Why Durham Is North Carolina’s Hippest City
Durham is perhaps known first and foremost as the home to Duke University (and its famed basketball team), but it’s becoming a destination for much more than just Blue Devils games. In recent years, a bustling and creative culinary scene has emerged. The Durham Performing Arts Center, American Tobacco Campus, Brightleaf Square, and Durham Bulls games—where you can watch a home run while noshing on empanadas and peach cobbler with ice cream—are also noteworthy attractions. And calling all children of the ’80s: remember Bull Durham? You can also swing by the Durham Athletic Park, previously El Toro Park, and see where Kevin Costner once stood. Is your interest piqued? Here, a list of the noteworthy places to eat, drink, and sleep on your next visit:
The Durham Hotel, a former 1960s bank turned posh mid-century design hotel, does everything right. A mirrored newsstand stocked with indie magazines and vinyl greets guests. Beds are adorned with custom Raleigh Denim blankets. Red Flower amenities create a spa-like shower experience. A welcome gift of local Burt’s Bees hand salve and lip balm is situated on the nightstand. The minibar features North Carolina–made gourmand snacks, so don’t skimp on a late-night Big Spoon Roasters nosh session.
It’s also home to James Beard Award–winning chef Andrea Reusing’s restaurant. A quick commute from your room, and you’ll find yourself in awe over something as simple as her relish tray of raw, pickled, and preserved veggies and accouterments. The rooftop serves more playful fare like carrot hot dogs, fried chicken, and cocktails that go hand in hand with a panoramic view. Instead of iced coffee, try barista Mark Daumen’s captivating crushed-ice coffee soda crafted with cold-brew syrup, soda water, and a lemon peel for a citrus twist that will instantly perk you up.
Down the street is 21c Museum Hotel, a 17-story “skyscraper” designed in 1937 by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the same architects of the Empire State Building. An art-focused hotel, pink penguins, paintings, and sculptures can be found throughout every nook and cranny, and there are also full-on galleries. Counting House, paying homage to the banking industry, serves some of the strongest cocktails in town.
The Unscripted Hotel—a former motor lodge downtown—will join the savvy list of boutique hotel options come June 2017. The mod, 75-room hotel boasts a gourmand diner led by team chef Gray Brooks of Littler and Pizzeria Toro (the best pizza in the Triangle by a long shot) and chef Dave Alworth.
The hardest decision will be narrowing down your eating priorities. Fuel up at Cocoa Cinnamon, where unusual coffee and cacao drinks grace the menu. The Al-Andalus—with raw cacao, vanilla, star anise, black pepper, crushed rose, and raw sugar—is so unique and delicious, it’s hard to describe. Try it iced in summer. Durm (slang for “Durham”) Fog, a black tea latte with vanilla syrup and orange blossom, is equally as beautiful. Down the street, a fried chicken biscuit smeared with pimento cheese from Rise is ideal. Or a Cheerwine donut, because you’re in the South.
A night at Alley Twenty Six is guaranteed fun. A gin and tonic with owner Shannon Healy’s cult-favorite, house made tonic syrup and Durham Distillery’s navy-strength gin is undoubtedly the most refreshing G&T you’ll ever imbibe. In case you’re incapable of making decisions, don’t fret. Write down any three descriptive words on a napkin or disclose your likes and dislikes, and you’ll be in good spirits all night long. (For the record, writing down the words meat sweats, bourbon, and tobacco will score you a fabulous cocktail). The bar’s new food menu—it’s one of the only late-night spots for grub—is just as tempting as the cocktails. Try the cornmeal-crusted oysters and the Alley Burger with bacon jam, which can also be stuffed with foie gras if you feel like being fancy. Healy will also give you a list of his favorite watering holes in the area if you ask.
Despite the overuse of the phrase, Piedmont is the epitome of hyperlocal farm to table. Ingredients come from the restaurant’s sister farm, Coon Rock Farm, as well as Durham Farmers Market and local purveyors and farms around the state. Darling chef John May will make you fall in love with veggies all over again. “We treat vegetables in a manner that is similar to meat,” he notes. In fact, meat is often secondary here, unless you're sinking your teeth into his perfectly cooked, 38-ounce bone-in pork chop. Try the melt-in-your-mouth spoonbread with a side of Southern history; swordfish that’s “cured like ham;” shad roe, a seasonal delicacy best described as “Carolina caviar;” fluke crudo in an almost-too-pretty-to-eat (you’ll manage) bath of goat milk with radishes, strawberries, and peanuts; and even a carrot mousse dessert that’s a perfect marriage of sweet and salty.
Satisfy your carb fix at Matt Kelly’s new Mothers & Sons. While choosing a pasta dish is a daunting task, it’s best to start by crushing a couple of their epic bruschetta options with a glass of Lambrusco. After hearing the long list of daily pasta specials (made in-house), you’ll be back at square one. You can’t go wrong with tagliatelle al ragu and squid ink tonnarelli. Kelly basically runs this block, so it’s wise to add Lucky’s Delicatessen for lunch to your itinerary. Because the house-made peanut butter with seasonal jam sandwich is so nostalgic, in a gourmet kind of way. Mateo Bar de Tapas is a happening place for lunch and dinner with its Spanish deviled eggs, chicharrones, and pan con tomate with manchego.
Chef Michael Lee is dominating the scene with M Kokko and M Sushi. Reservations are a must for his sushi spot and a bar seat is prime real estate. Start with sake and Japanese sea bream and golden eye snapper sashimi, and make your way to the Grand Omakase tasting menu. Should you still leave hungry (you won’t!), M Kokko serves a mean bowl of ramen and “KFC” (Korean fried chicken) wings.
There is also a bevy of no-frills, no-fuss eateries around Durham. Take-out only seafood joint Saltbox is a local favorite. Chef Ricky Moore’s Hookup Roll changes daily based on what fisherman catch. Try the magically battered shrimp, oysters, red snapper, and dogfish on a roll with a dab of smoky house-made cocktail sauce. The joint is so popular, he’s set to open a second location with indoor and outdoor seating, plus an expanded menu, by spring’s end. Old Havana Sandwich Shop is also a staple for an authentic Havana or El Caney sandwich with slow roasted pork.
It wouldn’t be a proper trip down South without barbecue. Off the beaten, path you’ll find pit master Wyatt Dickson’s whole-hog approach barbecue method at Picnic. “Not too fancy” pimento cheese with Captain’s Wafers and a pulled pork plate with fried okra will suffice.
You’d be foolish not to pencil in Rose’s Meat Market & Sweet Shop for Katie Meddis’s white miso gingersnap ice cream sandwich. Simultaneously sweet and salty, it’s a perfect afternoon pick-me-up treat. If pie’s your thing, Scratch is your jam. Baker Phoebe Lawless has been killing it since day one with tempting pies that rotate each month, and savory tartines. The Parlour is known for drawing in crowds with alluring, house-made ice cream flavors like Vietnamese coffee. And for the donut fanatic, Monuts has you covered with the most inventive donuts that rotate daily.
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Photos courtesy of Durham Convention & Visitor's Bureau: durham-nc.com