If you’re past your point in life where you no longer want to mingle with coeds (I stuck it out for as long as was doable), consider visiting college towns while they’re on break or during away football games. That said, Durham, North Carolina, has at least two separate-but-coexisting personalities: a revered college campus, and a thriving-again, pedestrian-friendly downtown. Since this was once Washington Duke’s tobacco empire town, the invitation of some of the world’s smartest people by Duke University has made Durham a brainier, hard-working place. Duke alumnae faithfully return again and again and continuously freshen the mix. And, the Duke intelligence machine has also helped tune up the food scene. Way up, in fact; unpretentious culinary genius is normal here.
If you value getting around on foot, a huge selling point for Durham is that it’s a walking person’s village. That, and similar to the way liberal Austin defies the rest of Texas, Durham is colorblind to alternate lifestyles. Everything goes here.
Getting down to travel basics, the first litmus test comes as a question: Is the train station in a seedy part of town where even the cabs are afraid to venture at night? Not at all. Durham’s historic red-brick and wooden-roofed Amtrak station is right in town, and a five-minute walk from my temporary pad, The Durham. There aren’t even any steps to ascend or descend from the platform to get to the street.
The mid-century-tuned-modern Durham hotel blends west coast retro Valley Ho-ness with Carolina charm. Six stories of simple-but-stylish rooms include panoramic views of downtown from the hip, indoor-outdoor The Roof at The Durham. At The Roof, food and drink offerings come from James Beard award-winning chef Andrea Reusing. The hotel’s grand lobby bar is no less fun, especially when they roll out their dance-music-fueled Sunday brunch. I enjoyed this place’s big city chic dwelling inside a small-town heart.
The entire town is pretty much a lesson in urban renewal, namely tobacco factories and clothing mills restored into apartments, non-franchised shopping areas and very likable restaurants. The very limited franchise takeover is a reality in Durham; they’re not big on chains, which makes you feel like you’re somewhere original, homegrown and special. Bring on the red bricks.
My first social landing strip was Bull McCabe’s, a huge bar with an outdoor area overlooking a charming, green town square of picnic tables in the heart of downtown.
Taking in that view, I beheld Mateo Bar de Tapas and soon entered for some traditional bar de tapas that locally revered chef/owner Matt Kelly describes as having a Spanish heart and a Southern soul. Add one more twist: You’re in the old Book Exchange building. It’s a great date place; I was there with a childhood pal, but the couples on both sides of us were engaging and mutually engorging. Get the “Remolacha” (coal roasted beets, Rioja poached apples, buttermilk bleu crema, shaved walnut) in front of you and you’re off to the races.
I hit the 21C Museum Hotel twice, as it’s a place that invites a return. Occupying the historic Hill Building (designed by the architects of the Empire State Building and what was once Durham’s tallest building), this 125-room boutique hotel and cultural civic center has a contemporary art museum and a lowest-level-bank-vault cum cocktail lounge. The ground-floor Counting House restaurant merges casual (rotisserie chickens turning) and artsy (also a rotating art installation; I was there for the alluring recycled-art animal head exhibit). The bar adjacent to the Counting House is a great place to take in some Durham chic, mussels and red lentil soup.
Bullseye Bicycle set me up with a sturdy Wizard-of-Oz bike and intel for a ride that revealed what a bike-friendly city should be. As opposed to every intersection being a risk for your femur, everything flows safely here. Thus, I delivered myself in one piece to another dining opportunity.
Calling Pizzeria Toro a pizza place is like labeling Carnegie Hall a dive bar. It’s another eatery where sourcing local ingredients is a forgone conclusion, and here, pizza masterpieces include the spicy sausage with rapini, garlic and crucolo—but not before a salad overflowing with Tuscan kale, pine nuts, chiles, and parmesan.
Shall we dine once more? Piedmont Restaurant takes its inspiration from the farm-grown foods and produce of the local culture of North Carolina’s Piedmont region, aka the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Two of the managing partners also own a farm that supplies this inviting restaurant where Chef Greg Gettles recreates classic dishes with modern techniques. Their inspired menu had me at fennel new potato soup (thyme cornbread, whipped buttermilk, caramelized leeks). We temporarily parted ways after the chocolate brownie (espresso, ganache, beet sorbet, Chantilly).
Durham’s classic and restored Carolina Theatre has 1,025 red-velvety seats on three levels. No viewpoint suffers; in fact, I stood in the back row of the floor level so I could bop around to a rocking Joe Satriani show, and I didn’t miss a beat. This non-profit arts organization is city-owned, and each year presents over 60 concerts, daily films and film festivals, and serves 15,000 school children with its Arts Discovery educational series. The Carolina Theatre is more than a building. It’s an experience that can only be found in Durham.
All places noted in this story were a short walk from each other. Once Raleigh’s avoidable sidekick, this resurrected railroad town is now Raleigh’s cooler cousin. Herein, every time I pass New York’s Penn Station (Amtrak), I know that another groovy walkable downtown is just a train ride away.
Lastly, a few fun facts about Durham, NC:
- This is a city of arts, including the World Beer Festival, annual arts markets and performances by world-class musicians at DPAC, a 2,700-seat theater with intimate sightlines and state-of-the art sound and video. See Durham’s event calendar.
- The Rev. Pauli Murray was the first African-American female priest entered into the book of “Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints” by The Episcopal Church.
- It’s the home of Merge Records, who have launched bands like Arcade Fire.
- The baseball term “bullpen” is believed to be born out of Bull Durham Tobacco signs that loomed over baseball stadium outfield areas that served as a pitcher warm up area.
For more on Durham, visit durham-nc.com.
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