When I arrive at Nana’s, the front door is locked, as it has been for the past three years.
I’m here to interview Matt Kelly—the prolific restaurateur who recently purchased renowned Durham restaurant Nana’s from longtime chef-owner Scott Howell, with plans to revive it—but he doesn’t seem to hear me knocking. I walk around the side of the building and enter through the kitchen door, which is propped open.
While the restaurant’s terra-cotta orange exterior looks as polished as it did 30 years ago, the kitchen is completely gutted; a lone prep station, repurposed as a storage shelf for power tools, is the only indicator of the room’s intended use.
After wiggling a few more handles, I find a swinging door behind a tarp.
On the other side, Kelly is sitting at the bar in the main dining room, several feet from the restaurant’s main entrance, looking unbothered. Without glancing up from his laptop, he asks if I’ve been through the back door of a kitchen before.
“Yes,” I tell him, “but not as many times as you have.”
The first decade of Kelly’s culinary career would amount to a lifetime’s worth of achievements for the average chef. In the late nineties, shortly after graduating from culinary school, Kelly landed a job at the Inn at Little Washington—one of the most lauded restaurants in the world—and, after moving to the Triangle a few years later, worked stints at famed fine dining establishments Four Square and Fearrington House before being promoted from chef to co-owner at French bistro Vin Rouge in Durham.
Under Kelly’s leadership, Vin Rouge garnered national attention as one of North Carolina’s top dining destinations, and it wasn’t long before Kelly started racking up James Beard nominations with a string of his own solo ventures in downtown Durham: soon after opening Mateo, a Spanish tapas bar, Kelly launched Italian trattoria Mothers & Sons and Lucky’s, a New York-style delicatessen that closed in 2020 when COVID-19 put an indefinite pause on employee-driven lunchtime traffic—but whose space now houses Alimentari, a casual extension of Mothers & Sons.
In late 2017, a year after inaugurating Lucky’s, Kelly opened Saint James Seafood on Durham’s Main Street. It was the beginning of a calamitous five years.
Eighteen months after it opened, Saint James shut down in the wake of a massive gas explosion that killed two and devastated its block in the Brightleaf District. After rebuilding, the restaurant resumed service in January 2020, only to be shuttered by the pandemic 39 days later. And in February of this year, Kelly debuted Saint James for the third time—only to learn, recently, that the restaurant’s lease had been terminated by Asana Partners, the Charlotte-based real estate firm that purchased Brightleaf Square in 2019.
On Saturday, Saint James served its last dinner. Kelly won’t tell me much about the restaurant’s tragic demise but says he feels touched that his staff stuck around for the final weeks of service and expresses disgust that a multibillion-dollar real estate firm “can come and take one of the most historical places in Durham.”
Nevertheless, Kelly is trying to move on. And when considered alongside the loss of Saint James, his acquisition of Nana’s comes with a number of poetic throughlines.
Saint James has two namesakes: one, of course, is the patron saint of fishermen; the other, as Kelly revealed in 2019, is the hospital where his grandfather once worked. It seems fitting, then, that his next venture has a “Nana” in its name, symbolizing a maternal counterpart to the late Saint James and perhaps an adoptive parent for Mothers & Sons.
Kelly opened Saint James, in part, as an homage to the space’s former tenant, Fishmonger’s, a Durham seafood institution that stood on Main Street for more than 30 years. Similarly, when Kelly opens Nana’s next spring, it will be the revival of a restaurant that Durhamites patronized for nearly three decades.
And like Saint James’s February launch, this will be the third time that Nana’s has opened.
When Howell founded Nana’s in 1992, it was one of the only fine dining spots in Durham besides Magnolia Grill, where Howell had worked as a sous chef. A white-tablecloth restaurant with a menu of upscale, Southern-tinged European classics, Nana’s caught national attention with its exquisite flavors but won the hearts of locals with its convivial, posh-yet-casual atmosphere; if you talk to someone who frequented Nana’s in its early years, they’ll likely have hazy memories of cocktails and camaraderie but a crystal-clear recollection of the risotto they ate in 1997.
A destination neighborhood restaurant, Nana’s was a paradox—a lavish eatery with the soul of a dive bar.
