A short drive north of Charlotte, Winston-Salem is rich with history, art and an emerging culinary scene.
by Cathy Martin | photographs courtesy visit Winston-Salem
On a Saturday night at Bailey Power Plant in downtown Winston-Salem, wide-eyed children watch as pizza chefs at Cugino Forno toss dough high in the air before turning their attention to the spinning rainbow of Italian gelato in the rotating freezer by the register. The line to order stretches about 20-deep, with customers scanning the busy warehouse-like space for an open table.
Next door at Incendiary Brewing, started by two locals in 2018, the crowd sways and sings along with the band playing in the corner — it’s standing room only at the bar, where patrons line up to order porters, pilsners and American IPAs. A light rain is falling, but that doesn’t stop the crowd from the restaurant and the brewery from spilling out onto the patio outside. It’s dubbed the Coal Pit, a reference to the space’s former life as a coal-fired plant powering downtown factories.
For nearly a century, tobacco, textiles and banking were the lifeblood of Winston-Salem — which, it’s worth noting, is also the birthplace of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. Today, former downtown factories and warehouses have been transformed into offices, research labs, apartments, shops and restaurants. And the vibe is electric.
While tobacco is no longer the celebrated industry it was a century ago, the same families that benefited from it — the Reynolds, Grays and Hanes, to name a few — also invested deeply in their community, with a lasting impact. Home to a half-dozen colleges and universities, including Wake Forest University and UNC School of the Arts, there’s a real sense of place here. Whether strolling through Reynolda Gardens or sipping cocktails at The Katharine in the iconic R.J. Reynolds Building, there are reminders of the city’s illustrious history everywhere you turn.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an affinity for this Triad city with a deep appreciation for the arts and historic preservation. On a recent weekend in the Twin City (Winston and Salem were, until 1913, two separate towns), I revisited a few old favorites and made some surprising new discoveries.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Whether you’re in town for the day — Winston-Salem is an easy 1.5-hour drive up Interstate 77 from Charlotte — or plan to make a weekend of it, here are a few ideas for your visit.
The Graylyn Estate
This country estate-turned-hotel offers an authentic Winston-Salem experience. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco executive Bowman Gray and his wife, Nathalie, built the Norman Revival property in the late 1920s, one of the last of the great American country homes. Now an 85-room hotel owned by Wake Forest University, Graylyn is filled with architectural elements inspired by the couple’s travels, from the carved stone doorway and antique mantel from France in the front hall to hand-painted, carved wood panels from Istanbul in the Persian card room. Outside, you’ll find plenty of locals and college students walking, jogging and cycling around the meticulously landscaped 54-acre property. The on-site butler staff is eager to share details about the home, from the origins of the handcrafted ironwork and hand-painted tiles throughout the property to fascinating facts about the Gray family history.
Kimpton Cardinal Hotel
If the 22-story Art Deco-style downtown building — the tallest skyscraper in the South when it opened in 1929 — is reminiscent of New York’s iconic Empire State Building, it’s because the two structures were designed by the same architects. Even if you’re not staying overnight at the 174-room hotel, it’s worth a visit to the Cardinal’s lively cocktail bar and restaurant, The Katharine, named for the one of the city’s grande dames, tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds’ wife, Katharine Reynolds.
The 75-room Hotel Indigo opened in 2019 in downtown’s historic Pepper Building. The six-story building, previously home to a department store, a furniture store and offices, combines Art Deco elements with midcentury design. Original pendant lights and wood floors were preserved in the renovation, and art from UNC School of the Arts and Sawtooth School for Visual Art are displayed throughout the property. In the lobby, the Sir Winston Wine Loft & Restaurant is an ideal spot for a pre- or post-dinner cocktail or bite to eat.
