Throwing dinner parties while a student at North Carolina State University sparked Ashley Christensen’s passion for cooking—a passion that she turned into a catering business and landed her a position at a prominent Raleigh restaurant. When she decided to launch her own eatery in 2007, Raleigh’s potential was a draw.

As one of three cities in North Carolina’s burgeoning Research Triangle Park, Raleigh had swelled in population, but the restaurant scene hadn’t kept pace. Christensen’s first concept, Poole’s Downtown Diner, opened in a building formerly occupied by a well-known fine-dining establishment. She renovated the space and launched a comfort-food menu with a contemporary, locally sourced spin.

Since then, Christensen has been on a mission to create casual, upbeat restaurants, some in marginal areas and housed in old buildings, to diversify customers’ choices and revitalize downtown Raleigh. And diners have responded; locals and visitors alike vie for  reservations. In her newest spot, Death & Taxes, she added a commissary, classroom and event space for new engagement opportunities. Next up: filling a missing pizza niche with the Neapolitan-style  PooleSide Pie.