In recent years, Durham, North Carolina has been able to transform its reputation from slightly dangerous to utterly delicious. The college town, home to Duke University, uses its geographical location to its advantage, combining comforting Southern hospitality with eye-opening international flare.
Bordering Durham, there are plenty of chain restaurants that tourists are sure to fall victim to. (After all, where else can you find an unlimited buffet of fried seafood and breadsticks?) Instead, opt for one of these nine eateries frequented by locals, who are far more likely to support a farm-to-table, Southern establishment with a twist, than big businesses.
Parker and Otis
If you’re in town visiting friends or family, stop by Parker and Otis for a two-birds-one-stone experience in historic downtown Durham. A restaurant and gift shop, this grab-and-go spot is a model to many in North Carolina who like to keep things local. Put in your order at the counter for one of their quality sandwiches – like one of their many variations of the BLT or a seriously Southern pimento grilled cheese – and, as it preps, pick out a gift among the local jams and soaps. Both your meal and goodie will come from Carolina vendors, making it a true experience in Southern hospitality.
112 S. Duke St
Another North Carolina-proud establishment is Watts Grocery, which features favorite local foods “by the forkful.” Its effort to serve food sourced from within a two-hour radius results in genuine Southern food. The simple interior leaves room for its outstanding dishes, like Bill Neal’s Shrimp and Grits for brunch or North Carolina Beer Braised Clams for dinner. With an emphasis on local everywhere – from ingredient sources to dish heritages – this Durham spot is worth a trip (and a few hush puppies).
1116 Broad St | Book a table (Opentable)
Dame’s Chicken and Waffles
If you’re skeptical of the classic chicken and waffle combo, you’re missing out – and there’s no better place than Dame’s to convert you. This Durham staple claims to have resurrected the dish as a late-night restaurant offering, now available all day long. First timers can’t go wrong with the “inspirations” on the menu, while seasoned visitors can make their own creations among five waffle bases, including sweet potato or gingerbread, and seven shmears (flavored butters), like chocolate-hazelnut, maple-pecan, or orange-honeycomb. If you really want to have a Southern experience, opt for a side of homemade mac and cheese. The long line is perpetual, proving Dame’s is even a go-to during the workweek.
317 W. Main St
Geer Street Garden
On a warm spring or summer day, may the odds be in your favor finding an empty seat at the outdoor, communal picnic tables at Geer Street Garden. Sitting under a sky of string lights at the converted gas station, you’ll experience the true North Carolina charm of industry-meets-nature. Our best advice is to come on cheat day so you feel no guilt selecting from the wide offering of beers (many from North Carolina’s flourishing breweries) and hearty bites. Go “lite” with an arugula salad piled high with fried chicken or get the courage to knock down “The Pile,” an apt name for the fully loaded fries.
644 Foster St
If you’re looking to expand your palate beyond South American classics, zip on over to southern French restaurant Vin Rouge for a touch of elegance and a taste of Provence. The restaurant is recognized by many local publications as the most trusted spot for authentic French food in the Triangle, an area of North Carolina spanning 8 counties. From the raw bar to the fish du jour, croque monsieur to pâté, steak tartar to steak frites, you can’t go wrong at this staple for special occasions. Reservations are recommended, as this intimate space tends to get busy.
2010 Hillsborough Rd | Book a table (Opentable)
Guglhupf Bakery, Cafe & Restaurant
Try pronouncing that one. This innovative bakery has roots in German cuisine, and its fast-paced, inexpensive reputation has made it a college town favorite. Come hungry, but expect to wait in a line of busy students and professors. Whether you want a coffee and Danish to go or a sit-down classic, like perfectly golden buttermilk pancakes, order at the counter, grab your number and scope out a free table inside or on the comfortable outside terrace – a hot commodity on warmer spring days.
2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd | Book a table (Opentable)
Staying with Europe, say hola to Mateo. In the converted Book Exchange building, this Spanish tapas bar is the definition of Durham’s transformation, bringing European flare to Southern palates. First date? The warm lighting and intimate-but-comfortable seating make it the perfect venue for longer conversation. Dining with a group? Experiment with smoked NC trout or sweetbreads, or keep it Southern comfortable with pulled pork and fried chicken. And let’s just say: if you could judge a Spanish tapas bar on its patatas bravas, this one would be the goal.
109 W. Chapel Hill Rd | Book a table (Opentable)
Backyard BBQ Pit
What’s in a name? A whole lot, if you’re talking about this joint. The Backyard BBQ Pit is a Durham mainstay when it comes to true Carolina BBQ. Be like the locals and grab some “Tried and True BBQ” – pit-cooked pork shoulder, smoked slowly over hickory wood coals. While you’re at it: Opt for collard greens and a side of mac n’ cheese for the true experience. There’s no holding back at this no-frills roadside joint, a reason for which it’s constantly being named some of the best barbecue in the country.
5122 N. Carolina 55
Old Havana Sandwich Shop
If Carolina BBQ isn’t your thing, what about trying an international version? The Old Havana Sandwich Shop is a trip to Cuba – and Tampa, Veracruz, and Ellis Island, for that matter. All of the sandwiches are named for towns relating to Cuba, both stateside and as homage to the home country. The common Carolina theme of sustainable food rings true, as the restaurant has grown into a farm-to-table establishment with its own farm in a nearby town. The simple lunch venue transforms into a salsa classroom, cooking class kitchen, and more. And, fitting for a city of Bulls, don’t skimp on the homemade Papa Bull hot sauce.
310 E. Main St