The South's Tastiest Town: Durham, NC

A scrappy scene of artisans devoted to coffee beans, brews, and the craft of humble foods.
Story by Paula Disbrowe

With a reverence for life’s everyday pleasures (we’re talking coffee, beer, pizza, and pie here), a passionate mix of chefs, farmers, brewers, bakers, and baristas have quietly transformed Durham into one of the hottest food destinations in the South.

Part of what makes Bull City compelling is the confluence of old and new: Its foodie future is gradually wiping out its tobacco past, yet remnants of the town’s first industry provide a backdrop for its current scene. Both the American Tobacco Historic District and Brightleaf Square, two mixed-use developments brimming with restaurants, bars, and live music venues, are housed in former tobacco warehouses that date back to the 1800s and 1900s. The town’s top tastemakers are also drawing national attention. Durham recently scored four James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalist nods, includ- ing one for Scott Howell at Nana’s for Best Chef Southeast.

But it’s not white tablecloth restaurants driving the scene here. Instead, it’s artisans committed to crafting their own to-die-for takes on simple culinary delights. Take Phoebe Lawless, owner of celebrated Scratch Bakery, who left fine-dining kitchens to create swoon- worthy pies. Durham is also home to the South’s best buzz, thanks to beverage makers Counter Culture Coffee, the acclaimed roaster that schools baristas across the country, and Fullsteam Brewery and Tavern, which uses locally sourced grains and native ingredients like sweet potatoes, figs, persimmons, and chestnuts to produce brews with a distinctly Southern flavor.

Some inventive new sipping and snacking spots evolved from whimsical on-the-go prototypes. Cocoa Cinnamon, a new coffee, chocolate, and tea lounge, began as a coffee bike, while Monuts Donuts, which serves beer, bubbles, and handmade donuts, started as a wildly popular cart.

Even the city’s full-fledged restaurants have embraced the local trend of elevated casual fare. In his first solo venture, Matt Kelly of Mateo Tapas deftly concocts Spanish tapas with a Southern influence (such as his take on chicharrónes: chicken-fried chicken skin with piquillo chowchow). Last fall, Durham native Gray Brooks opened Pizzeria Toro, where he composes wood-fired pies with house-made sausage, artisan cheese, and delicacies such as Hog Island Bay clams.

“There will always be this grit, honesty, and blue-collar history that makes Durham so authentic,” says Sean Lilly Wilson, owner of Fullsteam Brewery. His family- and dog-friendly beer garden—which might include a mix of post-race runners, Duke scientists, and farmers—epitomizes best the eclectic, egalitarian, “it’s good to be in Durham” food scene.

Best Bites
You’ll need two hands for the local, pasture-raised burgers ($10) at Geer Street Garden. Crust enthusiasts can’t miss Gray Brooks’ white pizza with Brussels sprouts, pancetta, and cippolini onions ($14) at Pizzeria Toro, or the tart-sweet Lemon Shaker Pie ($3.50/slice) at Scratch Bakery.

Nightcap
Stop in for a pint of Fullsteam Southern Lager ($4) and a lively scene at Fullsteam Brewery and Tavern.