If you have $15 in your pocket, you cannot starve in Downtown Durham: Within a seven-block radius you can find chicken and waffles, paninis and po’boys, venison and veal, salads, scallops and sausage, plus tortas, crepes, pork—and even rabbit liver.
But until this week, one of the foodiest downtowns in America did not have a top-notch burger and beer joint.
Bull City Burger and Brewery, which opens today, has filled that niche. Located on Parrish Street just off Mangum, the vibrant, locavore eatery mixes old school sensibilities (the grill workers wear two-cornered paper hats) with an urban vibe: High, pressed-tin ceilings, track lighting, large front windows for people-watching and red-clay walls.
The food, while exacting, is not fussy. And how could it be considering diners are seated as if at a picnic—at long, communal tables, the wood salvaged from old tobacco barns and corn cribs?
At a soft opening earlier this week, my husband, an ardent carnivore, declared the Bacon & Blue burger ($9) the best he had ever eaten—dethroning its counterpart at Williams Gourmet Kitchen in south Durham, which had held the No. 1 spot for 26 solid weeks.
The secret is, in part, in BCBB’s quality of beef, which is raised in North Carolina, grass-fed and free of antibiotics and added hormones. The meat is painstakingly ground at the restaurant, not so thin as to dry out, but thick enough to hold moisture. And when I say moisture, I don’t mean grease. BCBB’s burgers are not those fast-food grease missiles that leave a pool on the plate like a car with an oil leak.
Traditional burgers, topped with the usual mustard, ketchup, etc.—are available for those who like their sandwiches scantily dressed. But the specialty burger menu looks intriguing: The Over Easy ($10), with bacon and fried egg, is essentially like breakfast, while the Pimento Burger ($9) incorporates the great Southern tradition of pimento cheese topped with pickled veggies.
So what’s a vegetarian like me doing in a place like this? Biting into the outstanding Joan Jett ($7), a housemade bean burger with garlic aioli—a fancy word for garlic mayonnaise. Again, BCBB has distinguished itself on the bean burger front: First, I had to doublecheck to ensure it wasn’t meat. Why? Because it tasted like food and not drywall. In other restaurants that shall remain nameless, vegetarians are presented with Boca burgers (I can almost hear the microwave ding in the kitchen) or a bean burger, which, upon eating, quickly becomes bean salad on a bun because it disintegrates.
Bean burgers are hard to master; BCBB has solved the mystery and if owner Seth Gross told me how he does it, he might have to kill me. So I won’t ask, just enjoy.
A brief word about buns: The crustiness is delightful, but better yet, there is not a hint of treacly sweetness, which indicates they are neither mass-produced nor packed with high-fructose corn syrup.
And what’s a burger without fries? Yin without yang. Love without happiness. Sonny without Cher. Oops, I guess that’s already happened. Since I’m a veg, we ordered the dirty fries cooked in peanut oil, as opposed to the fancier version fried in duck fat. Russet potatoes, skins-on, they were so crisp, not flaccid, and seasoned with a sprinkling of salt. Again, greaseless. I’m in love with the fries.
Or was, until we ordered dessert. Our prompt waiter delivered a warm griddled pound cake topped with ice cream and spicy chocolate sauce, which had hints of pepper. Now I’m really in love.
If you’re not in the mood for a burger, BCBB also serves hot dogs and chili. My husband and I are DINKs (double-income, no kids), but there is a children’s menu that some crumb munchers at a nearby table were happily chomping on.
The brewery’s gigantic, stainless steel fermenting tanks appear ready for lift off in the next room, but due to some last-minute red tape by government authorities, the homebrews were not available at the soft-opening. They should be flowing freely around the first of April; in the meantime, several North Carolina brews are on tap—we chose Fullsteam’s Rocket IPA—plus, the night we attended, the winelovers’ line was long at the enomatic. And if you’re still thirsty, you can choose from a modest selection of the hard stuff including Maker’s Mark and Glenlivet Scotch.
Food is clearly the emphasis at BCBB, but nearly as much obsessive attention has been devoted to the interior. Many of the materials have been salvaged or restored: After enduring years of abuse in high school shop class, side tables have found a new life in the restaurant. A local woodturning club fashioned the handles of the beer taps from different woods—the bartender, analyzing the spiral pattern, guessed pine, golden oak and walnut. No two are alike.
The only hitch in our evening—and it was within the first hour of the first night of opening, so we can be forgiving—was that it was not intuitive where to order. Go to the counter in the back of the restaurant. Get a number. Sit at a table or at the bar and make new friends. Your food arrives. And you eat one of the best burgers—or bean burgers—you’ve ever had.
Bull City Burger and Brewery, 107 E. Parrish St., Durham
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (later on DPAC show nights), Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight