raw celery.

Who is the one person you would love to cook with? Martha Stewart at her house.

What are your hobbies? Visual arts, sailing, swimming, and hosting parties.

Favorite restaurant? The Pit in Raleigh when everyone agrees to order “Family Style”.

Favorite sandwich? Roasted turkey on Marble Rye with red onion, lettuce, avocado, mayo and Havarti cheese.

Favorite cookie? Peanut Butter.

Laos Meets Raleigh: Vansana Nolintha

Along Blount Street in Raleigh resides one of the city’s newest and most exciting restaurants: Bida Manda.

While walking through the doors of this Laotian restaurant, you’ll notice distinctive, decorative twigs from Western North Carolina that were hand tied by Vansana Nolintha, the restaurant’s owner, and 55 others. Van seeks to educate people about his first home, Laos, and he also acknowledges his new home, Raleigh, with touches like this. The tables are made from old church walls and barns from Durham.

Van is passionate about bringing people together through food and drink at Bida Manda. Our interview with him demonstrates and describes the beautiful concept of Van’s restaurant, but know that it – the food, the space, the culture – is something you must experience in person.

Starting with the basics:

Occupation: Owner of Bida Manda. Where are you from?  Luang Prabang, Laos. When did you move to North Carolina? I moved with younger sister, Vanvisa, to the United States in 1998.

 What do you love best about North Carolina? It’s interesting because I have lived and traveled in so many places – 30 different countries, actually. Other than Laos, I only consider Raleigh home, and that’s because of my time at NC State. Those five years I spent studying there formed my understanding of the world and the way I see things. So I think the people in Raleigh are what I love about this community, and a lot of those people happen to be from NC State.

I went to Europe after NC State to get my masters at Trinity College in Dublin. After I finished, I was looking for a job all over the world; coming back to Raleigh was a transitional thing. I just wanted to say hi to my mentors, but right when I got back, it felt like a new city – vibrant and engaging – and I knew instantly that I wanted to be a part of this revolution. It’s a different energy around here, and it doesn’t matter what your profession is. People are genuinely optimistic about where the city is going.

What type of music do you listen to when you’re cooking in the kitchen? I love soul music; I love sappy love songs. I listen to Delilah every night, and some Top 40. I wish I liked more alternative stuff, but I just love the sappy love songs. “At Last” by Etta James is one of my favorites. At Bida Manda, I play music that makes people move and slow dance throughout their meal.

Top 5 favorite foods? (anything goes) (1) I love Mediterranean, like Neomonde; (2) Local food; (3) Breakfast – it should be its own type of food, not even based on nationality. Just breakfast; (4) Brunch, especially with friends; (5) I absolutely adore Asian cuisine. I think it really honors a different palate and different ingredients – especially herbs.

What is your comfort food? I love Pho; it takes me right back to being a little kid again. Mom and I always ate Pho for breakfast. We would wake up really early on Saturdays; shops open at 6:30 and only stay open until 8 or 9 am. And now that we are so far from home, from my parents and family, when I get home after a stressful day, I just want a big bowl of Pho. It always brings me back to Laos.

Are there any foods you won’t eat/try? I eat pretty much everything, but I absolutely do not like yogurt. It jiggles a little bit. Same things with mayonnaise. And I’m lactose intolerant. And I think chocolate is gross.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve eaten recently? Recently, I would say brunch at Capital Club 16. It was me and five friends. We got together around noon on a Sunday, and Jake, the owner, made fantastic fish. Normally, it’s brunch so we are pretty tired, but the whole table was just alive. Everyone talked about their week, and we ended up talking about how we’d like to see the city change. We talked about Raleigh’s growth and how we want to be a part of it. I think there’s something meaningful and profound about a group of young kids getting together to talk about their city. It got me really excited about our city, our era, and it got me excited that people really do care about Raleigh.

The ingredient you currently can’t stop using is: Pork Belly. It’s my favorite thing to play around with: the techniques you use when treating the belly. And we are also playing around with sweet potato, pumpkin and apple a lot for the fall menu.

You have a day with absolutely no obligations. How do you spend it? Right now, if I could just have a day, I would drive to the mountains. I would drive to Blue Ridge with my friends and just hike. Fall is my favorite season, so I try to spend as much time outside as possible, especially when the leaves are changing. I haven’t painted in a while either, so I would bring my paint set and canvas.

What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? I ferment a lot of stuff. I love fermented pork. I ferment sausage that I don’t think Bida Manda is ready for yet. Mom has taught me how to ferment food since I was really small. A lot of places in the world, you ferment meat to keep it for a long time. Fermented fish is one of my favorite dishes. It means some sticky rice, raw garlic  salt… put it in a Ziploc bag and leave it for a day.

What are some cooking challenges or techniques you would like to tackle? I’m not a dessert person, so I want to be more intentional and put more of it on the menu. Especially at an Asian restaurant, not many think, “Oh, I want an Asian dessert.” So it would nice to provide them with options.  

Who is one person you’d love to cook with? I would love to cook with Andrea Reusing [from Lantern in Chapel Hill]. My mentor gave me her book, “Cooking in the Moment”, when we started thinking about Bida Manda. I just love her understanding of food in relation to people and this land. I would love to be her novice and follow her around for a day, and see how she sources her food and prepares her dishes for her guests everyday. Her book is awesome, because it doesn’t just talk about food but also cooking in the moment and eating seasonally. As a Buddhist, it’s all about cooking in the moment. We learned a tremendous amount from her about being natural in food selection and about Laotian essence.