From its humble beginnings as a tobacco town, Durham has always been a power town when it comes to business. Tobacco mills gave way to Black Wall Street and the city has become a hotbed for new young entrepreneurs and developers (we are home to Counter Culture Coffee after all, so we’re well caffeinated!).
One of the ways Durham shines is in the food scene. Southern Living acclaimed Durham as the “Tastiest Town in the South.” Bon Appétit proclaimed it “America’s Foodiest Small Town.” The town’s entrepreneurial spirit is evident in the number of motors to mortar restaurants — those who started as food trucks to become full-fledged restaurants.
Chefs embraced the farm to table movement and have incorporated local flavors and products. Durham chefs and restaurateurs have been nominated for and awarded major awards such as the James Beard Award.
Here are some of the town’s beloved places to eat, in no particular order, and offering a variety of types of food and dining options:
1. M Kokko
You know a restaurant is good when a two-hour wait on a weekend night is the norm. This casual restaurant, with the menu written in chalk on the wall, combines tastes of Japan and Korea as embodied in chicken dishes. Try the KFC wings.
There are only a few tables, so come early, put your name on the list, and explore downtown Durham’s murals while you wait for your turn. M Kokko belongs to a family of other fabulously good restaurants including M Sushi, M Tempura, and M Pocha.
311 Holland Street [down the alley next to the Durham Hotel but behind the building, behind M Sushi]
2. Elmo’s Diner
Every “where to eat” list needs a place to eat that includes breakfast all day and on this list, Elmo’s Diner fits the bill. Located near Duke University’s east campus, the lines out the door on a typical weekend morning make it clear that this is one popular place. Serving a large variety of items, including a children’s menu, Elmo’s Diner is a great family dining experience. Plus they’re open from 6:30 am to 10 pm every day.
776 9th Street
3. Cucciolo Osteria Durham
A newcomer to Durham’s dining scene is Cucciolo Osteria, focusing on authentic Roman food. The limited menu is light on the tomato sauce, where cacio e pepe will always be featured. The filet mignon beef carpaccio with house-made aioli and truffle paste is a favorite with regulars.
Cucciolo Osteria Durham
601 W. Main Street, Suite C [Brightleaf Square]
Looking for a white tablecloth dining experience? Then Nana’s your place! Open since 1992 (with about a year hiatus in 2018), multiple-time James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalist in the Best Chef and Best Restaurant categories, Chef Scott Howell creates seasonally geared menus that delight. With a renewed energy and focus on local ingredients, both he and his staff make you feel right at home, even if you don’t know which fork you’re supposed to use.
2514 University Drive
5. Fullsteam Brewery and Tavern
Wondering what a brewery is doing on this list? Fullsteam Brewery was the first brewery in town, and an early adapter of using local products, as evidenced with its “plow to pint” philosophy. When it opened its kitchen, it carried that same philosophy forward. You’ll find both small bites and blue plate specials featuring things like pimento cheese and pork belly. Plus they go great with all the great craft beers!
726 Rigsbee Avenue
Southern ingredients and dishes incorporated into Spanish flavors and styles. Mateo is the perfect way for couples and friends to share multiple award-winning dishes without having to commit to just one. Chef Matt Kelly, a multi-year James Beard semi-finalist, keeps traditional Spanish favorites but adds local flavors such as boiled peanuts and NC littleneck clams too. Mateo belongs to a family of other fabulously good restaurants including Lucky’s Deli, Mothers and Sons, Vin Rouge, and Saint James.
Mateo bar de tapas
109 W. Chapel Hill Street
7. Saltbox Seafood Joint
Don’t expect much but great food from this unassuming spot on the list. If fresh seafood is what you’re craving, then this is the spot to enjoy them from a James Beard-nominated chef.
The popularity of the original walk-up window led to the opening of the second location in 2017. Only open for lunch (or picking up dinner on your way home), think of simple food excellently made.
Offering traditional favorites like trout, catfish, grouper, flounder, or shrimp, with a side of slaw, crispy seasoned sliced potatoes, green peppers and onions, and a lemon wedge. Try a delicious side like the hush honeys or fried cauliflower.
Saltbox Seafood Joint
608 N. Mangum Street2637 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard
8. The Parlour
Ice cream is America’s favorite dessert – and the best place in Durham to get it is at the Parlour. Starting as a food truck before moving into its own space in the center of town, summer nights will find lines that stretch out the door.
In addition to traditional favorites like strawberry, chocolate, and salted butter caramel, they offer unique flavors like ginger ginger and salty malty cookie gravel. Oh, and vegans and those who need to stay away from dairy can also partake in the deliciousness!
117 Market Street
The restaurants listed above just scratch the surface of all the fabulous places of where to eat in Durham. Next time you plan your visit, bring your appetite, and your stretchy pants too. We’ve got plenty of variety to satisfy every taste!
about the Author: Annick The Common Traveler
Annick Lenoir-Peek loves coffee, craft beer, and exploring new places. Raised as a third-culture kid, she has traveled to over 35 countries and calls Durham, NC, USA, home. Follow her adventures at The Common Traveler; Instagram; Facebook; Pinterest; Twitter.
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