City Portrait

Growth Spurt: Durham’s New Hot Spots

Between its creative food scene and its now-thriving downtown, Durham these days has lots to delight

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Fresh seafood at Saltbox.

Where to Eat + Drink

Fullsteam  Brewery
Don’t let the taproom’s arcade games, live-music stage, and wall of low-tech diversions—Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, and the like—fool you into thinking the folks at Fullsteam are only after a good time. Founder Sean Lilly Wilson and his team are serious about their suds. The pioneering group brews twenty-five creative beers with a focus on North Carolina terroir, including Humidity, a modern pale ale made with Tar Heel State grain.

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Chirashi, almost too pretty to eat, at M Sushi.

M Sushi
Traditional omakase-style dining, meaning “chef’s choice,” is the house specialty at chef Michael Lee’s Zen-like sushi palace. Grab a spot at the bar and watch Lee and his sous-chefs orchestrate the indulgent seven-to-ten-course meal, which might include a rainbow-hued bowl of chirashi (sashimi and pickled vegetables served over rice), eel steamed buns, and sawagani, tiny freshwater crabs found in Japan. Or if you want a little turf with your surf, order à la carte and then head next door to the cozy M Kokko, a Korean fried chicken joint Lee opened in September.

Mothers & Sons
Every morsel of cavatelli, tagliatelle, pappardelle, and gnocchi on the menu at chefs Matt Kelly and Josh DeCarolis’s new downtown trattoria is hand made by DeCarolis each morning, while lighter fare includes a shaved artichoke salad with king trumpet mushrooms. Bookending this lively homage to Italian tradition are two more Kelly outposts, his much-loved Mateo Tapas and another recent addition, Lucky’s Deli, which opened in June and does a standout eggplant parm.

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Chef Josh DeCarolis hand makes the pasta at Mothers & Sons.

Parts & Labor
Concertgoers at Motorco, Durham’s largest music venue, don’t have to look far for a pre- or post-show bite and a brew. Housed inside a converted garage, the hall shares space with this indoor-outdoor beer garden, which dishes out globally influenced street food like samosas (Indian pastries stuffed with potatoes) from 11:30 a.m. until at least midnight. Even if the auditorium is dark, Parts & Labor, with its two-dozen-plus beer offerings, is consistently packed.

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Magic hour on the patio at Parts & Labor.

Pizzeria Toro
Don’t let kale fatigue keep you from digging in to the singular Tuscan kale salad, dressed with pine nuts, chiles, and shaved Parmesan, at Durham native Gray Brooks’s beloved wood-fired-pizza joint. Brooks bases his imaginative pies, a cross between New York style and classic Neapolitan, on North Carolina ingredients, such as Sneads Ferry clams and Creedmor delicata squash. For palate-pushing plates with a similar ethos, check out Littler, his new thirty-six-seat dinner spot that launched around the corner in June.

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Ice cream sandwiches at Rose’s.

Rose’s Meat Market & Sweet Shop 
Residents love Rose’s for the Wednesday ramen made with bones from the hogs Justin Meddis breaks down for the sausages, pork chops, and tenderloins he sells alongside other locally raised meats. But equally adored are the indulgences his wife, Katie—a baker and the “sweet” half of the unusual operation—dreams up, from made-daily ice cream sandwiches to salted-caramel ginger apple hand pies.

These days, chef Ricky Moore, whose résumé includes fine-dining kitchens from New York to Paris, serves blissfully simple seafood from this urban fish camp. A chalkboard menu next to the walk-up window—there is no indoor seating—announces the day’s offerings. Fresh-caught perch, whiting, black drum, flounder, and more come grilled or lightly fried and arrive with crispy potatoes and slaw. Add an order of his hush puppies drizzled with spiced honey.

First and foremost you come for the sinful Southern pies—brown butter pecan, heirloom apple, buttermilk sweet potato. But proprietor Phoebe Lawless also delivers breakfast, lunch, and a bang-up Sunday brunch complete with a build-your-own buttermilk biscuit bar. The coffee selection is first-rate, but if you’re a tea drinker, opt for the London Fog, an Earl Grey latte with a dash of vanilla that’s so good it’s served in a bowl (because a mug just isn’t enough).

Where to Shop

Carolina Soul
A longtime collector of rare soul and funk music from North and South Carolina—artists like the Communicators and Black Experience Band—Jason Perlmutter started selling vinyl online in 2010 before introducing Durham’s newest brick-and-mortar record store in 2016 (astonishingly, it’s the city’s third). Perlmutter stocks a vast amount of the music that got him into the business but also maintains a selection of jazz, rock, blues, gospel, and R&B with a personal touch you won’t find on iTunes.

