(By Brian Howe)

As someone who spent years in Carrboro before making the inevitable trek Durham-ward, I speak from experience when I claim that you could get a taste of everything it has to offer in one epic, well-planned day. 

That’s not a knock on our favorite mill-town-turned-arts-enclave, which offers a winning mix of small-town charm and cultural opportunity. It’s just not large enough to rely on the thrill of constantly going to new places. Instead, Carrboro thrives on the pleasure of finding the places you love and returning to them again and again. 

Best of all, you can do every inch of it on foot (though I’ll be on a skateboard). 

For me, no day—let alone a perfect one—starts without coffee, so at 8:00 a.m., I’ll roll into Open Eye Café. Though I’m not one to eat first thing in the morning, this is going to be a big day, so by 9:00 a.m., I’ll head next door to Neal’s Deli for some sort of eggy breakfast sandwich (if it’s too packed, there’s always Rise, which is awesome but exists all over the Triangle). 

Since today is perfect, let’s assume the weather is beautiful (sunny, low seventies, a bit of a breeze), and I’m raring to enjoy it before more commerce and consumption. From ten to noon, let’s go to the park. Anderson Park is bigger but a bit far from downtown for our pedestrian purposes, so I’ll opt for the compact, endearing Wilson Park. If I can rouse a Carrboro peep, maybe we’ll play some desultory tennis on the free municipal courts. If not, I’ll have a little push on the paved path among the tawny autumn pines, or just hit the nearby neighborhoods around Oak and Pine and Shelton, where modernist homes punctuate cute mill houses and the pavements are wide and smooth.  

Since I’m not ready for lunch, at noon, I’m heading to Weaver Street Market for another coffee, maybe a flop-and-chat or some reading time on the big communal patio. But by 1:00 p.m., I’ll run into someone hungry, and we’ll discuss a number of places we could eat before inevitably deciding to go to Carrburritos because it’s always what you secretly want.   

Heavy with burritos, it’s time to lighten my wallet. Starting at two, we’ll while away the rest of the afternoon with some browsing and shopping, flipping through the vinyl stacks at All Day Records and scrounging for oddities at Surplus Sid’s, where I’ll buy a half-broken backpack to carry the vintage gas mask I also bought for urgent but unclear reasons. (I’m probably due for another coffee, because I have a problem; luckily, Grey Squirrel Coffee Company is right across the street, and perhaps there’s an art exhibit at The ArtsCenter.) 

And if there’s any time for mischief before dinner, I’ll see how long I can play “Stairway to Heaven” before Main Street Music kicks me out, or how the tattoo artist at Glenn’s Tattoo Service reacts when I say I want “The Paris of the Piedmont” enshrined on my bicep.     

Though I couldn’t possibly be hungry, I also couldn’t call it a perfect Carrboro day without pizza from Pizzeria Mercato, so I’ll choke that down at seven while feeling awkward for having a skateboard in a restaurant where the water comes in green glass bottles. 

At eight, it’s time for our perfect day to shade into the nightlife; let’s have an expensive cocktail with egg whites and activated charcoal at Belltree while we’re still sober enough to appreciate it. 

Loosened up, we’ll head to Bowbarr for cheaper booze and photo-booth fun before a Cat’s Cradle show starts at ten. It’s a band we don’t like. (Twist!) But we really just wanted to hang out with our friends on the smoking patio anyway, so our perfect day remains intact. (Double twist!

We’ll wrap it up from midnight to 2:00 a.m., slipping into oblivion at the Orange County Social Club, where all nights in Carrboro have led since time immemorial. Then I’ll lay down in the street and die because we’ve been out here for eighteen hours and I’m forty. 

But perfection requires sacrifice. No regrets. 

