Durham—there’s more to this southern city than Tobacco Road and the fiercest rivalry in the Athletic Coast Conference. While Duke University and the neighboring University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are probably at the forefront of people’s minds when they think of Durham at this time of the year (although neither team stood out in the NCAA Basketball Tournament), there’s much more than basketball to do, see and eat—and eat and eat—in the Bull City, as it’s often called.
I’d been told that Durham is a popular foodie city, and while visiting my son at school here over the past few years, I’ve been pleasantly pleased by the dining options—especially since I’m a vegetarian and much of this region is known for its barbecue offerings. Visiting Durham a few weeks ago, I decided to pay closer attention to the food, attractions and overall vibe of Durham. And I must say, I liked what I saw, what I experienced and, yes, what I ate.
First course: A basketball classic
Before delving into my mission, I kicked off my six-day southern sojourn by attending a Duke vs. UNC basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, on the campus of Duke University. To say the atmosphere was intense would be an understatement. Blue Devils fans, many of whom painted their faces blue and took college spirit to a whole new level, unleashed their pent-up excitement after what for some was weeks of camping out in tents in “Krzyzewskiville” outside the 9,000-plus-seat venue to secure highly coveted tickets to the annual home game against the Tar Heels. The sheer decibel level produced by the enthusiastic fans reminded me of being at a Hanson concert with my pre-teen daughters and made for an experience I won’t soon forget.
Second course: What to do
With so much to see and do in Durham, I had to narrow my choices. I decided to focus on things I hadn’t seen before, although one spot I could not resist revisiting, even though I’ve been there many times, was the Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University. Despite the unseasonably cold weather the area had been having, the public botanic gardens—spread over 55 acres—were still picturesque (although there wasn’t much in bloom), and the atmosphere serene.
Young children delighted in looking at the enormous fish in the Koi pond and feeding the ducks in another, larger pond nearby, while couples sat on blankets on grassy rolling hills and enjoyed the sunshine. While I walked along the paved pathways, there were stretches where the only sounds I heard were birds chirping and assorted critters scurrying through the shrubs and flower beds. My only wish was that I had more than a couple of hours to enjoy the peace and tranquillity.
Other sites at Duke that shouldn’t be missed include:
- The Gothic Revival-style towering Duke Chapel
- The Nasher Museum of Art
- The Duke Lemur Center, where more than 200 lemurs representing 17 different species live on more than 80 acres of preserved forest. There are a variety of tour packages, including some that let you get up close to these adorable little creatures. And if you want to get some exercise, there are trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding on the 7,060-acre forest owned by the university.
For history buffs, there’s:
- The Bennett Place State Historic Site, a reconstructed farmhouse of the Bennett Family where the largest troop surrender of the Civil War took place
- The Duke Homestead State Historic Site and Tobacco Museum
- An area of the city known as “Black Wall Street,” a thriving epicenter of African-American business that included banking and insurance
Durham is also home to Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home to the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, and nearly 50 annual festivals, including the American Dance Festival, the Bull Durham Blues Festival, the World Beer Festival, and the North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Visit the city tourism board’s website—durham-nc.com—to get locations and dates.
I was lucky enough to be in town for the Saturday morning Durham Farmers’ Market, at the Pavillion at Durham Central Park, where locals sell everything from organic produce to artisanal cheeses and bread, as well as soaps, pottery, jewelry and artwork. The following day, the park hosted a Food Truck Rodeo, where more than 50 food trucks representing local and area restaurants, and some stand-alones, lined the streets and created a festival-like atmosphere that included a live indie band on a large, elevated stage and random street performers, balloon artists, face painters, etc. The smells were so tantalizing that I had a difficult time deciding what to eat, so all in the name of work, I sampled multiple offerings—including freshly made, still warm donuts dipped in cinnamon sugar.
