A decade ago, a suggestion to head downtown for dinner in Durham would have been derided for falling somewhere between foolish and absurd. The area, full of vacant tobacco warehouses and boarded-up storefronts, was anything but a dining destination.
"It was pretty much a ghost town after 5 p.m. or so," said Kelli Cotter, who, with her husband, Billy, opened the panino shop Toast in downtown Durham three years ago.
But in the past few years, the area has been transformed - a ghost town no longer - and an exciting, unexpected food hub has emerged.
It began in the American Tobacco district, an area adjacent to the compact City Center that was once dominated by a blighted former tobacco factory. Now that district has grown into a full-fledged entertainment complex, bookended by the still-handsome Durham Bulls minor league baseball stadium and, since 2008, the $44 million Durham Performing Arts Center.
A cluster of restaurants, cafes and bars has opened in the City Center, where lunchtime now lures area students, hospital workers and employees from nearby government offices. After dark, a wide range of options also attracts a varied crowd.
A few blocks north, the freshly groomed Durham Central Park hosts the Durham Farmers' Market, which has proven to be wildly popular, while in the surrounding neighborhood various new spots have taken root. And throughout downtown, day or night, you're likely to spot a few food trucks - those emblems of urban hipness and Durham's latest dining trend.
On a trip back to Durham in April with my husband, I sampled the scene.
There's no better way to get a grasp on the bounty that spills forth from the nearby farms and fields and forests than a stroll around the Durham Farmers' Market on a Saturday morning. With more than 60 vendors, the colorful market is packed with all sorts of local delights: salad greens, goat cheese, even prime cuts of beef and bison. It was this abundance of fresh ingredients that first inspired Phoebe Lawless to open Scratch, a sunny bakery and cafe, last summer.
Before opening her storefront on a leafy downtown side street, Lawless sold her pies at the farmers' market, filling the flaky crusts with whatever her fellow vendors had in season. (She still maintains a Scratch stand at the market.)
Lunch at the shop includes locally sourced dishes such as duck-egg salad with crisp greens and slow-roasted pork brightened with mint chimichurri and carrots. Everything tastes so fresh that it's no surprise to learn that what is not found on nearby farms is made in-house. But when dining at a bakery, the focal point is, of course, the baked goods.
At Scratch, this can mean empanadas and quiches but also chocolate tarts, glazed cakes and at least a half-dozen pies perched on pedestals, their buttery crusts bulging with seasonal fillings. In April, every forkful of the Shaker lemon pie delivered an intense wallop of tart, lip-puckering citrus, while the sugar-coated buttermilk doughnut muffins were an ideal dessert-snack hybrid. And if pigs-in-blankets are on the menu, order a bagful of the juicy delights on your way out the door - I downed mine like popcorn.
Scratch, 111 Orange St. Lunch for two is about $25. (All prices are without drinks or tip.) Details: 919-956-5200; www.piefantasy.com.
After years of experience in fine-dining restaurants, longtime Durham residents Kelli and Billy Cotter were eager to welcome back a vibrant downtown.
So in 2008, the husband-and-wife team decided to go casual, opening Toast, an Italian sandwich shop, with Billy running the kitchen and Kelli the front of the house.
An inviting spot in the heart of downtown, Toast has cheerful turquoise walls and prompt, friendly service. Daily specials are driven by what Billy finds at local farmers' markets. During my visit, those selections included fantastic two-bite crostini topped with a creamy mix of avocado, lemon and Grana Padano cheese, and a perfectly crisp panino with fresh asparagus, truffled cheese and fluffy, bright yellow egg, a colorful combination of contrasting textures.
The regular menu also includes cold sandwiches, called tramezzini, and bruschette, plus a half-dozen crostini and 10 different panini. (There's one understandable exception to the locavore philosophy: Most of the meats and cheeses are imported from Italy.)
"Most people are not afraid of a sandwich," Kelli reasoned, and it's that sort of familiarity that has helped the shop thrive. "We could use high-end ingredients but still have it be accessible to everybody," she said - a point underscored by the long line that stretched outside to the sidewalk during my visit.
Toast, 345 W. Main St. Lunch for two is about $20. Details: 919-683-2183; www.toast-fivepoints.com.
A pioneer among the new wave of neighborhood restaurants, this Parisian-inspired bistro has been luring people downtown for a taste of France since 2006. A bakery and small cafe are connected to the unfussy restaurant, which is sparsely decorated but packed with small wooden tables.
The kitchen turns out solid French standards - savory stuffed crepes, steak frites, coq au vin (at dinner, there's a three-course, $30 prix fixe). During our lunch, I enjoyed the day's seafood special: a pair of plump, juicy scallops atop a delightfully light potato hash, accompanied by tomatoes, spinach and a buttery bearnaise sauce.
And then there were the beignets. Available only at lunch and weekend brunch, these warm, chewy, sugar-dusted spheres of dough, served fresh from the fryer, are an essential element - and a perfect ending - to a meal at Rue Cler.
Rue Cler, 401 E. Chapel Hill St. Lunch for two is about $40. Details: 919-682-8844; www.ruecler-durham.com.
Part of Durham's dining competition comes in the unexpected form of a thriving downtown food truck scene. One vehicle worth stalking is KoKyu, a mobile trailer covered in street-art-style graffiti that David Filippini started with his wife, Sarah, in October.
David Filippini is full of clever, tech-friendly ideas. Most nights, finding the trailer means following its Twitter feed. A mounted screen to the side of the trailer means customers can play old-school Nintendo games while they wait. And that sort of innovation extends to the ever-changing menu. Though Korean barbecue is KoKyu's reliable standby, offerings change according to Filippini's whims.
My husband and I devoured boldly flavored Korean short rib tacos; delicious sliders stuffed with a perfectly balanced fusion of vinegary Carolina pork, avocado and cilantro; and a mound of tater tots, fried in duck fat, then rolled in rosemary and black pepper - all fantastic accompaniments to, say, a locally brewed beer.
Every Sunday afternoon (and random other nights), you'll find KoKyu parked at Motorco Music Hall, a live-music spot right across the street from Fullsteam Brewery - both 2010 additions to the corner of Rigsbee Avenue and West Geer Street.
"That's an area of Durham where, 10 years ago when I moved here, I'd never want to hang out," Filippini said. But now, with the music at Motorco, the cavernous Fullsteam pouring pints brewed on-site from all-local ingredients (think sweet potato and summer basil), and the stellar food at KoKyu, it's tempting to call this the coolest intersection in Durham.
"The rejuvenation, it spread like wildfire," Filippini added. "It's almost like you can hear the heartbeat of Durham right in that couple-block area."
KoKyu has no fixed address. Lunch or dinner for two is about $15. Details: www.kokyubbq.com or follow on Twitter: @KoKyuBBQ.