Food & Drink
First Look: The New Nanas in Durham, North Carolina
Reopening next week, the thirty-year-old dining institution pumps up the glam
Photo: Lissa Gotwals
A longtime Durham favorite is reopening next week on Tuesday, December 12. Since debuting in 1992, Nana’s has been a go-to spot for family dinners and celebrations in the Research Triangle. The plates of Italian and French cuisine are memories for a generation of locals. “I grew up with Nana’s; my parents celebrated their wedding anniversaries here, in a building that was just down from my house,” says the establishment’s chef and new owner, Matt Kelly, a Durham native who is also behind the Spanish restaurant Mateo Bar de Tapas. After purchasing Nana’s in 2022 when the former owners shuttered its doors during the pandemic, Kelly and his partner, Nate Garyantes, wanted to revitalize the neighborhood eatery—but not before seeing it through two years of redesigning and renovations. “We’ve put a lot of thought into it during that time,” says Kelly, who dropped the possessive apostrophe from the name, rechristening the spot Nanas, to usher in the new era and pay a general tribute to grandmothers.
With its bright orange and deep purple walls, rust-colored carpeting, and chartreuse-cushioned booths, the thirty-year-old institution was ready for some fresh vision. “It was originally opened in 1992 and design-wise, it really felt like it,” says Shaun Sundholm, a former Durham resident who returned to the city to lead Nanas’s design overhaul. “We commented on how dated it was, but it was warm and lively. It had quite a fun atmosphere, so I wanted to keep the essence of that feeling.”
Sundholm, who draws inspiration from travels through Mexico and Europe, gravitated toward memories of his meandering walks through the Bull City’s neighborhoods, green trails, and historic downtown buildings. “Many arches found throughout the [Nanas] space are inspired by all the arched doorways in the Old North Durham neighborhood I walk through, as well as the arched supports of the train bridge on Trinity Ave.,” he says. The renovation preserved a unique bowed wall that guides guests to the main dining room and slips back to the bar. “Lots of people said we should get rid of it, but it was too interesting to knock down.”
The special curved wall—and every surface in the restaurant—nods to sylvan textures and colors, and Sundholm sourced materials from both Durham artisans and European craftsmen. Emerald ceramic tiles from Spain reference the green needles of North Carolina pines and shine in the parlor room and curved hall; undulating black walnut slats above the tiles mimic dark stands of tree trunks. Sundholm’s memories of river pools and shady forests manifest in the sumptuous dark blue velvet spread of the booth seating.
Sundholm and Kelly wanted to embrace the nostalgia of spending days in the woods and then popping over to the comfort of their grandmothers’ houses. “The dining room is like a strange combination of your grandmother’s living room and an opening in a forest where trees tower above you and the sun filters through,” Sundholm says. “I really wanted it to feel warm, like a grandmother’s hug, like the feeling of sitting on your grandmother’s most comfortable couch, but at the same time, a little sultry, with a bit of old Hollywood glamour.”
The menu takes cues from well-loved French and Italian dishes from the past, like classic risotto and bowls of pasta, but keeps it fresh with Piedmont and coastal North Carolina ingredients. The opening menu includes twice-baked grits soufflé, whole roasted North Carolina fish, and chicken liver paté mousse. “I’m lucky because we’re used to getting amazing products in our back door,” Kelly says. “We’re inspired by bistros and trattorias and the great ingredients that we’re surrounded by. And the execution of simple things done over and over and over again.”
“We knew we weren’t going to paint the space orange again, but I wanted to have a nod to the blazing bright walls from the past,” Sundholm says. “That came in the form of a tufted orange velvet bench that greets guests in the vestibule as they enter. We call it Nana Howell’s bench after Scott Howell, the original owner of Nana’s.” Above the seat, a pottery vessel—spun by North Carolina artist Matt Hallyburton with local clay—holds greenery.
Photo: Lissa Gotwals
“The back bar has almost the same dimensions as the original bar, but instead of three cherry wood arches with stainless steel columns, we simplified it.” Jay Jergensen of Jergensen Construction built the black walnut woodwork and bar.
Warm lighting adds a touch of comfort to the jewel tones and dark wood of the bar.
Photo: LISSA GOTWALS
The Nanas team saved the tobacco leaf tables from the original restaurant but outfitted them with a solid brass edge and collar base. Andrew Preiss of ARP Design Studio provided the custom brass and shaped it around the tables created by Artisan Leaf in Wilson, North Carolina.
A striking plaid carpet spreads across the dining room. “In its previous incarnation, Nana’s bar was Durham’s gathering place, while the dining room was where your parents had their anniversary dinner,” Sundholm says. “We wanted to change that and make a place everyone would feel comfortable in.” The print pulls in tones from the room’s brass work and gold leather, and green hues mirror the green Spanish tiles.
Photo: D.L. Anderson
Chefs Matt Kelly and Nate Garyantes in the kitchen.
Photo: d.l. anderson
Citrus-roasted beets; hazelnut tiramisu; enjoying a glass of champagne.
Photo: d.l. anderson
Salmon caesar and yellowfin tuna carpaccio.