I love taking off to Asheville and Charleston for a weekend.
The only problem: So does everyone else.
The downtown streets are crowded with tourists. (I can’t complain; I’m one of them.) A decent parking spot can be tough to find. And reservations at the best restaurants are hard to come by if you’re planning a last-minute getaway.
The solution: Once in a while, get away to a place that’s a little off the beaten path.
That’s what I did last weekend when I made the 2.5-hour drive to Bull City, home of Duke University and the Durham Bulls. Durham bills itself as the City of Medicine, USA, which seems like a good way to atone for previously being Tobaccotown, USA. It’s also an artsy destination, where galleries, public sculptures and murals abound.
Sight to see
Seeing Mary Chapin Carpenter’s (sold-out) show at the historic Carolina Theatre was the main reason for, and highlight of, my Durham sojourn.
The Carolina Theatre is a 1926 Beaux Arts beauty that’s been restored to its 1926 splendor. It seats just a little more than 1,000, but (not-so-humble brag alert!) if you’re sitting in the orchestra as I was, it feels much more intimate. (Those in Balcony 1 and Balcony 2 – I’ve been seated here for other concerts – can certainly tell it’s a thousand-seater.)
When you enter, you may be overcome by the aroma of freshly popped popcorn. Get it. There’s an auxiliary bar to your left if you want only beer, wine or a soda. But there’s a reason this line is long. Oh, and do you want real butter on your popcorn? You do.
– Before you hit the warehouse-chic town, you will have checked in to your hotel. Several fun boutique options – in addition to the usual suspects – are available within a few blocks of each other. I stayed at the 21c Museum Hotel. It’s both hotel and contemporary art gallery inside a former bank. The Art Deco building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
– Mid-century modern is everywhere you look in downtown Durham. Both The Durham Hotel (with 53 rooms) and Unscripted (74 rooms) are mod makeovers of older buildings. (One might note, with some sadness, that it is possible to restore an old building rather than raze it and build something new. Or maybe that’s just me.) Want a rooftop bar? Both hotels have one. Atop The Durham, you’ll find creative cocktails and a raw bar. (There are oysters, of course – but also pimento cheese hushpuppies, a N.C. po’ boy – with comeback sauce – and ice cream sandwiches.) The culinary team, helmed by James Beard Award-winning Chef Andrea Reusing, concocts breakfast, lunch and dinner at the hotel’s restaurants.
– At Unscripted, check out Jack Tar & The Colonel’s Daughter for an authentic diner serving an all-day breakfast in addition to burgers, entrees, salads and sweets. Their fried-to-order doughnuts are served with mascarpone and jam. Roasted okra, poutine and a fried oyster Banh Mi are standouts. With a spicy Bloody Mary, wine on tap, an impressive beer selection and a baby food du jour, this place is just right for tired (and possibly) hungover parents with wee ones. Unscripted’s onsite Pour Taproom has more than 60 brews on tap. (But don’t limit yourself to one beer hall. There are many.)
Dining and drinking
– I can’t heap enough praise on Mateo Bar de Tapas, a Spanish restaurant that boasts an extensive – wait for it – sherry collection. (Turns out, it’s used for more than cooking!) The New York Times has loved on both it and Rue Cler, a farm-to-table bistro. Mateo’s menu is nearly exhaustive. You’ll want one of everything. Good thing the place has such knowledgeable servers to offer guidance. You cannot go wrong with Pollo Frito, chicken-fried chicken with Spanish ham, cheese, aioli and a pickle salad. If the Chick-fil-A sandwich were gussied up and given a Spanish accent, it might taste something like this.
– Littler is John T. Edge-approved! “The cooking is righteous,” he wrote in Garden & Gun. As the name implies, it’s a small space. The menu’s small, too. But the flavors are big.
– At the sophisticated Alley Twenty Six, original cocktails include a Blueberry Gin & Tonic. Get the party started (or shut it down) with “Vivid Memories,” a punch with cilantro-infused tequila, strawberry, Dubonnet (a wine-based aperitif), lemon and soda that serves four. The fried green tomato sliders (shouldn’t those be on every menu?) come with pimento cheese, applewood bacon, arugula and a side of house-cut fries. Enjoy the last of summer’s harvest in the housemade pappardelle featuring local squash, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, spicy tomato broth, feta and local microgreens.
– At Ninth Street Bakery, local ingredients are used in organic baked goods including cookies, breads, granola, Danishes, brownies, biscotti. Soups and sandwiches are on the menu. So is craft beer. Durham being a hipster haven, avocado toast is – of course – on the menu. Having been around since the early 1980s, this place is an institution.
– The Durham Farmers Market is more than a market; it’s a veritable street festival held every Saturday from 8 a.m. until noon. Live music starts your morning off right. Take home some local honey, soaps or crafts.
– I can’t resist an indie bookseller, and Letters is a great one with new, used and bargain sections, as well as categories you don’t always find in a small bookshop – cooking essays, cultural criticism, North Carolina nonfiction.
-There’s a lot to love about this boutique on West Main: Vert & Vogue is locally owned; they represent emerging, indie designers; the beginning price point is actually affordable (an ostrich clutch is $45 – but a Jerome Dreyfuss crossbody bag is $860); the clothes are all made in the U.S. or Europe with natural fibers; Women’s and men’s clothes, shoes, accessories, books, candles, fragrances – there’s plenty packed into this airy, uncluttered space.
– I could’ve spent all day inside Chet Miller. I know this word is overused, but this quirky shop truly is beautifully curated. Books, bar accessories, pillows, gifts, tableware and more are fun to browse and more fun to buy.
– At Bungalow, you’ll find home goods, local art, linens, jewelry and decorative pillows that you won’t find everywhere.
– Besides the Carolina Theatre, downtown Durham has DPAC – short for Durham Performing Arts Center and pronounced “D-Pack”) which could be compared to our Blumenthal. (They’re getting Hamilton, too.) Upcoming shows include Joan Baez and Lord of the Dance.
– Motorco Music Hall. There’s a “showroom” for live music, standup, films and events; a garage bar and “Parts & Labor,” the venue’s restaurant. (The usual bar food is here, but there are surprises, too: Seaweed salad, “hipster” poutine with spicy kimchi and sriracha aioli, a vegan taco with eggplant.) Pete Yorn, Matthew Perryman Jones and Amy Ray and her Band are headlining soon.
You can do all of the above without ever getting in your car. Downtown Durham is compact, compressed and cool … without even trying. The City of Medicine, USA may be the weekend tonic you didn’t know you needed.