Landmark: Cat’s Cradle

Where to Get a Cup of Coffee: Open Eye Café

Where to Visit with Friends: Bowbarr

Where to Walk Your Dog: Carolina North Forest

Where to Spend the Night: That motel next to the Cradle


Orange County Social Club

108 East Main Street, 919-933-0669, facebook.com/ocsc.carrboro

Within its small footprint, Carrboro, the little mill town that could, is growing in lots of ways, and when we think about the one place you must go, it’s hard to boil it down from the fine-dining options and music venues and fancy bars. That’s why, especially if you’re new in town, we’re recommending a humble local anchor where all these walks of life converge, and that’s the Orange County Social Club. Here, the people who constitute Carrboro’s vibrant independent music scene and who work in its restaurants and bars rub elbows with those who support that music scene and frequent those restaurants and bars, along with anyone else drawn in by the rope lights shining through the front windows or the boisterous back patio. An old-fashioned hipster bar with all the PBR and plain stiff drinks you could hope for, with indie rock on the jukebox and a pool table clacking in the dimness, it’s the perfect place to get your feet planted in the local heart of Carrboro and branch out from there. 

Note: We’ve highlighted our pick for the best of each category below.


Acme Food & Beverage Co.

110 East Main Street, 919-929-2263, acmecarrboro.com

At Acme, Southern staples don’t get fused and abused—“Damn good food” is the simple maxim—but they sure do clean up nicely, in an unflashy upscale style. Chef-owner Kevin Callaghan chases ingredients seasonal and nostalgic—cast-iron skillet cornbread, tomato pie, pecan-crusted fried chicken—and craft beers and shrubby signature cocktails hold down the right side of the ampersand. Put on your cleanest Carhartt and you’ll be fine.

Akai Hana

206 West Main Street, 919-942-6848, akaihana.com

For sushi in Carrboro, proceed directly to Akai Hana, a welcoming and communal room where bright, fresh nigiri, sashimi, and rolls are longtime local fixtures. And not to worry, there’s plenty of udon and tempura for the sushi-squeamish. Dare you try the sushi burrito?

Amante Gourmet Pizza

300 East Main Street, 919-929-3330, amantepizza.com

If you see people carrying medium-thick slices around Cat’s Cradle, this is probably where they came from. It’s not quite Mercato, but it’s way better than Papa John’s.

Armadillo Grill

120 East Main Street, 919-929-4669, armadillogrill.com

If you want fast food that’s a hair better than fast food, Armadillo Grill’s inexpensive Tex-Mex will serve all your Styrofoam-queso-bowl and basic enchilada needs. We ate the hell out of it in college.  


711 West Rosemary Street, 919-933-8226, carrburritos.com

At this local legend, rock musicians serve speedy but fresh Mexican comfort food in a bustling room with a sliver of aggressively contested outdoor seating. The dishes don’t come out looking like there was a cheese explosion in the kitchen, but the burritos, stuffed with house-prepared ingredients, are the size of a fat baby’s arm. The signature salsas are especially renowned; get the verde with flour chips and the chipotle with corn. 

Elmo’s Diner

200 North Greensboro Street, 919-929-2909, elmosdinercarrboro.com

Ah, Elmo’s, the proverbial diner with a phonebook-size menu that includes at least an approximation of every dish under the sun—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. You can bring three generations here and everyone will find something they like, and it will all be OK-to-pretty-good. 

Jade Palace

103 East Main Street, 919-942-0006, myjadepalace.com

You want unfussy, standard American Chinese takeout. Jade Palace has it. They’ve had it for a long time. We’ve all been eating it, and we probably will forever. 


101 East Main Street, 919-667-8288, napolicarrboro.com

This is a food truck with a permanent address, and it’s one of Carrboro’s best. The maniacs behind Napoli managed to shove a wood-burning pizza oven into a truck. It can blaze up a hand-stretched Neapolitan pie made with tomatoes and flour from Italy in two minutes flat. Fior di Latte, every damn day.

Neal’s Deli

100 East Main Street, Suite C, 919-967-2185, nealsdeli.com

Does anyone remember when Open Eye Café was tucked in the little Neal’s Deli space before it moved into the latte warehouse next door? Always busy at breakfast, Neal’s is a great little deli that serves old-school fare with a new-school vibe. There are hot and cold sandwiches for lunch, but show up early on Sweet Potato Biscuit Wednesdays before they run out.  

Monterrey Mexican Restaurant 

104 N.C. Highway 54, Unit FF, 919-903-9919, monterreychapelhill.com

Fusion schmusion, sometimes you just want the Mexican restaurant you know: Mexican staff and ownership, strip-mall location, bright colors, dim lighting, big laminated menu pages listing dizzying combinations of tacos and enchiladas and burritos and chalupas, infinite free baskets of chips and pitchers of salsa, melted white cheese in a bowl. Welcome to Monterrey. 


