14 Hours in Lakewood & West Durham
(By Brian Howe)
I live in Tuscaloosa-Lakewood, a mostly residential portal between West Durham and Chapel Hill that’s light on commercial attractions but nevertheless features some great spots and a lot of walkable neighborhood charm, from the modest but well-cared-for family homes around where I live to the tony precincts of Forest Hills.
To work up an appetite, I’m going to start my day at 9:00 a.m. with some weightlifting and treadmill at the Lakewood YMCA. Then, I’ll head to Cocoa Cinnamon for a single-origin pour-over coffee and a sugar-dusted churro (or four—I just worked out).
At about eleven, I head to the Durham Co-op Market to do my grocery shopping for the week, chat with the regulars hanging out at the picnic tables, and think about getting my favorite sandwich (the Vegan Gerard, with “roast beef” on sourdough) before opting to go elsewhere for lunch—True Flavors Diner.
This upscale but moderately priced Southern-food diner, located in a charming old building of crumbly brick, should keep me busy for a while, just trying to choose between the diverse likes of fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, avocado toast, and the grilled lobster cheese biscuit.
Now it’s 1:30 p.m., and, since I chose the grilled lobster cheese biscuit, it’s definitely time for more exercise. Forest Hills Park offers a nice greenway and, since the weather’s hot, a splash in the “spray-ground” or a dip in the Durham Parks and Rec pool (fortunately, I remembered to renew my membership) is in order.
At 4:30 p.m., I’ll squeeze in a bit of shopping before dinner, starting with the higher-ticket items at Gibson Girl Vintage (do they still have that vintage MTV satin crew jacket I’ve been eyeing?) and then giddily dive into the lower-priced racks at Rumors Boutique (I’ve got some old local band t-shirts I need to offload).
While I’m there, I’ll wistfully cast an eye toward Thai Café, but in the end, I’ll feel the cow statue on the roof of Taqueria La Vaquita pulling me in like tractor beam. At 6:30 p.m., I’ll dig into tilapia tacos, fresh-made guacamole, and oily salsa. It might take a while, because Vaquita is very small and very popular, but that’s OK—it’s a lovely day for a walk around the surrounding neighborhood, stopping to admire the façade of St. Paul Lutheran Church.
At this point, I’d usually run downtown for some fun, but as luck has it, there’s an independent dance performance at The Scrap Exchange, so I’ll take that in, gather a posse, and then head to Thai Café after all, until it closes at 11:00 p.m., to wash down this downtown-free day with an ice-cold Singha lager and a dirty martini.
Landmark: University Tower (aka The Pickle Building, aka The Dallas Phallus)
Where to Get a Cup of Coffee: Joe Van Gogh
Where to Visit with Friends: Cocoa Cinnamon
Where to Walk Your Dog: Al Buehler Trail
Where to Spend the Night: Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club
2013 Chapel Hill Road, cocoacinnamon.com
Consistently one of the liveliest gathering places in the neighborhood, the Lakewood Cocoa Cinnamon—one of three Durham locations—is worth the trip strictly for its churros, caked in the sugar of your choice (regular, cinnamon, orange, cardamom) and perfect with a single-origin coffee or a frothy cappuccino. Cocoa is packed with a cross-section of locals from early in the morning until well into the night, making it a great place to meet someone you know or someone you don’t.
Note: We’ve highlighted our pick for the best of each category below.
1929 Chapel Hill Road, 919-403-2527, aztecagrillnc.com
One of Lakewood’s longtime anchors, Azteca Grill is a favorite for Mexican food with a regional twist—specifically, the western state of Michoacán. In addition to tacos and tamales, you can also find traditional soups and seafood dishes.
4600 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, #38, 919-908-7975, el-chapin.com
This Guatemalan restaurant has vibrant colors and music to match the fresh juices and bright dishes. Try rich tamales and stewed chicken, along with house-made toppings like salsa, pickled veggies, and grilled jalapeños.
2694 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, 919-489-3944, fostersmarket.com
Foster’s Market is mostly a restaurant ideal for breakfast (the burrito!) and lunch (the mac and cheese!), but its small grocery area is stocked with sweets, snacks, and other sundries, which gives it a folksy, general-store feel—almost like a Cracker Barrel, but with food that tastes good and fewer Charlie Daniels CDs.
