Today I am very excited to present my Durham, North Carolina city guide! Durham has skyrocketed to culinary fame over the last few years (Southern Living named it the South’s tastiest town in 2014!), but there is so much more to love about this post-industrial town than amazing restaurants. Let me take you on a tour of a few of my favorite places!
WHERE TO EAT
Matt Kelly, the chef and owner behind several of our downtown favorites, pretty much runs this town. Mothers and Sons Trattoria offers inventive and delicious pasta, and is perfect for a date night – the plates are small, so you can split several. We love to bring visiting family or meet up with larger groups at Mateo so we can try as many tapas as possible (my favorite is the chicken croquettes, a “special” that’s been on the board every time I’ve dined). If you’re looking for a quick lunch, you can round out your MK experience with a meatball sub or the sweet potato and leek soup at Lucky’s Delicatessen. Pro tip: these three are right in a row on W. Chapel Hill Street!
The wait at Pizzeria Toro can be long, but is always worth it. It has a fun, buzzy atmosphere, and is perfect in the winter when the huge wood-burning pizza oven makes for a cozy atmosphere in the open space. Try the kale salad, and leave room for zeppole for dessert. Or, walk down the street to Parlour for your sweet fix instead – their frozen sandwiches, like blackberry ice cream squeezed between two chocolate chip cookies, are my favorite!
If you find yourself out by Duke’s campus (and you should – see below!), there are several excellent options for dining. Foster’s Market will always take the blue ribbon in my book. Sara Foster is an acclaimed Southern chef who makes delicious, feel-good food. My go-to is a solid helping of the day’s casserole special (weighed by the pound) followed by a towering slice of coconut cake or chess pie if I’m feeling indulgent. For brunch, we move next door to Guglhupf, a German bakery and cafe with a pretty outdoor patio. The desserts are not to be missed here, either (can you sense a pattern?).
Around the corner are a matched pair of Scott Howell restaurants that couldn’t be more different: Nana’s is upscale and old school, the perfect place for a celebratory night out (we made reservations there the night we thought we were going to find out whether June was a boy or girl!). NanaTaco is a garage-turned-taco spot, except that it features fillings like braised local hog jowls and house smoked duck. (See also: NanaSteak, his fancy steakhouse near the American Tobacco Campus!)
It wouldn’t be an Em for Marvelous city guide without a few recommendations for my personal weakness. The original Rise location is in Durham, and while the Southpoint location is not the most scenic, the biscuits and donuts make up for it. My friend Sam practically lived on them during her first pregnancy. The line at Monuts is always long, and with good reason: their donuts are probably my favorite of all time. Try something fun – they feature creative flavors like Irish coffee, horchata, and brown butter hazelnut, and I’ve never been disappointed.
You might be surprised to see a seafood pick on my list, but Saltbox is that good – even I admit their beautifully seasoned shrimp roll, topped with tangy slaw, is delicious! Right now they’re in the cutest shack there ever was, but they’re opening a second, larger location in Rockwood (near Foster’s) this summer.
I pretty much only go to Vin Rouge (another Matt Kelly gem!) in the summer, because sitting on their garden patio under twinkle lights is the absolute best way to eat gratin de macaroni, tartiflette, and pommes frites. Actually, wait, I don’t think there’s a bad way to eat any of those things :) Fun for a date night!
For your winter list: Dashi, a downtown ramen spot with offerings as warm and comforting as a hug. They also offer exquisite small plates on their second level!
WHAT TO DO
Work off all of your delicious meals with a hike at Eno River State Park. It’s an extensive and beautiful property, lovely in any season – our favorite trails are Bobbit Hole, Buckquarter Creek, Cox Mountain, Dunnagan, and Pea Creek. If it’s hot, take a dip near the waterfalls at the Fews Ford access, and don’t miss a trip across the suspension bridge! The best way to end an Eno hike is with a Locopop, just down the road from the park entrance.
The Sarah P. Duke Gardens is one of the loveliest spots in the Triangle, hands-down. Bring a book and a blanket and stretch out on the South Lawn for a few hours, but not before roaming the pathways (my favorite sections are the camellias and the terrace garden!). We love to pick up Foster’s for a picnic on our way in.
The American Tobacco Campus, arguably the heart of Durham and one of the coolest examples of industrial repurposing anywhere, hosts several of our favorite summer events. The Durham Bulls, a AAA baseball team with absurdedly good concessions, play nearby, and our public radio station hosts an outdoor (free!) bluegrass concert series every summer that is wall-to-wall popular. Every ATC event allows you to appreciate the campus itself, which transformed from a decrepit factory with trees growing out of the roof and used for SWAT team drills to a pristine, ingenious community space complete with a meandering stream running down the center – right under the original Lucky Strike tower. Its reimagination is truly inspiring!
When faced with a hard-to-shop-for friend, my first stop is Parker & Otis, a modern general store with the coolest brands. (Tagline: “a lot of things you want.” Yes.) I’ve never spotted a dud on their shelves, but their baby section is particularly refined.
Finally, find yourself a kid if you don’t already have one just so you can take a trip to the Museum of Life & Science. Every section is spectacular, but Hideaway Woods is literal kid perfection. It features eight treehouses (some up to 20 feet high!) connected by rope bridges and cargo nets, a free-flowing stream, giant logs, life-size twig sculptures, and so much more. All of my kid + nature cravings find their zenith here.
WHERE TO STAY:
You’re in luck! After decades with nothing but a lone Marriott on the scene, Durham now has not one but two fabulous boutique hotels: The Durham and 21c Museum Hotel. We recently stayed overnight at The Durham for a mini belated birthday getaway, and their dedication to sourcing locally (everything from Big Spoon Roasters in the amenities tray to Raleigh Denim blankets on the bed) was impressive. Locals, don’t miss the Saturday morning yoga class on the rooftop – complimentary for guests and $15 to drop-in. One of the best classes I’ve ever taken! Of course, drinks on the roof by night is also fun!
I know this guide only scratches the surface of all that this vibrant, ever-changing city has to offer, so please, if you’re a Durham fan, leave your favorites in the comments! I’m going to add a few honorable mentions to kick us off. I’d love for the comment section to be a resource for readers just as much as my post! xo!
Pizzeria Toro photo by In Honor of Design, Nanataco photo by Map & Menu, Saltbox and Duke Gardens photos by Bit & Grain, Hideaway Woods photo from The Triangle Review. Remaining photos either personal or from their respective sources.