310 East Main Street, 984-234-0054, oakleafnc.com

This casual but sophisticated farm-to-table restaurant, which originated in Pittsboro before moving to Carrboro, is pure foodie bait. A mercurial seasonal menu swirls with rich fare like roasted chicken with foraged chanterelles and bigeye tuna crudo, often gussied up with almost comically rarified ingredients. Do you have to dig up your own “freshly dug potato”? Only one way to find out.

Pizzeria Mercato

408 West Weaver Street, 919-967-2277, pizzeriamercatonc.com

The term pizzeria is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, Mercato expertly chars Neapolitan-style pies using ingredients from the farmers market across the street. But it’s really an upscale restaurant, founded by chef Gabe Barker (scion of the Magnolia Grill dynasty), who brings the same locavore spin on Italian tradition to pastas and salads, too. Forget takeout; sit down for a nice date and drink sparkling Lambrusco in an elegantly roughshod postindustrial room that’s noisy and lively but not overwhelming. 


203 West Weaver Street, 919-967-5008, provenceofcarrboro.com

If Carrboro is the Paris of the Piedmont (it’s not), then this is the Paris of the Paris of the Piedmont. Provence has been planted on Weaver Street since Charles de Gaulle was a child. There were probably still textile mills in Carrboro when it opened. Traditional in its presentation—read: kinda fancy—it still has that shaggy, patio-loving Carrboro vibe, and brings a local, seasonal focus to French Mediterranean cuisine. If you want escargot, go.

Spotted Dog

111 East Main Street, 919-933-1117, thespotteddogrestaurant.com

Spotted Dog isn’t the trendiest restaurant in Carrboro. But it’s one of our perennial haunts because of its wide-ranging menu (as friendly to veggies as carnivores), its unpretentious vibe and earnest dog décor, and its sheer consistency in the wedge-shaped island between Weaver Street Market and the Orange County Social Club. Many a night out in Carrboro begins here. 


200 North Greensboro Street, #1A, 919-240-7937, tandemcarrboro.com

This restaurant, by a veteran of The Umstead Hotel and City Kitchen, has robust, elegant surf-and-turf entrées. Upscale but not snobbish, the globalist menu is full of surprises and might contain anything from a bone marrow appetizer to mushroom risotto, Moroccan lamb shank to open-faced ravioli.  

Tom Robinson’s Seafood

207 Roberson Street, 919-942-1221, tomrobinsonseafood.com

Located behind All Day Records, this shack is your pipeline to super-fresh N.C. seafood—salmon, shrimp, and mussels, along with less familiar croakers and mullets. Bring cash and be prepared to carry out your prize in a sheet of newspaper.  

Venable Rotisserie Bistro

200 North Greensboro Street, 919-904-7160, venablebistro.com

Did you know that Carrboro (named after mill maven Julian Shakespeare Carr) was called Venable (after a UNC president) for a couple of years when it was first incorporated in 1911? This “elevated casual” bistro combines classic Southern dishes with Asian and Latin influences and—wait for it—fresh, local ingredients, which you’ve noticed by now is a Carrboro must. The signature dish is a Cobb salad topped with roasted rotisserie chicken.


2nd Wind

118 East Main Street, facebook.com/2ndwindofcarrboro

With a folksy, faintly hippie patina, this homespun local bar and music venue is versatile in its offerings and has a low-key neighborhood charm. Also: The karaoke’s great. 

401 Main

401 Main Street, 401main.com

This “upscale dive bar” had just opened as we were getting this magazine to the printer, so we haven’t been. But famed burger maestro Al Bowers (of Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill) is running the kitchen, which is all we need to know. Expect a focus on seafood and veggie po’boys and two dog-friendly patios.

B-side Lounge

200 North Greensboro Street, 919-904-7160, b-sidelounge.com

After dinner at the Venable, head next door to this cozy wood-paneled lounge for warm vinyl on the stereo, solid wine on tap, adventurous cocktails, and tapas that are designed, like the space, to foster good times among friends.