For those who, like me, can’t get enough of shopping, there are more than a few areas to visit, including:
- The Streets at Southpoint, an outdoor mall that boasts more than 170 shops and restaurants, is a great place to wile away the afternoon
- Brightleaf Square has funky shops and restaurants in a couple of turn-of-the-century converted tobacco warehouses
- Morgan Imports, a huge store that offers an eclectic mix of unique home furnishings, clothing, jewelry, gifts and more, is a must-see.
- The Ninth Street District is a popular hangout for both locals and college students, with shops, cafes, restaurants and bars for a hopping nightlife scene.
There are many clubs and bars in Durham that host theme nights, like open mic, trivia, comedy, and poetry. The music scene is active and one of the newer venues is the Durham Performing Arts Center, also known as “DPAC,” which was built in 2008 and seats more than 2,700 people. My son and I saw the musical “Evita” in the sleek, modern building with amazing acoustics. Neither of us were big fans of the show itself, but we both agreed that it was a wonderful place to take in a performance.
Main course: How and where to eat
As a way to get the lay of the land on dining—since I knew I couldn’t get to every restaurant that received a good review or was featured in Durham guidebooks and magazines—I took a walking food tour of downtown Durham. The best part—besides all the great food I ate and the nice people I met—was that we walked for several miles, which helped balance off the caloric intake. The “Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tour” stopped at half-a-dozen hot spots, where the eight or so other out-of-towners and I were offered samples from the restaurants’ menus. Some were so good that I made a point of going back another day for a full meal. Our guide was knowledgeable and entertaining; he talked not only about Durham’s food scene, but about the city’s history, too. It turns out he is a lawyer by day and moonlights as a tour guide on weekends to share his passion for Bull City with visitors.
I’ve compiled a list of several of my favorite restaurants—some of which were on the tour. I can honestly say that I didn’t have one bad meal while I was in Durham—and actually had the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. That was at Toast, where I’ll begin:
- Toast, 345 W Main St, Durham, NC 27701; Tel: 919-683-2183 — This small eatery with soups, salads and sandwiches is modeled after a paninoteca, or authentic Italian sandwich shop. Located on West Main Street in downtown Durham, it’s nearly always packed. I discovered why after ordering a panini made with fresh, rustic Italian bread and Tuscan kale, ricotta salata, sweet and hot pickled peppers. If I didn’t have to try out other restaurants for this story, I would have eaten there—and ordered that very sandwich—every day that I was in Durham. I’m serious. I also had the homemade onion soup—made with a tomato broth—that was rich and flavorful.
- Elmo’s Diner, 776 Ninth St, Durham, NC 27705; Tel: 919-416-3823 — Serving comfort foods made from scratch, this diner in the Ninth Street District is popular with students and locals. I had a tasty—and huge—portion of cranberry, apple and granola pancakes, one of the owner’s secret recipes. Next time I’m in town, I plan to go back for lunch or dinner because I was told by more than one diner that I had to try the vegetarian chili—without knowing that I’m vegetarian.
- Foster’s Market, 2694 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd, Durham, NC 27707; Tel: 919-489-3944 — Mismatched chairs and tables, some wooden, some with Formica surfaces, give this casual gourmet food market and cafe a country, homey feel. Don’t let the lack of formality fool you, though. The food is delicious (check out some of the recipes in owner Sara Foster’s several cookbooks, on sale along with a variety of condiments and specialty foods) and the service friendly. I had a Greek grilled cheese sandwich, which contained spinach, tomato, grilled onions, artichoke hearts, cucumbers, pepperocini peppers, provolone cheese and feta spread in a Syrian bread pocket. It looked and tasted good, but I couldn’t finish it because I sampled too many of the homemade side dishes, like pickled okra, honey-soy green beans, and potato salad with just the right amount of dill. It’s easy to see why this eatery has been a community gathering place for more than 20 years.
