Downtown Durham has been born anew over the past five years or so, and awesome new restaurants are still sprouting up all the time. This is absolutely to your benefit, with downtown within walking distance of East Campus and biking distance of West Campus. Durham's renowned food trucks put delicious food even closer to your grasp. If I were you, here are some of the places I would make sure to walk or bike to before my four years were up.
As you might expect, Loaf sells a variety of almost-too-perfect-to-eat artisan breads (eat them anyway—they're delicious!). They also offer other tasty treats like croissants and pain au chocolat.
Ninth Street Bakery just opened their open-air patio, so now you can sit outside while you enjoy a cinnamon roll or a sandwich on fresh-baked bread.
Try Guglhupf for breads and pastries with a German twist (quite literally—their brezels are amazing). The cafe here serves some of the best food in town, German or otherwise.
The newly opened Cupcake Bar is dangerously good. The cupcakes are rich and moist with the right balance of buttercream frosting (though if you happen to be a frosting nut, you can order a shot of just the frosting). Flavors change daily, and if you can't make up your mind between, say, Mexican chocolate, pink lemonade, triple vanilla, or margarita, fear not—you can get a flight of four mini cupcakes plus a coffee or tea for $7.50.
Pie lovers should head to Scratch, where down-home pie offerings like chocolate chess and buttermilk sugar change monthly. Scratch also does lunch during the week (the menu changes daily, but if you have a chance to try their fried duck egg sandwich with cheddar and bacon jam, DO) and brunch on the weekends.
Mad Hatter's is right across the street from East Campus, so for those times when you need a cookie, NOW, this is probably your best bet. Their large cafe area with free Wi-Fi is also a great place to study.
Best Coffee Shop
Durham is the home of renowned Counter Culture Coffee, a coffee company that sources and roasts delicious coffee while supporting sustainable farming and fair trade. You can sample their coffee at one of their weekly cuppings, or buy a cup at one of Durham's fine coffee establishments.
NOSH, across the street from West Campus, is one of those establishments. Ok, so NOSH may not technically be a coffee shop—this cute community hangout has an impressive menu that includes enormous biscuits and tasty sandwiches. But it feels like a coffee shop to me in here, with the scattered tables and free Wi-Fi and that one guy who has been milking a for-here coffee for hours. Whatever you want to call it, NOSH is a great spot with delicious coffee.
On the East Campus side, Bean Traders on Ninth Street roasts their own coffee and makes some pretty tasty lattés. Their spacious-yet-cozy downstairs with free Wi-Fi is nice place to study and enjoy a pastry (vegan or standard) cooked up by one of the local bakeries.
There's a reason why there's always a long line at Bull City Burger and Brewery, and that reason is a damn tasty burger. Whether you order one of their specialty burgers like the Green Monster (Gruyère, raw onion, roasted poblano pepper), or build your own, you'll get a juicy, delicious burger. While you're there, do yourself a favor and get the pickle chips, which are breaded with their housemade pretzels and are seriously some of the best pickle chips I've ever had.
OnlyBurger has been appeared in Serious Eats before, but it's worth reiterating that Only's Fried Green Tomato burger (fried green tomato, egg, and pimento cheese), and all of the other burgers here, are heavenly. OnlyBurger has both a truck and a brick-and-mortar restaurant, so you have two options for finding their delicious burgers.
I honestly don't know how The Original Q Shack can stay in business; it seems like they are practically giving their food away. The Q Shack charges $5.95 for a pulled pork sandwich, which is pretty darn reasonable. But oh, did I mention that the sandwich comes with a side of hush puppies? And that, in case one side wasn't enough, you also get to choose an additional side—all for $5.95? I would eat here even if the food weren't incredibly delicious, because I'm not sure I could afford not to.
Toast is generally considered to serve some of the best sandwiches in town, and I can't disagree. Toast's rapini and sweet Italian sausage panini has already made it into the Serious Eats archives, but there are so many sandwiches still left to try. And with all of Toast's sandwiches priced at $6.50, you can probably afford to try them all.
SE's Sandwich a Day has also made a stop at Old Havana Sandwich Shop to try the El Caney. You should eat this sandwich, and the other delicious, pressed, pork sandwiches at Old Havana, as soon as humanly possible.