100 Brewer Lane, 984-234-0572, facebook.com/belltreespeakeasy

Belltree is styled as a Prohibition-era speakeasy—with period décor, a vibe of heavy leather and mustache wax, and a stealthy location behind a carwash—but it upgrades era-appropriate fare to modern craft-cocktail standards. 


705 West Rosemary Street, 919-967-9725, facebook.com/bowbarr

Call it Orange County Social Club 2.0. Like its predecessor, Bowbarr is your classic townie indie-rocker bar—a dim yet colorful, grungy but comfy barroom full of trucker caps and tattoo sleeves; a wee courtyard where smokers make their last stand; affordable cocktails; and PBR cans supporting a pyramid of choicer beers. A pre- or post-Cradle-show must, it’s also home to a vintage photo booth. 

Carrboro Beverage Company

102 East Main Street, Suite A, 919-942-3116, facebook.com/carrborobevco

Though humble in footprint, this crumbly brick building houses a towering assortment of beers, with a knowledgeable, friendly staff drawing numberless North Carolina brews, exotic imports, and interesting specialties. Taste from the taps and then grab a bottle of your favorite to go. 

Gray Squirrel Coffee Company

360 East Main Street, #100, graysquirrelcoffee.com

This artisan coffee roaster and espresso bar has a cleaner, more modernist vibe inside than Open Eye’s mix-and-match living-room aesthetic. Focusing on precision and service more than volume, Gray Squirrel roasts small batches and serves a narrow menu. Take a half-pound of beans home or let expert baristas bring out the best in them for you.  


106 South Greensboro Street, 919-967-9784, glasshalfullcarrboro.com

Abandon all hope (of not going broke), oenophiles who enter here. Part wine shop and part wine bar, Glasshalfull maintains a twenty-five-bottle list drawn heavily from France, Italy, and the U.S., and behind its deceptively Germanic-sounding name (sound it out) hides a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant good enough to get it listed in Eat instead of Drink, with all the cheese, charcuterie, seafood, and game you can shake a Bordeaux glass at.

The Honeysuckle Cafe and Bar

601 West Main Street, 919-967-9398, thehoneysuckle.org

Hope you got the chance to say goodbye to Looking Glass Café, because The Honeysuckle Cafe and Bar is here. It’s the storefront for Honeysuckle Farms and Gardens, which also has a teahouse in Chapel Hill. It features hyper-local food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; smoothies, teas, and meads; and coffee service. 


105 West Main Street, 919-408-9596, facebook.com/kravekava

You shouldn’t have to drink alcohol to enjoy a bar experience. Krave fills the niche by brewing roots and teas in a relaxed lounge setting, sometimes with live music or DJs. Get your kava here. 

Open Eye Café

101 South Greensboro Street, 919-968-9410, openeyecafe.com

Open Eye is a lodestar of local cafe culture for both its longevity and its seriousness about coffee, with owners who judge barista competitions and fly around the world to meet suppliers. It’s also large and often packed, so it’s a great place to meet and mingle—except at peak laptop hours, when it can look like a weirdly homey coding boot camp. 

The Station

201 East Main Street, 919-918-3923, stationcarrboro.com

This watering hole and live-music venue in a historic train station draws an eclectic, low-key crowd with its eclectic local band bookings. Unpretentious and almost pitch-black inside, it’s a good place to chat intimately with who you came with rather than look for someone else. The drinks are fine; the craft beer selection is better.    

Steel String Brewery

106 South Greensboro Street, Suite A, 919-240-7215, steelstringbrewery.com

Named in homage to the region’s blues and bluegrass heritage, Steel String stands out in a crowded local beer scene. You know where what you’re drinking came from, because the brewery is right there in the taproom, glassed-in but enticingly near.   

Vecino Brewing Co.

300 East Main Street, Suite C, 919-537-9591, vecinobrewing.com

Rising from the ashes of YesterYears Brewery, this revamped spot serves craft beer, wine, and food. It favors heavy IPAs and hearty sandwiches, like the one with braised beef short rib and mac ’n’ cheese on ciabatta. You’ll taste some interesting beer and leave full.


All Day Records

112 East Main Street, Suite A, 919-537-8322, alldayrecords.com

If you’re looking to buy or trade a deep slab of techno vinyl or a harsh noise cassette, this is the spot. (You can shop for new vinyl, too.) The selection is curated by serious heads; it’s an electronic-and-noise-music haven in a lingeringly rock-besotted town. Essential. 

