Fayetteville has made great strides in recent years to shake its meat-and-potatoes reputation fueled by fast-food chains and a self-fulfilling prophecy that the city would perpetually be stuck in its old ways and never evolve to embrace more diverse cuisines.

The flavors of East and Southeast Asia, Central America, West Africa, the Middle East and many other regions of the world, once considered novelties or grouped together and diminished under some kind of racist “ethnic food” trope, now thrive.

While great work continues to be done, there’s even more that can be done that would take our city’s dining scene to the next level. Here are seven suggestions.

More vegan offerings

Mixed veggie wrap from Prima Elements Wellness Center at 124 Anderson Street in downtown Fayetteville.

Mixed veggie wrap from Prima Elements Wellness Center at 124 Anderson Street in downtown Fayetteville.

While vegan/plant-based menu options are far more prevalent at restaurants now than before, Fayetteville still lacks a dedicated vegan restaurant. Those who wish to dismiss plant-based food as a trend need only look at the menus of the largest fast-food chains to see that such items are here to stay.

Gone are the days where a grilled portobello mushroom “burger” or pasta primavera made with the same out-of-season vegetables counted as a legitimate meat-free option. Vegan food has long been synonymous with “healthy,” and while there are certainly health benefits from consuming more vegetables and less meat, there has also been an unfair assumption that vegan food must also be dull and eaten only for health, not for enjoyment.

A restaurant in the mold of Raleigh’s Fiction Kitchen or Durham’s Earth to Us would be an about-time addition that should appeal to all eaters and could help open the city’s eyes to what vegan food can be.

Better breakfast pastries

Namely, bagels and croissants. Yes, you can make bagels outside of New York. No, you do not need New York City tap water to make good bagels (or pizza for that matter). North Carolina is undoubtedly biscuit country, but a properly chewy bagel with a schmear — maybe some lox if you’re feeling luxurious — hits a totally different spot.

A variety of freshly made croissants at Amar Bakery and Market in Boynton Beach, Florida.

A variety of freshly made croissants at Amar Bakery and Market in Boynton Beach, Florida.

The fried, glazed croissants available at the likes of Superior Bakery and Burney’s Sweets & More are downright delicious, but they’re closer to a doughnut than something you’d find at a French pâtisserie. Could Benchwarmers Bagels or Layered Croissanterie do us a favor and venture just a little bit south? We’d be very thankful.

More food trucks

Thankfully, the days of thinking food trucks are a passing gimmick are in the rearview mirror. Dozens of trucks now patrol the greater Triangle/Fayetteville area, serving barbecue, Mexican, Caribbean, Thai, African and countless other cuisine from around the world.

Fayetteville’s first permanent food truck court, Haymount Truck Stop, is scheduled to open in the spring, and it should provide not only a dependable location for trucks to hold set operating hours, but amenities like a bar and arcade that will draw crowds.

Robert Montoya hands out an order to a customer at The Vegan Spot food truck along Skibo Road on Tuesday, April 20, 2021.

Robert Montoya hands out an order to a customer at The Vegan Spot food truck along Skibo Road on Tuesday, April 20, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic proved that the mobility of food trucks to bring meals right to individual neighborhoods is a benefit that permanent brick-and-mortar restaurants can’t often match. Mary Russell, the co-owner of R Burger, said in April business was so good that she hired an additional person during the 2020 season, a time when so many restaurants across the country slashed staffing down to bare-bones numbers.

More food trucks is always merrier, but the biggest improvement that could be made is the formation of an active food truck association for Fayetteville that would organize events, encourage collaboration among members and promote the individual trucks’ schedules on social media and sites like streetfoodfinder.com, a powerful tool for the public to track the location of their favorite food trucks that only a handful of trucks in our area regularly use.

We want to eat at your trucks. Make it easier for us to do that.

A Wegmans and Trader Joe’s

Wegman's at Northborough Crossing

Wegman’s at Northborough Crossing

A Wegmans opening in Fayetteville would not only propel its made-to-order sub counter to the top tier of the city’s sub sandwich rankings (the Danny’s Favorite is the best sub, by the way) and provide for newcomers an increasingly familiar face as the Rochester, New York-based supermarket chain makes its way south along the Eastern Seaboard, but both Wegman’s and Trader Joe’s would generate excitement and positive reinforcement of the area’s growth.