Then, in the early 2010s, Durham started to change, and change fast. For the city’s influx of young professionals, fine dining restaurants like Nana’s were too stuffy, too slow, too expensive. As Durham topped “Best Foodie Town in the South” lists, the restaurants that had helped put the city on the map started to drop. Magnolia Grill went first, in 2012. Four Square shuttered a few years later. In 2018, Howell closed Nana’s, citing rising expenses and the end of Durham’s fine dining era.
The next year, Howell had second thoughts. After giving the restaurant’s dining room a fresh coat of paint, he announced plans to reopen.
“You can tell everyone out there, I’m coming,” Howell told The News & Observer in 2019. “It is the old Scott Howell, it’s not the new one, and I am freaking fired up.”
The reimagined Nana’s didn’t last long: The pandemic stilled Howell’s second wind. Nana’s shut its doors. Howell retired and bought a boat. Nobody expected another reopening.
Behind the scenes, though, Howell was in talks with Kelly, an old friend.
Howell first reached out to Kelly in 2019, around the time of the gas explosion, to ask whether Kelly might consider buying the building that houses Nana’s.
“I was like, ‘Bro, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep my house,’” Kelly says.
But two years later, Howell still hadn’t sold the property, and Kelly had an epiphany.
“All these restaurants were closing because of the pandemic, and I was like, man, I don’t want to lose Magnolia Grill again,” Kelly says.
He realized that Nana’s could be a pretty good deal: the restaurant had more parking space than he’d be able to find downtown; he would own the building, so he wouldn’t have to worry about a lousy landlord; and the North Carolina Department of Transportation had finally fixed the stormwater issues that had caused Nana’s to perpetually flood.
Kelly tells me he thinks Howell asked a bunch of different people to buy the restaurant, but Howell debunks this: Kelly was always whom he envisioned as a successor, he says, and when it came down to it, Kelly was the only person with the capital, the diligence, and the culinary prowess to pull it off.
“You can just go ahead and put a little sign on Matt Kelly’s grave that says ‘The guy who gets it,’” Howell says.
Alternatively, if Kelly were to pick his own epitaph, it might read “A bit of an asshole,” which is how he describes himself, a few minutes into our interview.
Indeed, Kelly does have a bit of a reputation for being blunt and intense, in the way chefs often are. When the INDY’s photographer asks him to roam around the restaurant so that he can get candids of him, Kelly flatly replies, “I don’t do a lot of aimless walking.” During our conversation, he says the word “fuck” 89 times. And at one point, he launches into a rant about so-called food journalists and their fixation on buzzwords.
“You don’t have food writers anymore,” he says. “You don’t have someone where it’s like, ‘Yo, this is a professional fucking food writer who’s been monitoring the food culture in this area.’”
As someone who fits that definition, I’m rebuffed and briefly consider turning around and shouting, “Hey, has anyone seen a professional chef in here?” but think better of it. I know what he’s getting at.
Matt Kelly wants diners to slow down and smell the Riesling. He wants reporters to see individual restaurants as the whole picture, not just as fragments of a larger trend. He wants to go back to how things were, in Nana’s golden days.
Howell says he would’ve been fine with Kelly turning Nana’s into a different restaurant, but he’s honored that Kelly wants to retain its ethos.
“Grandmas,” Kelly says, “don’t really go out of style.”
He plans to make a few design changes—he’s renovating the kitchen and giving the dining room a “sexier update”—but by and large, Nana’s will fulfill the same three purposes it always has. One: serving good food and drinks. Kelly says that “regional European cooking with ingredients from the American South is my thing,” so the cuisine won’t be changing too dramatically; his current menu draft includes hand-cut pasta, chicken liver pâté, seasonal mussels, a martini, and cellar wine.
Two: promoting mentorship. In the decades that Nana’s was open, Howell mentored a number of chefs who have since launched their own ventures, and Kelly wants to keep the family tree alive. He also thinks Howell’s history of mentorship deserves more recognition.
“Imagine if this was like biotech or pharmaceutical,” Kelly says. “Like, who the fuck creates that many drugs? Having an independent restaurant owner, a chef, who has that kind of influence—that’s a big thing.”
And three: Serving as a warm, versatile, communal space for engagement dinners, after-work drinks, and everything in between.
Nana’s is slated to open its doors, for the third time, in March of 2023.
“This restaurant,” Kelly says, “it’s the city’s living room.”
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