The Bull City is fertile ground for booksellers. Not many towns can claim an independent bookstore with a forty-year track record like Durham’s Regulator. Even fewer are opening up new shops, especially in the heart of downtown, which is where you’ll discover Letters, Land Arnold’s charming outpost for new and used books. With insight and knowledge that will remind you of your favorite English teacher, Arnold is known to tuck notes inside choice titles, whether current releases or classics.

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Nonfiction shelves at Letters.

Parker and Otis
An updated take on the catchall general stores that once buttressed the South, this friendly downtown café, grocery, and gift shop is a go-to whether you need a bottle of wine for dinner, a unique last-minute hostess thank-you, a quick breakfast, or a sweet treat. The founder recently opened a sister boutique, Chet Miller, which ups the style quotient with a focus on home goods and gifts such as Faribault wool throws, vintage barware, and local art. Don’t expect to leave either empty-handed.

Vert & Vogue
A 2001 meet cute in a Paris boutique led Nadira and Ryan Hurley to open this men’s and women’s clothing store in Brightleaf Square seven years later. Durham’s gutsy, on-the-rise atmosphere appealed to the fashion-forward couple, who stock both the Brightleaf flagship location and their newer downtown space (women’s wear only) with eco-friendly lines. More than half of the inventory at both shops is American made, including such regional brands as Raleigh Denim and Peppertrain jewelry.

What to See + Do

American Tobacco Campus
If a homer sailed over the famous HIT BULL, WIN STEAK sign at Durham Athletic Park, it would land just shy of this former Lucky Strike factory and American Tobacco headquarters turned entertainment destination. Its one million square feet contain more than a dozen restaurants that open onto the complex’s central green space, which is crisscrossed by a bubbling man-made creek fed by an underground reservoir. From May through September, you can sit on its banks and enjoy North Carolina Public Radio’s popular outdoor concert series.

Eno River State Park
What did Durham look like when the Eno and Occaneechi tribes lived and farmed here? Ramble along the thirty-plus miles of wooded trails surrounding the picturesque Eno River to find out. Follow the swift, shallow stream to Bobbitt Hole, a favorite swimming spot, for the perfect photo op, hike Cox Mountain if you’re after a challenging climb, or try to hook a wild Roanoke bass—found in only three other river drainages in the region.

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Paddling the Eno River.

Nasher Museum of Art
From Diego Velázquez to Walter Anderson to Andy Warhol, the modernist Nasher Museum brings exhibitions showcasing some of the world’s top artistic talent to the Research Triangle. Admission is just five dollars for adults, but in an effort to make art accessible to all, the museum offers free guided tours on Thursday evenings. Keep an eye out for special programming such as a March 5 reading with the North Carolina writer Lee Smith.

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Inside the Nasher Museum of Art.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens
Opened in 1939, the fifty-five-acre Duke Gardens are hardly a secret—but that doesn’t stop the beautifully maintained tract from feeling like one. Walk through the Gothic gates and you smell the formal rose garden before you see it. A few hundred yards away, you encounter the Native Plants garden, bursting with more than nine hundred regional species and varieties. Its narrow dirt paths feel like a solitary walk in the woods. And the historic Italianate Terrace Gardens cry out for a picnic.

Where to Stay


Photo: Lissa Gotwals

A Raleigh Denim-clad porter at the Durham hotel.

The Durham
From guest-room coverlets made of local Cone Mills denim to the lobby’s bold geometric carpet, this sumptuously refitted fifty-three-room boutique hotel, which opened in 2015 inside downtown’s historic Home Savings Bank Building, earns major midcentury style points. But the hotel’s biggest draws might be the view and the drinks from Durham’s only rooftop bar, run by James Beard Award–winning chef Andrea Reusing (of Chapel Hill’s Lantern), who also manages the lauded first-floor fine-dining restaurant.

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Settling in at the lobby bar.

21c Museum Hotel Durham
The Kentucky-based group behind the 21c hotels, where hallways and elevator bays double as gallery space, found a home for its fourth location in a Durham high-rise designed by the same firm that drafted plans for the Empire State Building. At Counting House, the lobby restaurant and bar, the culinary arts intersect with installations like Ned Kahn’s Spoonfall, a mesmerizing wall of water trickling down rows of utensils.