1200 West Chapel Hill Street, 919-973-3636, grubdurham.com
Sometimes the best food is a simple dish done well, and that’s exactly the specialty at Grub. The Bloody Marys are a hangover essential.
Guglhupf Bakery, Café, and Restaurant
2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, 919-401-2600, guglhupf.com
Just as vital as Cocoa Cinnamon, Guglhupf is a bakery and contemporary German-inspired cuisine restaurant whose roomy interior and outdoor seating stays popular and packed. If you’re only in the mood for a snack, the bakery can set you up with a staggering array of pastries, cookies, soft pretzels, breads, and more.
Golden Pizza & Subs
2300 Chapel Hill Road, 919-401-4447, goldenpizzadurham.com
This family-owned neighborhood staple was founded in 1996 in the Lakewood shopping center and, after being closed for five years because of a fire, returned in 2013 to a standalone spot nearby. Expect New York-style pizza, subs, wings, salads, and home-style lasagna.
Happy China Sichuan Cuisine
2505 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, 919-237-2021, myhappychina.com
With its dual-language menu, this well-liked restaurant is serious about its Chinese heritage and liberal with its spice.
1114 West Chapel Hill Street, Suite A, 919-489-5900, localyogurtdurham.com
The first independently owned frozen yogurt shop in Durham offers a standard take on the lighter-calorie alternative to ice cream. Don’t forget fresh fruit and sprinkles.
2514 University Drive, 919-493-8545, nanasofdurham.com
A quarter-century ago, Nana’s broke ground in Durham for fine dining, but we lost it for a time after persistent flooding caused it to close. But chef Scott Howell revived the institution in 2019, bringing its creative, sophisticated American cuisine to a new generation.
5420 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, 919-251-9794
Namu is many things. For starters, it’s a collaboration between Bulkogi Korean BBQ and Bo’s Kitchen food trucks, serving Korean dishes with a Mexican twist. It’s also a place where you can grab a top-notch coffee, local craft beer, or wine. Last but not least, it’s a sprawling maze of cozy indoor seating, bamboo, hidden outdoor tables, and a garden that’s quiet and peaceful despite being just feet away from 15-501.
2512 University Drive, 919-489-8226, nuvotaco.com
Speaking of Scott Howell, this modern Mexican-American restaurant was formerly a part of his empire but broke out on its own as NuvoTaco this year. Fast, fresh, and local, its signature is its “dirty meats,” with local hog jowls, pork belly, chicken liver, and more as adventurous taco fillings.
The Original Q Shack
2510 University Drive, 919-402-4227, theqshackoriginal.com
There are some North Carolina barbecue spots that will only do regional-style barbecue, but The Original Q Shack serves brisket, St. Louis-style ribs, and meat-and-threes alongside its own varieties of vinegar- or tomato-sauced pulled pork.
The Refectory Café
2726 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, 919-908-6798, therefectorycafe.com
Health-conscious omnivores and vegans will all find plenty to love at The Refectory Café, which offers lots of light fare—grilled salmon, seared scallops, plenty of salads—as well as some Italian-inflected dinner entrees. Swing by for a sandwich or soup at lunch or enjoy a cold-pressed juice with challah cinnamon French toast at breakfast.
Saltbox Seafood Joint
2637 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, 919-237-3499, saltboxseafoodjoint.com
Chef Ricky Moore was inspired by classic American waterside seafood shacks for this restaurant concept, and the daily handwritten menu reflects whatever is freshest from the North Carolina coast on a given day.
2501 University Drive, 919-493-9794, thaicafenc.com
This authentic Thai restaurant features a full-service bar, a spacious interior, and outdoor seating, which is all great, but you’re really here for the volcano pots of spicy coconut soup, pad Thai, tofu-fried rice, and multi-colored curries.
True Flavors Diner
2022 Chapel Hill Road, 919-294-9757, trueflavorsdiner.com
The second True Flavors location has a wide-ranging menu encompassing lime-and-basil chicken wings, lobster omelets, duck hash, and country-fried steak, all served in massive portions for reasonable prices in a charming vintage building.