Reynolda House, Gardens and Village
Across the street from Graylyn, Reynolda House is a country estate-turned museum where you can fill an entire afternoon. The house boasts an impressive collection of more than 200 works of American art — Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Cole, Mary Cassatt and Jasper Johns are all represented — along with rotating exhibitions. Katharine Reynolds envisioned a self-sufficient village to support the couple’s 34,000-square-foot home, completed in 1917. Today, Reynolda Village, once home to a dairy barn, school, smokehouse and more, is a walkable collection of boutique shops and restaurants. Dough-Joe’s, opened in 2019 by two Wake Forest alumni, is a must-visit: Doughnuts in classic and a few unexpected flavors — the Earl Grey glaze was a pleasant surprise — are made-to-order and served warm. (If you like Duck Donuts, you’ll love Dough-Joe’s.) Pair with a lavender or caramel latte for a midday treat. If you’re hungry for something more substantial, other village picks include May Way Dumplings and Penny Path Cafe & Crepe Shop. The adjacent 134-acre garden makes for a peaceful detour — take a leisurely stroll through the formal gardens or stretch your legs on the 1.7-mile loop through a woodland forest and a large meadow filled with native grasses and wildflowers.
Bailey Power Plant
After a $40 million renovation, this former coal-fired power plant in downtown’s Innovation Quarter is now home to a growing number of offices, shops and restaurants. Start with beers at Incendiary Brewing, one of 10 craft breweries downtown, and nosh on Neapolitan-style pizza cooked in ovens imported from Naples at Cugino Forno, an offshoot of the original Greensboro spot that opened Revolution Mill in 2017. Expect a crowd on weekends, from groups of students to families and friends meeting up for a casual meal. Finish the evening with espresso martinis at Black Mountain Chocolate Bar. Wood-fired restaurant Six Hundred Degrees is the newest restaurant to open here, with small plates, shareables, steaks, seafood and more cooked over oak and hickory coals. Nearby, Krankie’s Coffee is a local favorite for breakfast and brunch.
Old Salem Museum & Gardens
Did you even go to Winston-Salem if you didn’t snap a photo at Old Salem’s covered pedestrian bridge or stop by the Winkler Bakery for homemade Moravian cookies or cake? The shop sells an array of fresh-baked goods — the spicy cheese stars are a delightful savory snack — along with assorted jams, honey and other items. Fuel up with coffee at the Muddy Creek Cafe and imagine life in the 1700s, when Moravians settled here, as you stroll through this living museum and historic neighborhood. Other stops worth checking out include the Miksch House — Salem’s first single-family home built in 1771 — and the potter’s studio, where craftsmen throw pots in the Moravian ceramics tradition. Salem Pathways is a new way to explore the district: Choose a fictional character based on real-life individuals who lived in or visited Salem, and with the help of your smartphone, tour the area through their eyes.
Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro is a cozy corner spot near downtown serving lunch, brunch and dinner. Here you’ll find fresh salads and sandwiches along with gourmet takes on Southern classics like tomato pie, fried chicken, and shrimp and grits.
At Spring House Restaurant Kitchen & Bar, come for dinner or cocktails in the library bar, a lively gathering spot that’s a nod to the 100-year-old building’s history as offices for the local public library. The former family home was restored and converted to a restaurant in 2012. Blow your diet and start with the bread service — choose from sundried tomato tapenade, whipped goat cheese, honey bacon jam or pimento cheese (or all four) served alongside assorted fresh-baked breads from Camino Bakery (another local spot worth a visit, with several locations around town). The menu is updated seasonally, with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. No dainty portions here — expect a hearty meal. The fried cauliflower with kimchi mayo is a must-order.
Young Cardinal Café & Co. is a busy downtown spot for breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch, with Benedicts, sandwiches, pancakes and waffles and a stellar huevos rancheros. Other local hot spots include Sweet Potatoes, which serves Southern-inspired dishes in downtown’s eclectic Arts District. Chef Stephanie Tyson was a 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast, as was Peyton Smith, founder of Mission Pizza Napoletana. Downtown, ROAR is a new four-story dining and entertainment venue with a rooftop bar, bowling, golf simulators, live music and more.
Triad Eco Adventures offers guided Segway tours of downtown, Old Salem and Salem Creek Greenway to the Quarry at Grant Park, a unique public green space where you can take in skyline views of the city. If you’re a first-timer, not to worry — TEA’s guides will get you oriented to your Segway before heading out on the town. Trolley and e-bike tours and rentals are also available. SP