Fork in the Road

Small Wonder

One of the newest additions to a growing Durham is a little gem

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Potted rabbit with house-made crackers.

Potted rabbit, strafed with tarragon and presented with a house-baked version of Ritz crackers, sounds queer and tastes old-fashioned. Shrimp and spoon bread, scattered with roasted corn and ringed by a butter sauce ruddy with ’nduja sausage, suggests a punk-rock shrimp and grits. Shishito peppers, overstuffed with salt-dried catfish, look like diminutive zeppelins and remind me of next-generation jalapeño poppers. Open since June in downtown Durham, North Carolina, Littler is a very small restaurant that delivers very big flavors, a velvet-draped supper club, necklaced by patio lights and built for pleasure.

Conceiving and opening a restaurant beckons a plague of problems. The building contractor goes missing when it’s time for final glosses. The health inspector, faced with newfangled equipment, gets unreasonable. At Littler, the name was the matter. In the run-up, the proprietor, Gray Brooks—a local who made his reputation in Seattle before returning to open nearby Pizzeria Toro in 2012—aimed to name the restaurant Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain.

He intended a tribute to the African American woman who helped raise him. But critics argued that the name clumsily celebrated a past when black women, in the shadow of Jim Crow, felt compelled to call white children like Brooks captain. In booming Durham, where gentrification is a vital issue, and white-owned businesses like Littler now encroach on a district once known as Black Wall Street, blowback came swiftly. Before  he opened the doors, Brooks changed the name.

True to its moniker, Littler is smaller than Toro, which presents as an auto garage doing a side business in wood-fired pizza and antipasti. Brooks said he was inspired by New York City restaurants developed when the Lower East Side and Tribeca were frontiers, rent was comparatively cheap, and chefs took chances. Those 1980s restaurants served Manhattan as clubhouses, where artists forged bonds and plotted fledgling businesses. Today, as Durham entrepreneurs fashion vacant storefronts into boutiques and stylish hotels open, Littler aims to be a cabaret for a new generation of flush North Carolina creative types.

Littler's che de cuisine, Amanda Orser, and proprietor, Gray Brooks.

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Littler’s che de cuisine, Amanda Orser, and proprietor, Gray Brooks.

To realize his vision, Brooks drafted a great menu and hired a team of pros, including chef de cuisine Amanda Orser, who spent a decade across town at Magnolia Grill, the beloved New South citadel that chefs Karen and Ben Barker closed in 2012 after a twenty-five-year run. Flash back to 2000, when the Barkers published a cookbook, Not Afraid of Flavor, and you recognize why the cooking at Littler is righteous. Like the Barkers, Orser and Brooks show no fear.

The tomato tarte tatin, paired with two blue-veined boulders of Stilton, beautifully subverts the French apple dish while reminding diners that the tomato is a fruit that responds well to butter and sugar and the Maillard reaction. Latkes, fried to a snap and crowned with yellow button yolks, prove ideal foils for creamy hunks of applewood-smoked trout. Falafel, made from butter beans and garnished with goat yogurt, tastes brighter and sweeter than the chickpea norm. Not all bold dishes work: The beef heart tartare, tumbled with a house version of processed cheese, looks and tastes goofy.

Like a guitarist in an indie band who stares at her feet while abusing the whammy bar, Littler broadcasts studied insouciance. Mismatched china, embossed with flowers and seemingly pilfered from a grandee’s breakfront, lines the tables. Striped napkins, tucked in rings shaped like roosters, sit next to high-sheen cutlery. Lowball glasses, embossed with coppered cartoons and seemingly rescued from a 1970s man cave, slosh with mezcal and rye cocktails. A stark Harrison Haynes photograph of a fallen tree, mounted above a spindle-backed bench, recalls rock-and-roll posters from the 1980s:

The message embedded is inscrutable—and somehow compelling.

At a moment when it’s common for restaurants to install a turntable and a library of flea-market-sourced vinyl, Littler both meets and exceeds expectations. A reel-to-reel deck, the audiophile’s choice, dominates the back bar, bordered by tapes from Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Blondie, and Rod Stewart. Viewed from the dining room, Littler’s wall of sound resembles a kind of art installation. But it serves as more than a mere backdrop.

When a needle hits a groove or a tape hisses to life, diners hear more than Gram Parson’s reedy-voiced rendition of “Hickory Wind.” In this digital moment, when chefs use the antiseptic word concept to describe restaurants, and scalable fast-casual is the entrepreneurial grail, Littler wants you to know that it’s an analog restaurant, a singular space, where real live humans work the turntable and the reel-to-reel, and bright-eyed Amanda Orser tarragon-braises rabbit, bakes Ritz, and cranks the volume nightly.