Durham, North Carolina, has one of the most exciting and varied dining scenes of any Southern town, with everything from regional favorites like biscuits and barbecue to tastebud challengers such as beef tendon crackers and black garlic ice cream. Here’s how to keep your belly happy all day — and night — in Bull City.
Start your day at Scratch, which — as the name implies — makes all its baked goods in-house. Bypass those tempting pies and fuel up with a real breakfast, like shirred eggs with a wedge of thick buttery toast ($5), or, the antidote for any hangover: a fried duck egg sandwich with cheddar cheese, pickled onions, bacon jam and roasted garlic mayo tucked inside a soft bun ($9).
–– ADVERTISEMENT ––
Hanging out on the back patio of Parker & Otis is a Durham ritual — and one of the most peaceful times to visit this gourmet eatery/gift shop is on a weekday morning. Breakfast is basic but tasty — two eggs with bacon and a house-made cheddar cheese biscuit will run you $6.99. The java is freshly brewed from noted local roaster Counter Culture Coffee.
You don’t want to miss the perfectly charred wood-fired pie at Pizzeria Toro, but the evening wait can be a long one. Drop by for lunch instead, when you can easily secure a spot at one of the blond wood tables. Go old-school — red sauce, anchovies, garlic and basil ($14) — or try a seasonal specialty, like white pizza with fiddlehead ferns, nettles and grated artisan grana ($17). Even tired kale salad gets a kick here with a dash of spicy chilies, tossed with toasted pine nuts and shaved parm ($10).
The grill masters at 250-seat barbecue shrine The Pit don’t mess around — smoking whole hogs on a hot summer day isn’t for the faint of heart. Slathered in East Carolina-style hot sauce and vinegar, the pork is served chopped, pulled or sliced; complementing your meat-fest are staple Southern sides like collard greens, fried okra and black-eyed peas. The Pit also offers a massive selection of bourbons, with many hard-to-find local ones like Slow & Low, crafted from rock candy.
You don’t have to buy a ticket to the Rafael Viñoly-designed Nasher Museum of Art to enjoy the organic fare at the Nasher Cafe — and contemporary art lovers should peruse its outstanding collection. The cafe (which also does a weekend brunch) has gorgeous salads with produce and meats sourced from local farms; if it’s a nice day, the patio, with its bucolic wooded setting, is the perfect place to enjoy your meal.
Chef Matt Kelly is busy building an empire in Durham. He started his career at the French-inspired spot Vin Rouge, opened the Spanish-themed Mateo Bar de Tapas in 2012 and will reveal two more downtown spots this summer (Lucky’s Deli and Mother & Sons). Mateo, which earned Kelly a James Beard nomination, is Spanish but with Southern influences, too — like North Carolina-sourced hams and cheeses among the traditional jambon and queso offerings. It also boasts one of the largest sherry selections in the country.
Set on the ground floor of the year-old 21c Museum Hotel, Counting House has one of the city’s most dramatic interiors — a towering 23-foot ceiling, double-height windows and sleek white walls dotted with artful animal sculptures. But the menu soars, too, with local seafood and regional specialties — Carolina rice salad, shrimp and grits — expertly prepared in the open kitchen. Cap it off with an after-dinner cocktail inside the historic downstairs bank vault.
Two stories of Asian bliss, Dashi offers hearty bowls of ramen noodles on the first level, while upstairs — look for the patterned manga wallpaper — is the izakaya, where you’ll find some of the most interesting cooking going on in Durham. From the grill is a smorgasbord of meaty goodies, from spicy miso chicken to wasabi beef tongue to yuzu kosho (spicy chili) marinated pork heart ($4-$7). The takoyaki hushpuppies ($8), based on the ball-shaped Japanese snack, is made with octopus and served with a citrusy yuzu mayo. Careful: the black sesame nori popcorn ($4) is quite addictive.
Set a 1937 former bank in downtown Durham, the 125-room 21c Museum Hotel (from $200) — the fourth in the 21c chain — features Deborah Berke-designed interiors that pay homage to the building’s Art Deco past while incorporating modern furnishings and amenities. The rotating collection in the multi-level galleries — which are free and open to the public 24/7 — feature new and notable contemporary artists; many works are chosen to engage with the local community. To that end, restroom signage, designed by artist Peregrine Honig and titled “We Don’t Care,” was recently installed — in response to North Carolina’s controversial transgender Bathroom Law.
Across the street is the new 53-room mid-century modern Durham Hotel (from $279) which features an indoor/outdoor rooftop lounge and a restaurant from James Beard Award-winner Andrea Reusing.