Reliable Cheese Co. is more than just a great little cheese shop where you can taste cheese, talk about cheese, and take cheese tasting classes so you can learn how to talk about cheese better. They also sell delicious sandwiches constructed from the awesome cheeses and meats in their deli case, and served on bread baked by Loaf up the street.
Oh boy, do I love American Meltdown. A food truck that sells nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches? I have to assume that these guys are already millionaires. I keep meaning to try some of their other sandwiches, but every time I get up to the window my mouth just utters the words "Pigs and Figs." It's alright though, because the toasted sandwich of goat cheese, speck, figs, and a balsamic reduction on sourdough bread that I get in return is truly a work of art, with the creamy, salty, and sweet elements coming together in perfect balance.
Best Dive Bar
Speaking of burgers, one of my favorite neighborhood dive bars, Dain's Place, also serves tasty, classic-style burgers with a ton of topping choices. Dain's does what any good dive bar should, which is make you feel at home from the moment you walk in the door. The servers and bartenders are friendly, the draught selection is solid (with a good number of local picks)—even the music is good. I can pretty much guarantee that this place will make you happy.
The Federal is a working man's watering hole downtown with a better-than-your-average-bar-food menu. Together with James Joyce next door, these two bar have you pretty well covered in terms of dive/pub options downtown.
I can't decide whether Fullsteam Brewery classifies as a dive bar, but it needs to be mentioned. Fullsteam makes some really great and unusual beers in a new Southern tradition that they are more or less making up as they go along. Fullsteam is also a great place to find food trucks, with a schedule of regularly rotating trucks available on their website (they don't make any food of their own here, so outside food is more than welcome). They have a ton of indoor and outdoor seating; even so, it gets packed in here on nice nights.
If you're really looking for that genuine dive experience, though, you'll probably want to head to the Green Room. The Green Room is a Durham institution that's older than you are (ok, maybe not literally, but it sure feels like it). Sure, they may only sell beer by the bottle, but the games (pool, shuffleboard, darts, video games), jukebox tunes, and unassuming atmosphere have kept locals of all walks coming back year after year.
Now that Raleigh landmark Lilly's Pizza has opened a location in Durham (next to Parker and Otis, where the old Pop's was), it has jumped to the top of my list of favorites. Lilly's makes creative and delicious pies using local, and often organic, ingredients. Favorites include the Big Star (cream of pesto, mozzarella, parmesan, gorgonzola, fontina, roasted red peppers, and pistachios) and Dante's Inferno (barbecue sauce, mozzarella, all-natural barbecued chicken, bacon, organic red onions, roasted red peppers, and parmesan). Yum!
If you're enjoying a night of divey fun at the Green Room and get a little hungry, you'll want to head over to Broad Street Cafe and grab a pizza. Their portobello pizza with roasted leeks, shallots, gorgonzola, and aged balsamic is my favorite pizza in Durham. They also offer standards like pepperoni and margherita.
Pie Pushers pizza truck has been previously mentioned in Serious Eats. One of my all-time favorite food trucks, Pie Pushers serves innovative pies constructed from local ingredients.
Though people grumbled when Pop's moved to its new location in the Warehouse District, they still serve the same delicious pizza. I'm a big fan of the brie and apple pizza, though people swear that their signature salty egg pizza is pretty good, too.
From the simple Watt's Breakfast (two eggs, a breakfast meat, grits or hash browns, and a biscuit) to the shrimp and grits to the eggs benedict, everything is good at Watts Grocery. The menu changes seasonally, giving you a reason to go often. I keep hoping they'll bring back the Cajun Benedict (andouille sausage with cajun gravy on a biscuit) that I had here years ago.
Half country store, half restaurant, Foster's Market is a quaint place for a casual, tasty brunch. The prices are reasonable, but ordering can be confusing the first time (order at the deli case, pay at the register). There's a lot of porch and patio seating, which makes Foster's an especially good pick on a nice day. I recommend the breakfast burrito!
Like Foster's, Parker and Otis is both shop and restaurant, with both pieces dedicated to gourmet food. For brunch they offer your standard two egg breakfast, a few tasty egg scrambles, and, my personal favorite, the BLT with white cheddar and fried eggs. Their large, rustic, covered porch is a popular spot for a casual brunch.
