The flavors of Italy, France, Spain and Japan all feature strongly on our CurEaters’ lists of favorite Durham restaurants.
To Durham residents from generations past, the city of Durham was traditionally associated with two interconnected things – the Duke family and tobacco production. Nowadays, the legacy of the Duke family lives on in Durham through the university that bears their name, and Durham’s production of tobacco has apparently been replaced by a burgeoning independent restaurant restaurant scene buoyed by a host of creative chefs and owners. If you traverse the Downtown Durham area, you’re bound to be amazed by just how accessible and mouthwatering the food is.
Our team at CurEat prides itself on our app’s ability to help aficionados of quality independent restaurants share their suggestions with fellow foodies, while also collecting recommendations from others about the best places to spend afternoons and evenings satisfying taste buds and hunger cravings.
CurEaters and friends share their favorite dining spots in the form of lists. Over time, some restaurants are listed quite frequently, which is helpful in establishing a restaurant’s popularity. As a result, we have been able to establish a top-ten list of CurEaters’ and friends’ favorite Durham restaurants.
While this list is purely a reflection of the number of times each restaurant was listed, we empower you to try the restaurants for yourself to see if the food complements your palate. If you aren’t a fan, it’s not a big deal; you simply don’t add the restaurant to your list of favorites and move on to the next recommendation. We will affirm, however, that each restaurant listed here does serve very tasty food.
Lucky’s Delicatessen is one of four restaurants on this list that sits on the south side of Chapel Hill Street, loosely bound by Great Jones Street and Main Street. We’re going to start referring to this area as “Restaurant Row.” Of course, Lucky’s doesn’t need any help from its neighbors to draw a crowd. Its roast beef sandwich alone has been described as providing a meal worthy of the pharaohs of old, accompanied by greens that were lovingly handpicked from the hills of Mount Olympus. The divine origin of the food might be in question, but the satisfaction of customers is not. Lucky’s is one of the rare delis you can visit where the portions are so generous that a six-inch sub will undeniably satisfy your hunger.
“Every time I’m in Durham, I’ve got to go to Lucky’s. And it’s on my CurEat list,” said Katie Button, a James Beard Award finalist for Best Chef Southeast.
The Triangle has a lot of great sushi restaurants, but M Sushi is said to operate on a completely different level from any of the other sushi joints in the area. Some have even argued that it has the best sushi outside of Japan, with one patron remarking that it made him feel like he was at an authentic sushi bar in Kyoto. The fish is consistently described as fresh, beautiful and delicious, and the quality of the meal is matched by the attentiveness of the staff, who provide service that remains fast and friendly no matter how busy the restaurant becomes.
“Being included on this list is probably the best thing I can imagine,” said Chef Michael Lee, the owner of M Sushi. “I appreciate any kind of awards and recognition, but to be accepted and acknowledged by fellow peers, many of whom are more talented that I am, it beats any awards that could be offered. To be recognized in a small but amazing culinary neighborhood is an amazing feeling.”
Vin Rouge provides its customers with the most authentic French bistro atmosphere available in Durham, with delicious food to match the ambiance. People rave about the liver paté and hanger steak, while also complimenting the quality of the service. If you’re looking for a dining experience in Durham designed to make you feel like you’ve teleported from the Triangle to the shadow beneath the Eiffel Tower, Vin Rouge provides a tasty means of taking your taste buds to this desired destination.
“We’ve been a part of the Durham community for a long time,” said Ted Gallagher, manager of Vin Rouge. “We’re happy to be a neighborhood bistro, and we’re happy for the loyal customers we see every week as well as the new faces we see walking through our door.”
Sitting just off the intersection of Chapel Hill Street and Main Street, Toast is Durham’s authentic paninoteca – and Italian sandwich shop. Based on the frequency with which her friendliness is mentioned, Kelli Cotter is clearly one of the most beloved restaurant owners in Durham. Of course, the deliciousness of Kelli’s food certainly adds to Durham locals’ love of Toast. Paninis with ingredients like farm egg, taleggio and chives have secured Toast just about every local best-sandwich award for the past decade.
“It means everything to me to make this list,” said Cotter. “I don’t put a lot of weight in other online voting, but I think of CurEaters as being my peers. To be on this list makes my whole day. I’m so thrilled. It means more to us coming from people whose opinions we respect.”
Piedmont serves reimagined Southern-style cuisine while featuring local ingredients harvested in North Carolina. The chicken liver mousse seems to be a favorite of everyone who dines there, but don’t be surprised if everyone in your dining party favors a different dish given the broad range of tastes Piedmont appeals to. Dinner selections range from pork and grits to shirred eggs with bacon jam, and desserts like corn ice cream.