Anytime the word “cult” gets associated with a grocery store chain, it’s probably at least worth checking out. The Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups are superior to Reese’s, the frozen Mandarin orange chicken scratches the Americanized takeout Chinese food itch better than any other supermarket offering out there, and the Speculoos Cookie Butter is truly exceptional.

While I would not consider myself a “Wegmaniac,” I am an Upstate New York native with an innate proclivity toward Wegmans who has experienced the store’s greatness many times.

Reimagined fine dining

As restaurant owners across the world look in the mirror and reassess the future of their businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also a good time for us as diners to reassess what fine dining looks like.

For the longest time, fine dining has meant expansive dining rooms, white table cloths and likely either steak, seafood or Italian. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, thinking that’s the end-all-be-all of fine dining stymies innovation. Circa 1800 and the soon-to-open Friend’s Table, with their menus of Southern-inspired fare with an upscale edge, are among the restaurants in Fayetteville making strides in this regard, but there is still plenty of room for more.

Could a restaurant like Asheville’s Rhubarb, where seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, presented in innovative ways, are allowed to speak for themselves, thrive in downtown Fayetteville? It’s easy to say we’re a few years away, but that’ll be said again in another few years and we’ll be right back where we started.

The Bay Doe, with its open wood-fired grill and commitment to locally sourced ingredients, is slated to open in downtown Fayetteville next year and could provide that pivotal step to bolster the connections between local growers and restaurants showing the world that Fayetteville has a shot to compete with the already-established players.

More growth downtown

If there’s going to be new growth in the city’s dining scene, it’s likely to be downtown, an area that’s worked to shed its once seedy, crime-ridden reputation to become the hot spot it was back in the ’50s and ’60s before the sprawl west left downtown for dead. But as people began living downtown again at places like the Residences at Prince Charles, going to a Woodpeckers game at Segra Stadium and dining at new arrivals like The Bourbon Orleans or The Friend’s Table, the energy and sense of community have returned.

Hay Street in downtown Fayetteville on Saturday.

Hay Street in downtown Fayetteville on Saturday.

Lastly, people need to be willing to patronize the places taking risks to bring Fayetteville something it’s never seen before. People have been repeatedly asking for years when a Cheesecake Factory would open at Cross Creek Mall. Hopefully, it comes soon, if only to let people move on and focus on something truly novel and innovative.

If the more than 18,000 people in our Fayetteville Foodies Facebook group is any indication, this is a food-loving town. Let’s use that passion to discover new foods, learn about new cuisines and the stories of the people who call this city home.

Increased accessibility

Great food is meaningless for people who cannot access it. USDA data shows that in 2015, more than 96,000 residents in Cumberland County — about 30% of the county — had low access to the grocery store, one of the highest rates in the state. The same data shows that Cumberland County also has the fourth-highest rate of Black residents with low access to a grocery store of any county in North Carolina.

The Neighborhood Walmart Market on Murchison Road the month before it closed in 2018.

The Neighborhood Walmart Market on Murchison Road the month before it closed in 2018.

The 2018 closure of the Walmart Neighborhood Market on Murchison Road, one of the city’s historically Black neighborhoods, further exacerbated the problem, creating a food desert, void of accessible fresh produce, meats and other foods. To this day, the shell of the former supermarket remains empty. In its stead, convenience stores have opened, serving food that’s accessible, but often less healthy.

Some of those accessibility concerns could be alleviated if the city were accessible for pedestrians. However, in 2017, Fayetteville was named the least walkable large city in America. Turning this sprawling city into a place pedestrians can reasonably navigate would tremendously benefit its residents. A proposed $33 million project to upgrade the Murchison Road corridor includes plans to build new, wider sidewalks, so something is being done to help this problem.

Accessibility is not only physical, but financial. Plans to open a downtown commissary kitchen and food business incubator have stalled due to financial constraints, putting on hold what could amount to a low-cost way for would-be restaurant owners and other food entrepreneurs to get their starts.

Neighborhood guide: Where to eat on Murchison Road, from bratwursts to fried gizzards

Completing and opening a project like a kitchen incubator would give opportunity to those with ideas that could not only expand the variety of food available, but breed innovation for future food business owners. Fayetteville’s dining scene has long relied on outside, corporate money, but an investment like this would give power back to local residents to build something uniquely Fayetteville.

Jacob Pucci writes on food, restaurants and business. Contact him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @jacobpucci or on Facebook. Like talking food? Join our Fayetteville Foodies Facebook group.

This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: The future of Fayetteville’s dining scene: How to improve the city