I couldn't be happier that a chicken and waffles craze seems to be sweeping this country, and that this craze has resulted in Dame's Chicken & Waffles here in Durham. They've thought of more ways to combine chicken legs, cutlets, and wings with waffles than most people would dare dream, and they finish each dish with one of their signature flavored butter schmears. When you eat a Dame's waffle, it's like eating all four meals in one sitting. I'm not sure if this qualifies as brunch, technically. It's more like brunch-dinn-essert.
Elmo's Diner offers the full range of breakfast options, from Wild Oats (fancy oatmeal) to huevos rancheros to a bacon waffle (that's a waffle with pieces of bacon in it), and everything in between. Breakfast is served all day, so if you're looking for a place where you can have an omelet and your friend can get the meatloaf, Elmo's is it.
Best Late Night
When it's past midnight and you realize you might want to put some food in your tummy to help soak up all that beer, there really is only one option: It's time for Cosmic Cantina, where burritos are tasty and inexpensive, and the doors stay open until 4 a.m. A rooftop patio and gigantic proportions of Tex-Mex classics make Cosmic a late night favorite.
Where to Impress a Date
I'm going to go with Six Plates Wine Bar on this one. Six Plates—so called because every night they offer six small plates paired with six wines, and the menu changes daily—offers a relaxed-yet-sophisticated setting within walking distance of West Campus. The bartenders are friendly—they don't care how much you know (or don't know) about wine, but they will help you find a wine that you like. Although the small plates rotate, the Farmhand Foods beef sliders are a menu staple, so if you're worried you won't find something you'll like, stop—you'll like these.
On the East Campus side, I'd pick Vin Rouge for a date (unless it's Tuesday, in which case I would go next door to Blu Seafood for their Tuesday night oyster specials). Vin Rouge serves French comfort food in a bistro-style atmosphere (sitting on the patio is somewhat reminiscent of dining at a sidewalk cafe in Paris). The décor is romantic, the food is rich and filling.
There are also two new tapas places downtown, Mateo and Taberna Tapas, and I hear great things about both. Sharing small plates is a fun way to get closer to your date because, let's face it, when you share food with someone, it's basically the same thing as kissing. Basically.
Where to Eat When Your Parents Are in Town
Nana's is known for textbook perfect risotto, and consistently impressive execution of all of its contemporary American dishes, using local and seasonal ingredients. It's a great place to take parents, and the bar is also a nice spot to share a couple of small plates with a date without breaking the bank.
If your parents love a good margarita, take them to Dos Perros where, in addition to fabulous mixed drinks, they can get top notch carnitas, enchiladas, and other inspired, Mexican dishes. On Monday nights, just for fun, Dos Perros crops their normal dinner menu and serves a selection of tacos and burritos dreamed up that day.
Best Place to Buy Beer
Sam's Quik Shop is treasure trove of good beer. They've got local growlers, seasonal brews, limited edition beers, beers from obscure microbrews from the other side of the country or the globe, and even a few beers on tap to sip on while you shop. Simply put, Sam's has the best beer selection in town.
Best Cheap Eats
I recently discovered Taqueria La Vaquita, and boy, am I glad I did. Their authentic-style tacos run about $2 apiece, or you can get an order of three with rice and beans for $8.29. The fresh corn tortillas are so soft they almost melt in your mouth, and the barbacoa is juicy and delicious. They also sell very reasonably priced tortas and Mexican snacks (quesadillas, burritos, etc.).
If you're on Ninth Street, you're hungry, and you don't have a lot of cash, Chubby's Tacos is the place for you. Even if you do have plenty of cash, Chubby's Tacos is the place for you. A little more Tex-Mex than the authentic mexican style of Taqueria La Vaquita, Chubby's offers the same bang for your buck. If you go witha burrito or a torta, you'll have more than enough for two meals.
Best Ice Cream
I currently have a pint of chai ice cream (with candied ginger) from The Parlour in my freezer, which tells you that I must have visited the ice cream truck within the past day because otherwise, I would simply have an empty carton in my trash. It's that good. The Parlour, previously mentioned here, just signed the lease for its brick-and-mortar location downtown, which will open this fall.