History of Durham's food culture
Just as things were looking grim, an opportunity fell into her lap like manna from heaven. She rented kitchen space from the Cookery, a “culinary incubator” that gives entrepreneurs opportunities to launch their own gastronomical ventures.
Moriarty began working at the Cookery and in her free time sold freshly made donuts off of her friend’s big yellow tricycle.
“It was just one of those moments that started as a joke but all came together,” Moriarty said. “I then fell in love with the idea [of selling food], and that’s where we got started.”
She set up shop every Saturday morning at the Durham Farmers Market, where demand for her donuts quickly outstripped supply. Her most loyal customers would greet her by name and ask about her dog. Encouraged by her initial success, she and her husband opened a brick-and-mortar location in spring 2013 on East Parrish Street. So came about Monuts Donuts, which is now a staple workday lunch and weekend brunch outfit among the Durham community.
Durham can seem like a sleepy backwater to those accustomed to larger cities. It is also home to a surprisingly vibrant food and restaurant scene, whose wholesome yet inventive offerings have attracted national praise. Southern Living magazine named Durham the “Tastiest Town” of 2013. Local restaurants like Watts Grocery and Nana’s have earned national recognition. The New York Times listed Durham as one of four domestic locations in its compilation of “The 41 Places to Go in 2011,” largely based on the city’s “standout” dining experience.
“The food scene is bomb diggity,” said Tomek Brzezinski, a senior.
Moriarty’s story—with its elements of whimsy and coincidence—is a telling vignette of Durham’s now-thriving food scene. Durham’s downtown, once stagnant, has reemerged as a walkable space defined by a quirky mixture of small town charm and a tightly knit community of high quality, yet relatively inexpensive, dining establishments. A new spate of restaurants and bars has redefined Durham as a hip, livable city unlike the ailing former tobacco center it used to be.
“There’s been a lot of construction in the last few years in downtown Durham,”Moriarty said. “I’m not sure exactly what started the reinvestment in the city center, but if I had to guess, I’d say the renovation of the American Tobacco Campus went a long way in demonstrating the city’s potential.”
The rise of Durham’s food scene grew alongside the rise of the Bull City.
Modernization was the watchword of the day. Former warehouses that had stood idle since the last tobacco companies left town were remodeled into office spaces, stores and, of course, restaurants. The renovation of the Carolina Theater and the construction of the Durham Performing Arts Center in 2008 edified the growth of Durham’s entertainment and nightlife scene, a development that has sustained local restaurants.
A perfect storm of conditions have sustained downtown eateries over the last few years. The Durham County courthouse has long supported a nexus of law offices whose employees often take advantage of their lunch break to frequent the excellent eating options at their doorstep. Duke and Durham offices, many of which are located in recently refurbished brick warehouses, also supply a ready stream of workday customers.
The challenge of invigorating Durham’s city center has deterred more mainstream restaurant chains from beginning stores downtown, founder of Geer Street Garden Andrew Magowan said. Instead, smaller, locally owned establishments have taken the leap.
“The reason you don’t find [chain and mainstream restaurants] here in the center of town is because it was economically dead,” Magowan said. “Chains aren’t pioneers. They come into places that already have a certain level of activity.”
The result is that smaller, more intimate restaurants with distinct, often offbeat, identities have settled in Durham.
The success of Rue Cler, a Parisian-style restaurant, cafe and bakery that opened in 2006, demonstrated that downtown Durham was a viable location for affordable, high-quality food.
“It started with Rue Cler,” said Sean Wilson, the founder and owner of Fullsteam Brewery and Fuqua, Sanford ’00. “It would now be seven years that they’ve been open, as sort of the new downtown scene.”
Now, the downtown area sports an impressive number of gastronomical options. Bull City Burger and Brewery, Monuts Donuts, Scratch, Toast, Mateo’s Tapas Bar, Loaf, Revolution, Dos Perros, The Parlour, Parker and Otis and others have joined Rue Cler’s ranks in the years since.
On one Sunday afternoon not long ago, I found myself inside the inviting turquoise interior of Toast, a paninoteca on West Main Street. Put more simply, they sell really delicious sandwiches. The chickpea and sausage bruschetta I ordered was a hearty combination of warm, slightly spicy tomato sauce heaped on crisp bread. Outside, the air was cold, but the sun was warm.
The menu is a study in locally produced ingredients arranged in a stymieing number of combinations that would put Au Bon Pain to shame. Ordering the bruschetta presented me with a tough choice between the portabella panini and pancetta tramezzini with arugala and oven-roasted tomato.
Durham’s food scene is mediated by a culture of consumption that values locally sourced, small-farm produce and fresh ingredients, as well as playing with food that pushes the envelope. Very few of what would be considered mainstream or chain restaurants have a presence in Durham, though Brightleaf Square and the American Tobacco Campus offer more traditional fare.
The Durham Farmers Market on Foster Street can be seen as both a force behind and a result of this homegrown food culture. A quick survey of the Saturday farmers market finds mostly young, plaid-clad families, often pushing strollers or walking their dogs. Fresh basil and just-baked pumpernickel loaves are sold side-by-side by independent vendors as colorful food trucks deliver speedy yet mouthwatering culinary creations. The market is as much a celebration of food as it is a showcase for Durham’s local produce.
The farmers market also serves some of the restaurants nearby.
“We go to the farmers market most Wednesdays and every Saturday and usually pick things up there,” said Kelli Cotter, who runs Toast with her husband, Billy. “This guy just came in with shiitake mushrooms, which we bought. One farmer comes twice a week with his truck with what he has available. Another guy comes once a week and brings us beautiful eggs.”