Back Alley Bikes

100 Boyd Street, 919-967-7777, backalleybikes.net

Bike done broke? Take it to Back Alley Bikes, an independent, worker-owned shop. They know their stuff. 

Carrboro Farmers Market

301 West Main Street, 919-280-3326, carrborofarmersmarket.com

It can be easy to forget that North Carolina is a farming state until you drive outside the Triangle—or just visit the Carrboro Farmers Market, which draws farmers from a fifty-mile radius to the town commons on Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons. Stock your pantry with local produce, flora, and more for the week. 

Carr Mill Mall

200 North Greensboro Street, 919-942-8669, carrmillmall.com

Inside a historic cotton mill with gleaming, restored, but intact wooden floors, Carr Mill Mall arranges local and family-owned boutique jewelers, clothing shops, a toy store, restaurants, and more in a sepia photograph of the mill town of yore. 

Glenn’s Tattoo Service

705 West Rosemary Street, Suite A, 919-933-8288, glennstattooservice.net

If you’re new in town and want to assimilate, get yourself inked (and/or pierced). Head directly up the stairs on West Rosemary into Glenn’s, Carrboro’s body-art bastion, where an experienced, gruffly friendly staffer can tat or pierce you up with that ineffable local touch.  

Main Street Music

204 West Main Street, Suite A, 919-942-7666, carrboromusic.com

After the loss of The Music Loft, Carrboro gearheads in need of a local source for pedals, pickups, amps, and guitars turn to Main Street Music more than ever. Its inventory, also available online, brims with well-selected vintage instruments from rare brands at a wide range of prices. 

Surplus Sid’s

309 East Main Street, 919-942-7127, facebook.com/surplussids

Part military surplus, part costume shop, part junk shop, part thrift store—all in all, a Carrboro original. You never know what you’ll find among the old furniture and uniforms and canteens and whatever else Sid gets his hands on. 

Weaver Street Market

101 East Weaver Street, 919-929-0010, weaverstreetmarket.coop

Weaver Street is Carrboro’s co-op grocery store, food bar, and central community space. On its biggish downtown patio, always crowded in nice weather, there’s music, there are dogs, children run wild, people demonstratively hula hoop and do tai chi. You’re probably reading this there.

Womancraft Gifts

360 East Main Street, 919-929-3300, womancraftgifts.squarespace.com

Featuring goods from more than seventy artists, WomanCraft has something for everyone, whether it be patchwork and sewing or ceramics and jewelry. It has the added benefit of supporting local female artists and artisans. 


Anderson Community Park

302 N.C. Highway 54 West, 919-918-7364, townofcarrboro.org

Among its fifty-five acres of leafy trails and spacious lawns, Carrboro’s largest municipal park also offers horseshoe pits, a fishing pond, picnic areas, a playground, and a leash-free zone for your canine friend, not to mention baseball, basketball, and tennis courts.

The ArtsCenter

300 East Main Street, Suite G, 919-929-2787, artscenterlive.org

Few venues can claim they’ve hosted local photographers’ prints, turntablist Kid Koala, and Tibetan Buddhist monks in the same building (albeit separately). But The ArtsCenter showcases all that and more. The calendar is full of local and national performances, which run the gamut from Americana and jazz to theater and comedy.

Carolina North Forest

122 Municipal Drive, Chapel Hill, 919-883-8930, carolinanorthforest.unc.edu

Straddling Carrboro and Chapel Hill, Carolina North Forest offers 750 acres of woodlands, with ample off-road trails popular with hikers, runners, and cyclists. The Carrboro side has a dense trail network hemmed in by Bolin Creek.

Cat’s Cradle

300 East Main Street, 919-967-9053, catscradle.com

The landmark nightclub, famous for hosting your favorite indie band before they blew up, is practically a prerequisite for lists like these. And, yes, it’ll always be that storied club where Nirvana and Public Enemy played back in the day. But with an expanded showroom and a great-sounding second venue in its Back Room, the Cradle is still a vital home for the nationally renowned and local talent you’ll brag about seeing decades from now.

Comment on FINDER at backtalk@indyweek.com. 

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