Long before the skyline’s crowning jewel turned from the neutral pebble of the N.C. Mutual Life building to the glass tower of One City Center, Durham held a certain allure. As a longtime restaurant insider, beer geek, and fat kid at heart, Durham’s food scene—and lately, its craft beer scene—have been a source of both great joy and intense pride. But along with the “g” word (gentrification) and shiny luxe apartments bringing luxe people with adventurous palates and the budgets to sate them, the restaurant industry has expanded like something out of a scratch and sniff sci-fi movie.
With all the diversity in the food and drink scene, it’s tempting to try a new restaurant every week, or even every day. It’s a luxury to have restaurants suited to impress out-of-town guests within walking distance of my home, or have a sexy date night on a Tuesday and then flood the ‘gram with images of a Manhattan with a smoked-lemon twist and beautifully plated dishes of vegetables and animal parts I didn’t previously know you could eat.
But amid the trendy buzz, the noise of construction, and the frantic pace of Durham’s expansion, it sometimes feels nothing like the place that I first called home sixteen years ago. The days when $10 bought you a Jack-and-Coke or a pint of beer to wash down a greasy, satisfying burger at Devine’s may not be long gone, but they’ve certainly faded into something fuzzy and nostalgic.
In Durham’s rapidly gentrifying landscape, in food and life in general, there’s something comforting about turning to reliable standbys, a place where you can get a consistently well-executed meal with friendly, familiar service, away from the flash and pomp of the hot new thing. Plus, it’s also nice to give your wallet a break from $14 cocktails and $25 entrees.
In the moments when I get to enjoy being on the other side of the bar, I seek out the places that have stayed true to themselves and true to what’s made Durham feel like home for me. After all, if we don’t support these places, we can’t complain that Durham ain’t what it used to be.
As an early riser, or at least the parent to an adorable pup who is an early riser, Elmo’s Diner has long been a breakfast-time favorite for fluffy pancakes and huevos rancheros. Despite sitting on the edge of a thriving downtown, Elmo’s feels like eating at grandma’s house. The walls are brightly painted, and there’s a din of pots and pans clanging in the kitchen and friends giggling over an inside joke.
It feels like small-town charm personified to be warmly greeted at the door by someone who feels more like your neighbor than an extra from a movie about Brooklyn, to feel like you’re more than a table number, to be noticed even when you’re sitting at the bar with a book.
Much of the staff has grown up at Elmo’s, and that camaraderie gives it an authentic Southern hospitality that newer places in Durham seem to caricature rather than capture. As buildings tower over us and construction cranes become fixtures in our skyline, sometimes it’s nice to feel like I’m still on the ground.
Despite keeping rather unusual hours, one thing I have in common with the rest of the workforce is that I often don’t give lunch the time and attention it deserves. Like many Americans, I eat it standing up and, too often, out of a bag. And it’s no wonder; add paid parking to the downtown Durham mix and lunch starts to feel far too much like rat-race-meets-deathmatch hell for me. Part of the reason I chose to remain in the South is for a gentler pace.
Luckily, Ninth Street Bakery still exists to save the day. One of the few places with dedicated parking, it can still be easy to miss, with its doors set back from the street. The aroma of freshly baked bread is practically a meal on its own and has the singular ability to slow Durham down for me. When I feel like sitting outside without cars whizzing by, I snag a seat on the set-back patio and savor a turkey and Swiss on whole wheat, soft in the middle with just the right crunch on the crust.
When I’m feeling fancy and want a night out downtown without the shrill soundtrack that comes with being seated next to a college girl’s birthday party, the pressure of making a reservation weeks in advance, or even the effort of putting on a cocktail dress, I make my way to Metro 8 Steakhouse.
Its staff is friendly and knowledgeable without pandering or being condescending. Even with white-linen tablecloths, you don’t feel like a cretin for showing up in jeans, but you don’t feel silly if you felt like dressing up. Dining alone here can take the form of sitting at the bar and chatting up the bartender or a friendly regular, or a date night can be had in one of the intimate nooks.
At Metro 8 you can still get an excellent cocktail for around $10, as well as an amazing portion of quality meat with an Argentinian twist. The space’s cathedral ceilings show the building’s lovely bones, which sets the appropriate ambiance for the religious experience that is the chocolate soufflé.
Although I may have told a few of my secrets, I don’t think that my ace in the hole is much of one. Everyone still talks about Vin Rouge, even though it’s in that “I know it’s old news, but …” kind of way, but that’s what keeps it in my heart.
Their staff is singular among town, particularly as the night dies down. Rather than feeling like you’re keeping someone at work, it feels as though you’ve been invited to a more intimate and relaxed part of the evening. Kitchen staff occasionally creep out to enjoy a post-shift drink, and the closing servers relax into hosting a cocktail party in its last throes.
Most would agree that something feels a bit off about chugging a $14 cocktail in a standing-room-only bar because you can’t avoid being jostled enough to keep from spilling it. So something feels patently sophisticated about savoring a cocktail over crème brûlée while the folks who chase trends head to whatever cool, new bar is the thing this month. As Vin Rouge staff polish silver and clear the last few tables, the simple pleasure of a dram of whiskey often calls to me.
If I feel like making a night of it, The Federal is my spot. Open until 2:00 a.m. and rarely packed after 11:00 p.m., it has become a regular late-night stop.
From its patio, you can see Durham morph just beneath its brick skin. You can still hear fireworks from the “new” ballpark, though the skyline now blocks the view. A luxury apartment announces, “now renting” as it towers over Brightleaf Square. The bar that used to be a live music venue squats in its shadow. Around the corner, a college co-ed tries to stay on a mechanical bull that might be older than Shooters itself, and just down the street, hip hop blares out of the doors of Skewers, somehow still open.
As a solitary cube of ice slowly melts to water in a glass of whiskey, the merging of the two is symbolic of the coming together of the old and new, mingling, swirling, dancing, eventually finding equilibrium; still more whiskey than water.