Access to local produce is particularly easy for Durham restaurants because smaller farms in the state have done an excellent job organizing with one another to bring their products to the market. Aggregators will often buy produce from smaller outfits that lack market access and then sell directly to local restaurants, Cotter said. The use of local produce and an abundance of niche ingredients contribute to an intimately local dining experience that emphasizes fresh substance just as much as presentation.
Durham’s characteristically refined yet rustic food is reflected in its creators.
“It’s a lot of people like me who have been pretty well-educated but not fit for any sort of employment that doesn’t allow them to drink and cuss whenever they want,” Magowan said. He is gruff in nature and a little harried in appearance, perhaps fittingly: when fixing up Geer Street Garden, Magowan wanted a place that provided both high quality yet down-to-earth food.
Feeding into this rugged yet cozy aesthetic, the exposed-brick look is popular among the restaurants surrounding Geer Street, many of which have been converted from old warehouses and garages. Motorco Music Hall, Cocoa & Cinnamon and Fullsteam Brewery, all within a stone’s throw, are all in fact repurposed garages. In a stroke of genius, their owners have left the garage doors intact, and on starry summer evenings, patrons can enjoy their meals in the twilight outdoors. The juxtaposition of finely crafted food with the homespun retro of the atmosphere gives the food a sense of place.
The more relaxed atmosphere (and slightly lower property prices) have made the daunting task of opening up a restaurant a bit easier.
“The city rigamarole is much less onerous. I’ve heard stories of opening restaurants in San Francisco where with the hoops you need to jump through with the city to get your business license, you need to get an extra million dollars because it delays so long. Here, to get this open and fix it up and open the kitchen took five months, which in other places may take upwards of a year,” Magowan said.
The relatively low cost of starting up a restaurant in Durham has contributed to a varied culinary landscape, featuring both high and low-end restaurants with their own distinct characters.
“Durham likes to be a little shambly. The people like to be a little bit more relaxed, to kind of play a little bit more with country. A number of places decided to be a little bit comfortable and but still be still creative and playful,” observed David Need, a visiting instructor of religion and longtime Durham resident. The Durham renaissance has brought a new luster to its downtown but without losing Durham’s uniquely down-to-earth, Southern twist.
“I do think there is a Durham brand,” Moriarty said. “I think it’s kind of young professionals with a more eclectic edge, who aren’t as clean cut as they might be in other cities.”
For some residents, Durham’s rough-around-the-edges vibe has become a source of pride.
In 1987, when Ben and Karen Barker opened up the now-famed Magnolia Grill on Ninth Street, Durham was relatively sparse in terms of dining options. Magnolia Grill closed in 2012, much to the dismay of its loyal customer base, but its legacy still lives on in the current generation of restaurants that has made Durham a nationally recognized food destination.
This close, almost familial, network of chefs and restaurant owners highlights just how critical a role the influx of cooking talent has been in the formation of Durham’s food scene.
Wilson, the ebullient “chief executive optimist” at Fullsteam, is one example. He followed his then-girlfriend to Durham, earned joint degrees from Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and Fuqua School of Business and discovered craft beer along the way.
His obsession with craft beer began, in all places, at the now defunct Armadillo Grill in Duke’s Bryan Center. At that time, craft beer with its higher alcohol content was illegal in North Carolina.
“It wasn’t sold by Armadillo Grill,” Wilson grins. “It was an after party where there was this guy named Tyrone. He was the head of the Southeastern Microbrewers Association... People in the know would go to try these beers.”
Wilson would later lead a statewide campaign in 2005 that successfully raised the legal alcohol limit of beer from 6 percent to 15 percent.
Fullsteam now boasts an annual production of 5,000 kegs a year and a lively customer base. Before becoming a beer entrepreneur however, Wilson was a waiter at Magnolia Grill.
“I was just a waiter there, but it had a profound impact,” he recalled.
As one of the few upper-end establishments at the time, Magnolia Grill attracted much of the culinary talent in the area.
“Magnolia Grill was kind of before my time in Durham. But, from what I understand, it was a pit stop for a lot of local chefs,” Moriarty recollected.
The kitchen at the upscale Magnolia Grill also trained the likes of Phoebe Lawless, now the founder and head chef at Scratch, and Toast’s Kelli and Billy Cotter. The Cotters met at Magnolia Grill, where Billy was a sous-chef.
This teaching culture has cultivated an intimate sense of community among Durham’s restaurants.
“One of the things that pulled me in was by how friendly and supportive other restaurants and food trucks were in the community. I really got the sense that they wanted me to succeed. That meant a lot to someone like me, who had no experience in the industry before Monuts,” Moriarty said.
Part of the success of Durham’s food scene is its ability to provide communal spaces in which customers can connect with one another over food. As Durham has resurged in the past decade, its then nascent, now vigorous food culture has been instrumental in the city’s efforts to rebrand itself.
A sense of bonhomie is visible among restaurant patrons as well. Attendees at the Saturday farmers’ market swarm into Durham’s restaurants after noon, hailing cooks by name and joking with family members. The homey atmosphere of many of Durham’s eateries was specifically designed to nurture this spirit.
“We wanted to create a space that was open seven days a week and that was like a community center for Durham,” Wilson noted.
The story of Durham’s food culture reflects how food brings people together, regardless of place, by giving them an opportunity to have a shared experience.
“I do think that the need that people have to continually create a sense of place will persist,” Need said. “Food is something around which there’s been a kind of renewed interest. All that is about making life.”