- Parker and Otis, 112 S Duke St, Durham, NC 27701; Tel: 919-683-3200 — My son and I have spent many a Sunday morning eating brunch and playing backgammon at this very cool restaurant and novelty store that sells just about anything—including seasonal gifts, books and a wide variety of candies by the pound. Yum. Even though there’s a fair amount of indoor and outdoor seating, finding a table on a weekend morning can be tough. It’s worth the wait, though, as the food and atmosphere are excellent. I met the daughter (the lovely Malia Melvin) of one of my dear friends there for lunch on this visit, since she goes to school at nearby UNC-Chapel Hill (boo Tar Heels, yeah Blue Devils!) (Editor’s note: No, go Tar Heels). We both enjoyed our tasty grilled pimento cheese sandwiches on sourdough bread with pesto pasta and coleslaw on the side. I also picked up some goodies for the kids’ Easter baskets.
- Guglhupf, 2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd Suite #1, Durham, NC 27707; Tel: 919-401-2600 — In Germany, guglhupf is a type of Bundt cake. In Durham, it’s a fabulous bakery and café that offers ethnically inspired food made with local and seasonal ingredients. A local favorite for more than 10 years, Guglhupf has master bakers who prepare freshly made German and French artisan breads, cakes, pastries, and other delightful treats. On a Sunday morning, taking in the aromas wafting through the air is an experience in and of itself that should not be missed. The adjacent café has great indoor and outdoor spaces, and while I’ve heard that brunch is amazing—especially the grilled Nutella sandwiches and the bircher muesli—my son and I had a delicious dinner in the upstairs portion of the restaurant. By the time we had finished a sampling of breads and the smooth, rich Alsatian potato leek tart, there wasn’t much room for the main course. However…once I took a bite of the house-made noodles tossed with balsamic roasted red onion, shiitakes, bok choy, and arugula in a wine herb cream sauce, I made room. A trio of desserts—a chocolate and apricot tart, a cherry tart and a milk chocolate and caramelized banana sundae the gracious and interesting founder and owner, Claudia Kemmet-Cooper, insisted we try—made walking down the stairs and out to the parking lot a daunting task, but well worth it.
- Parizade, 2200 West Main Street Durham, NC 27705; Tel: 919-286-9712 — Some places are about ambience, others about food. This elegant Mediterranean-style restaurant combines both with impeccable service to boot. Even though I knew she had other tables, it seemed as though my server, Celeste, was waiting on me alone. Maybe it was because I was by myself and she was making an extra effort to keep me company? Whatever the reason, she was awesome. And the general manager, Igor Gacina, not only visited my table to check on things, but many others, too, where he chatted with diners. It was a nice touch. I started off with a delicious salad of mixed greens, strawberries, blue cheese, almonds, and a savory raspberry vinaigrette, followed by the signature lemon linguini, which included a flavorful array of spinach, roasted red peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms. I was planning to eat only half of it, but sometimes things don’t go as planned…and then to top it off, I had a dessert recommended to me by Mr. Gacina: the banana rum napoleon. Great suggestion, and I’m happy to say that I didn’t finish it. Not entirely, anyway.
- Piedmont, 401 Foster St, Durham, NC 27701; Tel: 919-683-1213 — A casual yet upscale new restaurant in town, Piedmont is destined for a prominent place in the annals of Durham’s dining scene. Thanks go not only to chef Ben Adams and his creative cuisine, but to the inviting ambience—including an open bar and open loft seating above the main dining area. Piedmont is a comfortable place to enjoy a relaxed meal and a few glasses of wine with friends. The food is locally sourced, some of the beer locally brewed, and the wine menu offers an impressive, eclectic mix. I enjoyed a salad with fresh lettuce, spiced pecans, roasted butternut squash, poached pear, blue cheese from a local farm, and date vinaigrette. My main course, a creamy risotto with cheese, beet carpaccio, roasted butternut squash, sautéed kale, onion, and caraway ash, looked—and tasted—amazing. My son, his college buddy Bryan and I shared a trio of desserts: the lemon curd tart with hazelnut crumble and brown butter ice cream, the sticky date cake with salted caramel ice cream, dulce de leche and caramelized white chocolate, and the lemon curd tart with hazelnut crumble and brown butter ice cream. Who says life isn’t good?
