There’s no shortage of bars in the Triangle—from basic breweries to the most innovative mixology-centers—and downtown Durham is no exception. There are at least five cocktail joints within a one-block radius of the Durham Hotel, not counting that establishment’s own restaurant and rooftop.
So why would husband-and-wife team Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker open their new bar, Kingfisher, in the same spot?
“Because if you’re trying to represent a place, you need to have access to the people who are and aren’t normally from there,” Umstead says. “The concept for Kingfisher has grown out of our shared interests and a desire to represent Durham, the Triangle, our friends, and our home through cocktails. Our location puts us in the best position to do that, and to collaborate with others around the community.”
Umstead, who previously launched the bar program at the Counting House and, until last winter, was general manager at Raleigh’s St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar, says farm-to-glass cocktails are the next step in bar ingenuity.
With Kingfisher—which gets its name from the belted kingfisher, a rarely spotted fishing bird that burrows along the Eno River—he plans to lead the charge. The bar is likely to open later this month, in June at the latest, though there’s no firm launch date.
“Our space’s intent is to showcase Durham, so our cocktails are farm-driven,” Umstead says. “We’re taking produce and making it the star of the show. One of the core ideas that contributed to our program is, how do we make a beautiful daiquiri if we just want to use North Carolina strawberries, but they’re only in season for six weeks? So we’ve canned and preserved and powdered and dehydrated and tried a million different methods for doing that.”
Partnering with North Carolina farms—such as Durham’s Lil’ Farm—Umstead and Vanderwalker are sourcing the freshest produce possible to serve Kingfisher’s menu. To be sure, lots of bars highlight local and seasonal produce. But Vanderwalker says Kingfisher will be different: “We’re taking ingredients like a carrot and figuring out, what’s the best drink we can make with this, as opposed to just making a carrot old-fashioned or trying to put ingredients into a drink that doesn’t really fit.”
Umstead regularly visits local farmers markets to identify unique possibilities, such as a sunchoke colada, for Kingfisher’s menu. Developing a cocktail, he says, is a lot like a chef creating a dish: It’s about layering complementing flavors that hit the tongue just right.
“I like to take something that’s typically thought of as food and put it into a cocktail,” Umstead says. “Kale, for example, provides a freshness and a bitterness that dries out a drink, and I think those things are fun to learn and work with.”
The downstairs space features designated seating, including a communal-feeling lounge area and intimate, closed booths. The aesthetic, which Umstead says was first informed by the archetypally dark and brooding speakeasy look, has evolved into something more dynamic, punctuated by personal touches, local artwork, and happy accidents, like the exposed brick wall the couple discovered when the drywall was damaged during construction.
“Once you’ve been down here for a while,” he says, “you tend to lose track of the time.”
“Whenever we talked about what we wanted the bar to look like,” Vanderwalker adds, “I always ended up saying, ‘Well, I could make it.’”
Her touch is evident everywhere, from the upholstered banquette seating and the fired clay tiles on the U-shaped bar to slip-cast tiki mugs and plates, which are exclusive to Kingfisher and feature original stencils designed by Vanderwalker’s great-grandfather.
“I really love the idea of art being everywhere,” Vanderwalker says, “so you don’t necessarily have to go on purpose to see it, but it just shows up when you’re out in your everyday life. We wanted to give local artists a place to showcase their work and give them a stipend, so they can survive—and it enhances our space.”