Durham is renowned for our world-class Duke University, tobacco history, and minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls. In recent years, our proximity to the agriculture of the NC Piedmont, an influx of creatives and entrepreneurs, and an interest in revitalizing our picturesque downtown have combined to turn Durham into the South’s Tastiest Town, according to Southern Living magazine. We hope you’ll visit soon and taste some of what Durham has to offer!
Our city’s cultural influences combine to produce some tasty food. Some of our favorite exemplars are:
Dame’s Chicken & Waffles. If you want some of their crispy chicken on tender waffles with a signature flavored butter shmear, get there at an off-hour or prepare to wait a bit. This place is popular!
Johnson Family BBQ. Durham isn’t known for its barbecue joints, but if you want to sample eastern North Carolina style barbecue while in town, consider driving out to Johnson Family BBQ in east Durham. Located in a gas station, it’s always a good sign when you can see the wood piled up outside and smoke billowing from a shed. Traditional sides include good hush puppies and collards.
King’s Sandwich Shop is a picturesque walk-up burger stand near the Durham Athletic Park, the original home of the Durham Bulls made famous in the movie Bull Durham. Ask for your burger “Carolina-style” with chili, slaw, and mustard and enjoy your meal on the picnic tables nearby.
Saltbox Seafood Joint. Durham is the lucky home to this world-class seafood shack from chef Ricky Moore. A must-visit during your trip to the Bull City, Saltbox gets their fish fresh from the NC coast daily. Get there early for best selection (they post when they’re sold out on their Facebook page) so you can enjoy the catches of the day, from succulent fried shrimp to expertly prepared blue fish. A second location is slated to open the summer of 2017.
Latin American Joints
Durham is blessed with a vibrant Latin American community, and we find ourselves eating this kind of food more than any other. Some of the best:
Chubby’s Tacos is located on the bustling strip of 9th Street that serves as a hub for Duke University students. We love it for a cheap, satisfying meal where you can get a burrito bigger than your forearm, fresh corn tortilla tacos, and an all-you-can-eat salsa bar featuring their famous guacatillo salsa (a mix of avocado and tomatillo).
El Cuscatleco is situated on the main thoroughfare connecting Durham and Chapel Hill. Featuring Mexican and Salvadorian food, our favorite meals are the Plato Tipico where you get to sample a little of everything or the Bandeja Salvadorena, a plate of steak, eggs, and a chunk of salty, hard cheese.
La Guanajuato sits on a stretch of North Roxboro Street where you can find many other treasures such as La Superior Carniceria and La Monarca (for Mexican paletas) sprinkled among the dollar stores and gas stations. Our favorites include their bean and cheese pupusas and chilaquiles with thinly sliced griddled steak.
Mami Nora’s makes their incredible Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken in a charcoal-fired oven imported from Peru. Also on North Roxboro Street, you can’t find chicken this good anywhere else. Round out your meal with stewed black beans, plantains, and cole slaw.
Taqueria La Vaquita. There’s a lot of competition, but we think Taqueria La Vaquita has the best tacos in Durham. Look for the cow on top of this small building, order your tacos at the window, and enjoy your meal at their picnic tables under the Carolina blue sky.
North Carolinians enjoy temperate weather much of the year. We like sitting outside so much, we even enjoy it during the hot and humid summer months. Here are some of our favorite places to enjoy the warmth and do some people-watching:
Cocoa Cinnamon. Located on the bustling corner of West Geer and Foster Streets, our city is lucky to have this world-class coffee shop within our borders. Cocoa Cinnamon features the perfect trifecta of amazing coffee and tea, picture-perfect outside seating, and a welcoming community atmosphere. There’s often a food truck in the parking lot so you can enjoy some sustenance with your caffeine.
Geer Street Garden. On a nice day, it doesn’t get any better than Geer Street’s beer garden. You can hang out as long as you like among Durhamites and their well-behaved dogs while enjoying local beers, cocktails, summery wine and a full menu of snacks and meals.
Guglhupf. Guglhupf’s patio might be the nicest outdoor seating in Durham. A great spot for breakfast and lunch, Guglhupf serves excellent food with a German twist. We love their Mediterranean Salad and their latte, served with a sweet crunchy shortbread cookie. They also make great European-style pastries and supply their famous brezel rolls to many restaurants in the Triangle.
Motorco’s location in the happening DIY District, across Riggsbee Street from Fullsteam Brewery, makes it a great place to soak in Durham’s gritty vibe and people watch. Motorco itself is a music venue, so check out the schedule before you come. But whether you want to see music or not, be sure to check out Parts & Labor -- globally-inspired street food available at their bar.
Parker & Otis is a cafe/gourmet shop with a lovely patio that is a must-visit while in Durham. We recommend heading there on a weekend morning to try their renowned sky-high cheesy biscuits. After you eat, you can spend hours perusing their well-curated selection of gifts, local pantry items, wine, paper goods, and books.
Pompieri Pizza. Located around the corner from popular sister restaurant Bull City Burger & Brewery, we think Pompieri has the best pizza in Durham. We always go for the simple yet classic Margherita pizza with its crispy charred crust, bright tomato sauce, milky mozzarella cheese, and hydroponically-grown fresh basil. They also have inventive cocktails and housemade ice cream which you can enjoy on their new patio.
