Can a dish of mac-and-cheese revitalize a city? If it’s made by Ashley Christensen, chef-owner of Poole’s Diner and six other restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina, it’s possible. Poole’s turns out 15,000 of the gooey 3-cheese macaroni dishes a year (The New York Times says it’ll leave you “speechless”). In fact, there’s a whole station in the kitchen dedicated to making it, and it’s become an attraction in what was once a languishing downtown.

The story of Poole's Diner begins with dessert: it was a pie shop that became a luncheonette in the 1940s, and stands as one of the oldest restaurants in the city. While studying at nearby N.C. State, 18-year-old Christensen got a job as a line cook at Poole’s. After she graduated from school and had several other restaurant jobs under her belt, the proprietor offered to sell the diner to her. Although all the appliances needed replacing, Christensen was still enchanted by the retro, emotional decor: a double-horseshoe counter, formica green top, worn in places where longtime customers put their elbows while drinking coffee.

As you'd expect from any diner serving and mac-and-cheese, Poole’s feels classic and comfortable. But Christensen also wanted to offer something more: a celebration of local ingredients re-imagined with new flavors, like her slow shrimp with tangy marinated peppers— a modern riff on a Southern dish that has stood the test of time.

When Christensen creates her food, she starts with a specific feeling: "The way it felt to eat dinner as a kid with my parents—it was an escape from the day but also a reminder of its blessings.” And when you sit down to a dish of Christensen's macaroni au gratin, cheese bubbling at the edges, or a plate of tender asparagus mingled with savory mushrooms, we think you’ll be transported, too.

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