- Vin Rouge, 2010 Hillsborough Rd, Durham, NC 27705; Tel: 919-416-0466 — This provincial French restaurant is consistently ranked on “best of” lists, and it’s my son’s favorite restaurant in Durham. While there are many French classics on the menu, my son’s favorite—and mine—is the Gratin de Macaroni with bacon and gruyere cheese (I get it sans bacon). It’s the best, most flavorful macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had and is baked to crispy perfection. The vegetable plate with grilled onions, asparagus, mushrooms and mashed cauliflower helped assuage the guilt over the mac and cheese and the pommes frites (French fries) that were out of this world. Try to save room for dessert because the crème brulee is outstanding.
Last course: Where to stay
With many lodging options in and around Durham, I chose two that were quite different, with each excellent in its own way.
- Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, 3001 Cameron Blvd, Durham, NC 27705; Tel: 919-490-0999 — For the first couple of nights, I enjoyed the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, an elegant and comfortable hotel on Duke University’s West Campus. I stayed in the Mrs. Washington Duke Suite. Upon entering I saw fresh, fragrant daylilies in the foyer, which led to a spacious sitting area and separate bedroom. The well-appointed, classically furnished suite had amenities aplenty; it even had a Keurig coffee maker. I’ve heard only good things about the hotel’s Fairway Dining Room, but I didn’t get a chance to eat there—other than for a late afternoon “high tea” with my son soon after my arrival. With a backdrop of recorded classical music, elegant furnishings and a table setting that looked like it could be found in an English manor, the setting was delightful. The traditional English sandwiches and pastries were scrumptious and the variety of teas impressive.
- King’s Daughters Inn, 204 N Buchanan Blvd, Durham, North Carolina 27701; Tel: 919-354-7000 — The rest of my stay was at the charming and comfortable King’s Daughters Inn, right across the street from Duke University’s East Campus. All I can say is that I wish I had known about this place when my son was a freshman. The owners could not have been any nicer or more welcoming. Offering the amenities of a first-class hotel with the intimacy of a bed and breakfast, this refurbished Colonial Revival-style inn is a not-so-hidden gem. The parlors, with high ceilings and large, arched windows letting in tons of sunlight, are perfect gathering spots, and the 17 uniquely designed guest rooms look like they jumped off the pages of a way-cool design magazine. Unoccupied rooms are left open, so guests can peak in and, in my case, get ideas for decorating one’s own house. There are so many good things I can say about this place, owned by two Duke grads with a penchant for renovation projects and hospitality, but one that still stands out is the water pressure in the shower. I have thick hair and only use conditioner when I know I have a solid five minutes to spend rinsing it out. Not so at the King’s Daughters Inn. I used conditioner in my hair every day and the hard, steady stream of water meant my hair was thoroughly rinsed and squeaky clean in less than a minute. I also like how the inn is extremely green, with energy-saving techniques employed whenever possible. Included in the price of the room is a daily breakfast, prepared by owner Deanna Crossman. Not only does she know a thing or two about renovating, decorating, going green and being a gracious hostess (When I mentioned that I was getting a sore throat, she put together a baggie filled with lozenges for me to take as I ventured out for the day. How nice was that?) but she can cook as well. One of my favorite breakfasts while in Durham was had right at the inn: locally stone-ground grits with sautéed veggies and pesto. In addition to the hot dishes that Crossman prepared, a room off the large dining area—where I engaged in some great conversation with other guests, who were equally impressed by their accommodations—offered an impressive buffet that included freshly baked scones and a variety of fruits.
I’ll be back in Durham next month, for my son’s graduation. It’s good to know that the choices of where to visit, where to eat, etc., are so numerous, but narrowing down the lists is going to be a challenge.
For more information about Durham, visit durham-nc.com.