4201 University Drive, 919-489-9888, twistednoodlesdurham.com
Similar to Thai Café, Twisted Noodles serves lots of curries, fried chicken, fried rice, soups, salads, and a cavalcade of noodle dishes.
Taqueria La Vaquita
2700 Chapel Hill Road, 919-402-0209, lavaquitadurham.com
This is a Lakewood landmark, and not just because of the cow statue that proudly adorns its roof. This humble-looking taco shack, which features only a take-out window and a small patch of outdoor seating, is beloved for its extensive menu and authentic Mexican cooking. It’s very small and very popular, so expect to wait longer than you might expect, but know that it’ll be worth it.
Beer Study/Starpoint Brewing
2501 University Drive, #9, 984-219-7538, beerstudy.com
Unlike the original Chapel Hill location, Beer Study—a bottle shop with an impressive selection of beers in bottles, cans, and on draft—boasts an arcade in its Durham spot, which it shares with Starpoint Brewing. Swing by for some refreshments to take home after work or stay and enjoy the neighborhood-bar feel.
Joe Van Gogh
1114 West Chapel Hill Street, Suite B, 984-219-7598, joevangogh.com
At this pocket-size version of the local coffee chain, you can get a coffee or tea to go, or fill up a bag of coffee beans to take home. Need a snack? They’ve got pastries, too.
Durham Co-op Market
1111 West Chapel Hill Street, 919-973-1707, durham.coop
If you prefer to shop for groceries away from the Amazon-controlled clutches of Whole Foods, the Co-op is the place for you. In addition to its requisite organic grocery options, the store also boasts a good cheese counter, a coffee bar, a hot-food bar, and a selection of organic and earth-friendly products to take care of the outside of your body, too.
Gibson Girl Vintage
1001 West Chapel Hill Street, 434-710-0432, gibsongirlvintage.com
This relative newcomer to Lakewood has sharply curated vintage clothing, sure, but you’ll also find all manner of other retro wonders—things like princess telephones and mid-century refrigerators. It’s a lot of fun to explore, and it often doubles as an evening music and event space.
2501 University Drive, #3, 919-381-8585, shopatrumors.com
With preexisting locations in Richmond, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, this vintage and modern secondhand boutique has now sneaked into Lakewood, too. Funky and fun, it’s also eager to comb through your wardrobe for trade-ins or cash.
2501 University Drive, 919-489-2884, wineauthorities.com
Whether you’re completely new to the wonderful world of wines or a seasoned wino who knows exactly what you want, Wine Authorities can get you properly outfitted to sail the Dionysian seas.
Forest Hills Park
1639 University Drive, 919-560-4355, durhamnc.gov/2728/Forest-Hills-Park
Spend some time in the great outdoors without going too far. In addition to playgrounds, the park also includes soccer fields, tennis courts, a summertime “spray-ground,” grills, and spaces for picnics, as well as greenway access.
2119 Chapel Hill Road, 919-401-9622, ymcatriangle.org/locations/lakewood-ymca
Youth soccer, after-school programs, a gym, exercise classes, community events, and more await.
Rhythms Live Music Hall
2020 Chapel Hill Road, #33, 984-219-1594, rhythmslivenc.com
It’s easy to forget about this newer music venue hiding behind a nondescript exterior in the Lakewood Shopping Center. But if you do, you’ll be missing out on a steady diet of jazz, gospel, comedy, rock, and other genres from legacy touring acts. Even classic country music, not usually well-represented in the urban areas of the Triangle, gets to shine—earlier this year, the venue booked Crystal Gayle.
2050 Chapel Hill Road, 919-688-6960, scrapexchange.org
Durham’s sprawling “creative reuse center”—read: find all manner of cast-off old stuff, turn it into new stuff by yourself or in the center’s numerous programs—is the anchor of the historic Lakewood Shopping Center. It’s also a bustling event and community space with an art gallery that focuses on monthly exhibits by artists who consider sustainability part of their project, and it has its own attached thrift store, too.
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