Fork in the Road

Durham’s Sweet Spot

Scratch satisfies the itch for baked goods done right

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

The masonry facade at Scratch, a new counterservice bakery and sandwich café in downtown Durham, North Carolina, is butter yellow. (Really, it is.) Walls and tables recall various shades of heritage-hen eggs. The drinks cooler is stocked with mason jars of green-gold cider, fixed with handwritten tags proclaiming the farm sourced and the apple variety pressed.

In a glass-fronted display case, alongside ranks of sweet potato and chorizo empanadas and stacks of ginger-lemon coffee cakes, stand half-gallons of turmeric-pickled yard eggs, and quarts of beets that shine bright like garnets. On the far wall, a chalkboard scrawled with exuberant pink and yellow lettering heralds the provenance of the goods that fuel the kitchen of baker and proprietor Phoebe Lawless. Ever Laughter, an organic vegetable farm in nearby Hillsborough, gets a shout-out. So does Bluebird Meadows. And Fickle Creek, too.

If the food served weren’t so great—if the house-cured trout gravlax sandwiches and sea-salt-strewn chocolate crostatas and Shaker lemon pies weren’t so honest and flavorful—Scratch would be a bit too precious for its own good. But at this shoe-box storefront, opened this past June, each pie pulled from the oven, each brown-bag sandwich handed over the counter, has a backstory. Here, the local foods movement is not a mere marketing conceit, as is the case with too many of our region’s latest crop of restaurant concepts. The celebration of Carolina farmers and artisans is an operating ideal on which every Scratch dish depends—including a stupendous fried bologna sandwich, built on a house-baked roll, stacked with locally crafted lunch meat, smeared with coarse-ground mustard, tangled with loops of sautéed onions.

Lawless worked for eight years at Durham’s Magnolia Grill, one of the signal innovators on the New South restaurant scene. Under the tutelage of Karen Barker, who owns Magnolia with her husband, Ben Barker, she learned to roll piecrusts that are buttery, crisp, and—this part is really important—substantial enough to play foil to a dark and profoundly rich chocolate-chess filling. She learned, too, that great bakers work with salt as well as sugar. Leveraging that knowledge, Lawless now serves feta and fennel tarts, roasted pork and hominy empanadas, and, on occasion, braised celery pies topped with anchovy bread crumbs.

Before she opened her brick-and-mortar business, Lawless worked from a Durham farmers’ market stall, where she sold pies to subscribers who made six-month commitments to her roster of sweet and savory goods. She called her program Community Supported Pie, a reference to the Community Supported Agriculture initiatives that connect farmers and consumers across the region. But while Lawless remains serious about showcasing farm-focused baked goods at Scratch, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. That distinction comes to the fore when you glimpse the tattoo of cartoon salt and pepper shakers dancing across her left arm. And it comes into focus when you taste the kooky sugar-dusted, buttermilk-perfumed doughnut muffins she piles high by the register.