It’s been quite a few years since Durham’s restaurant scene was one of the best-kept secrets in the South. Hard to tell when word really got out—maybe it was when one prominent food writer declared it “America’s foodiest small town” back in 2008. Either way, folks from coast to coast are now paying attention and arriving in town hungry.
A lot of Durham’s culinary success has been homegrown, fueled by a tight-knit restaurant community. More recently its reputation as an eating town has attracted talent from cities like San Francisco and New York. All of this has helped turn Durham into one of the most diverse places to dine in the state. You could start your morning with stellar breakfast tacos (Lady Gold Tacos), dig into a bowl of mapo tofu dumplings for lunch (Corner Yaki inside the Durham Food Hall), and end your day with an Ethiopian feast of doro wat and awaze tibs (Goorsha). The following establishments are generating buzz and putting out killer food.
If Ekhaya isn’t the nation’s only African tapas joint, it’s one of just a few. Chef Zweli Williams serves up a menu of shareable items like a Scotch egg with Zimbabwean sausage, savory sausage rolls, and bobotie—a southern African staple of minced, spiced beef topped with an egg souffle and baked right into a safari camp–style coffee mug.
Raleigh chef Oscar Diaz chose the Bull City for his latest venture, a restaurant that combines comfort food with Diaz’s Mexican-American upbringing. He’s got goat birria dumplings, a whole roasted chicken with piri piri sauce, and a play on the classic choripan (called “Shorty Pan”) with housemade chorizo on ciabatta with mozzarella and giardiniera chimichurri sauce.
When chef Jake Wood opened Lawrence Barbecue a couple of years ago, his brisket birria taco special was so popular it overwhelmed his kitchen staff and he pulled it from the menu. Cut to 2023 and the town’s most craveable taco is back with a new home at Leroy’s Taco Shop, a concept Lawrence opened right next to his barbecue joint in the Boxyard RTP complex. Besides those birria tacos there are usually rotating specials like carnitas and smoked adobo chicken. The cornbread tres leches cake is a must (and even got its own G&G write-up earlier this year).
One of Durham’s most popular pandemic pivots has its own brick and mortar. From the team behind Kingfisher cocktail bar and Queeny’s, QueenBurger serves up craveable smash burgers and shoestring fries right up the road from the Durham Bulls stadium. Make sure to get the fire spice on your fries, and while the classic burger is always a good bet, the specials get creative too.
Award-winning pitmaster Mike De Los Santos has finally given the people what they want, a permanent home for his pulled pork, brisket, and smoked chicken. In this anchor of a redeveloped warehouse space in East Durham, the meats are served alongside sides like smoked beans, coleslaw, and a mac ’n cheese that would definitely get you re-invited to the family reunion.
Chef Ricky Moore’s classic Carolina coastal menu has maintained its own following after all these years, even after he moved from his original location downtown to slightly larger digs in Rockwood. Moore offers Calabash-style fried seafood platters, sandwiches, and more and was the 2022 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southeast. When he announces his once- or twice-yearly lobster-roll days, the line stretches around the building.
Have a craving for ramen, dumplings, and perhaps some macarons or ice cream sandwiches? Rose’s has you covered. Chef Justin Meddis runs the East Asian–inspired savory side of the restaurant, while his wife, Katie, whips up some of Durham’s best pastries.
There are plenty of places to get a great drink in Durham, but Alley Twenty Six is the spot that helped Durham become a craft cocktail mecca. Mixologist Shannon Healy and his team pump out award-winning libations (they were a 2022 James Beard Award finalist for best bar in America) while chef Carrie Schleiffer has created a menu of small plates and entrees to pair with them.
Every town needs a classic French bistro with big date-night vibes, and Durham has Vine Rouge. Chef Matt Kelly and his crew offer staples like steak frites, croque monsieur, and escargot in a setting that could have been teleported straight from Paris. The intimate patio is a must on good weather days.
If there were only one restaurant in town that could claim the title of “institution,” it would be Chicken Hut. The Tapp family has been running this down-home, cafeteria-style eatery for generations, with their famous chicken fried to order. The weekly specials, like the Friday oxtails, command their own followings.