A Night Out
You should go out fancy at least one night while you’re in the Dirty D. Try to get into one of these:
Vin Rouge. Serving French bistro food in a cozy, romantic atmosphere, you’re going to want to try their gratin de macaroni (aka macaroni and cheese)! They’re also known for their steak frites and great wine selection.
Pizzeria Toro is a gem in downtown Durham offering wood-fired Neapolitan-style pies with seasonal ingredients. We love the well-designed atmosphere and excellent Italian beverage offerings. They don’t accept reservations, so go early or late to avoid waiting too long.
Mateo Bar de Tapas is a gorgeous restaurant on the edge of downtown offering Spanish-style tapas. We have too many favorites to list, but some don’t-miss dishes are their Mata Y Pimienta Gelatina (inspired by Southern favorite hot pepper jelly with cream cheese), Gambas (shrimp floating in warm lemon-y olive oil), and Patatas Bravas (fried potatoes with paprika cream).
Gocciolina won the prestigious Restaurant of the Year award from The News & Observer in 2015. Oddly situated in a rundown strip north of town, they work wonders with housemade pasta and vegetables.
Piedmont is run by the owners of nearby Coon Rock Farm, making the farm-to-table distance at this restaurant impressively short. Piedmont incorporates locally-sourced foods whenever possible, such as in their mouth-watering Smoked Carolina Trout Dip served with housemade crackers. We’re also big fans of their inventive takes on classic cocktails and their wine program.
Durham must have one of the highest proportion of delicious bakeries per capita than anywhere in the nation. Here are some of our favorites:
Loaf makes the best croissants this side of the Atlantic. Their excellent breads, French pastries, and to-die-for chocolate chip cookies make this a great place to stock up for a dinner party. Note that there’s no seating inside, but in nice weather you can enjoy your country ham scone in the small park at the corner of Mangum and Parrish Streets.
Monuts. Durhamites go nuts for this place, so consider going at an off-hour. They have creative bagel sandwiches using local ingredients, seasonal iced tea blends, and great donuts. If you time it right, you might snag a melt-in-your-mouth apple cider donut fresh from the fryer.
Rise. Don’t let its location in a strip mall fool you; Rise makes great donuts and biscuit breakfast sandwiches. One of the only South Durham spots on our list, our favorite flavors include their Maple Bacon Bar and Creme Brulee donut.
Rose’s Meat Market & Sweet Shop is not your typical butcher shop. This husband and wife team combine pasture-raised meats with delicate pastries and add in delicious prepared foods and a pantry of local products for good measure. Don’t miss their housemade ice cream, lard caramels, or the piping hot bowls of ramen they crank out each Wednesday.
Scratch’s proprietor, Phoebe Lawless, makes such inventive and tasty pies, and she is a four-time James Beard Award semi-finalist. Known for her creativity with local ingredients, be sure to check out Scratch for breakfast or weekend brunch. You can pair a fluffy biscuit sandwich with a London Fog (earl grey tea and vanilla latte) and one of her famous chocolate sea salt crostatas, doughnut muffins, or a slice of seasonal pie.
As home to some of the state’s most renowned breweries, Durham is a great town for drinking. There are many spots worth a visit, but some of our personal favorites are:
Bar Virgile opened in 2014, but they’re already a favorite in downtown Durham. Featuring classic cocktails and a full menu of small plates and snacks, you’ll love their well-designed interior. Our favorites are the Smoked Duck Salad and Martinez cocktail.
Alley Twenty Six’s founder, Shannon Healy, got his start at Chapel Hill’s renowned New Southern restaurant Crook’s Corner. You can enjoy a frequently rotating menu of handcrafted cocktails in this warm and inviting bar. Also on offer are a selection of wines and cheese and charcuterie plates.
Fullsteam Brewery’s proprietor Sean Lilly Wilson was one of the founding fathers of the craft beer movement in North Carolina. His team produces plow-to-pint beers in Durham’s bustling DIY District using locally-grown and foraged products like barley, hops, persimmons, sweet potatoes, and honey. Visitors can enjoy a flight of seasonal beers, served on a North Carolina-shaped board.
Things to Do Besides Eat
Try as we might, we can’t eat all day. Here are some can’t miss non-edible attractions in the Bull City:
Durham Farmers’ Market. Farmers and artisans come from miles around to sell their seasonal produce at downtown Durham’s Central Park every Saturday morning and on Wednesday afternoons in the summer. On Saturdays, food trucks line up along Hunt Street; our favorite is Soom Soom Pita Pockets.
Eno River State Park. Durhamites are incredibly lucky to have this large state park within our limits. Get some fresh air and exercise as you hike trails along the Eno River. Certain trails give you views of old mills and residences, and the West Point on the Eno section of the park features a working gristmill where you can purchase freshly milled corn meal and grits.
American Tobacco Trail. You can pick up this 22+ mile trail south of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park downtown and walk/run/bike it all the way to Southpoint Mall in south Durham and beyond. The trail runs along a previously abandoned railroad built by the American Tobacco Company to transport tobacco in and out of Durham.
Sarah P. Duke Gardens are a beautiful place to explore, whether wandering around to admire the foliage, lounging on a picnic blanket in the sunshine, or cozying up with a good book on a park bench. On select summer nights, some of the best musicians from Durham’s venerable music scene give concerts in the garden, so be sure to check the schedule.
Durham Bulls Athletic Park is home to our famous minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls. A trip to Durham isn’t complete without a baseball game. Be sure to root for the home team so you can witness the snorting mechanical bull who billows smoke when the Bulls hit a homerun.