“It feels fabulous to make this list,” said Jamie Dement, one of Piedmont’s owners. “CurEat is a perfect audience for us. Having independent rankings is incredibly important because independent restaurant fans are people who like to know where their food comes from. And, if you know the people that are serving you, you’re a lot more likely to show up for them.”
If you’re looking for a dining experience that always offers something new, Saltbox Seafood is the place. The menu changes daily depending on the seasonality and availability of the fresh fish they serve. But no matter what is on the Saltbox menu, Chef Ricky Moore – who people have heralded as a fish-cooking wizard – will make sure you won’t leave hungry. The portion sizes he serves up are massive, and the coleslaw and hush honeys that accompany his fish and fried oysters are refreshing and immersed in Caribbean flavor.
Southern Foodways Alliance’s Executive Director, John T. Edge, said about chef Moore’s fried oysters in Garden & Gun, “He succeeds, sourcing his oysters from Swan Quarter, North Carolina, frying the little jewels in impeccably clean grease, and seasoning them with salt, lemon zest, and not much more. This is minimalist cooking perfected, a melding of art and craft worthy of Bauhaus.”
“I think it’s one of the most important pieces of recognition, to be understood and supported by your peers,” said Chef Moore, the owner of Saltbox Seafood. “That says a lot about how people perceive what I’ve done, what I’m doing, and what I intend to do in the future. I do my best on the other end to uplift other colleagues as well. I call them my team. They’re part of my village, and it takes a village to raise a restaurant.”
Much like M Sushi is lauded for serving the most authentic sushi outside of Japan, many customers have praised Dashi for having the best ramen available in the U.S. Truthfully, there is no wrong way to consume the food of Dashi, but several guests have suggested ordering the cocktails and sake upstairs at the izakaya, and then traveling downstairs to finish off the evening with ramen, in what is supposed to be the most authentically Japanese way to progress through the evening.
“I grew up in Durham, so I’m very proud to have a successful business in Durham,” said Billy Cotter, co-owner of Dashi. “I went out on a limb and did Japanese food as an Irish guy. I did all of my homework and traveled around to learn what I needed to learn about the cuisine, so it’s very validating that people are enjoying the food. I love that people find it to be authentic.”
North Carolina is filled with great breweries, and Fullsteam Brewery ranks among the very best of them. Not only is their beer fantastic, but the facility itself is heralded as a community gathering spot. It’s also widely regarded as a champion of the community due to the many charities and causes it supports.
Fullsteam’s founder and CEO, Sean Lilly Wilson, founded and spearheaded Pop the Cap and Permit Beer, two lobbying organizations that were instrumental in lifting North Carolina’s volume cap on beer. Fullsteam’s brews are distinctly Southern, focusing on ingredients foraged from North Carolina farms.
“I think making this list means that we’ve worked hard from day one with a mission of serving as Durham’s community center,” said Wilson. “CurEat’s subscribers are looking for authentic places that speak to the essence of the city that they’re visiting. To me, it’s encouraging because I think it means that people wanting a true Durham experience need to check out Fullsteam. It’s a vote of confidence that we need to keep doing what we’re doing, both with our beer, and with our food.”
CurEat founder Steve Mangano is of Sicilian decent. His grandparents arrived in New York City in 1916 and owned an egg business. Thanks to Steve, we know how to distinguish good, authentic Italian food, and Mother & Sons serves some of the best. This heavenly Italian restaurant is located just a few doors down from Toast, making their block the foremost destination in Durham for lovers of Italian food.
“With the heavenly match of Chefs ‘Skinny’ DeCarolis and Matt Kelly, it’s no surprise that Mothers & Sons Trattoria made this list,” said Ryan Hurley, founder of the Vert & Vogue retail clothing store in Durham. “They totally transport guests with a warm, regional Italian dining experience that is singular in the South. Their homemade pasta dishes are full of flavor and right-sized, allowing guests to enjoy a range of exquisite seasonal tastes in one sitting. A must when in Durham!”
Topping our list of the most listed restaurants on CurEat in Durham is Mateo Bar de Tapas, a fusion restaurant that blends the flavors of Spain with classic southern dishes. The flavor pairings are so unique and diverse that guests often recommend getting several tapas and other dishes just to make sure you enjoy all of the flavors Mateo has to offer. Aside from the dinner options, desserts like the local strawberry hand pie and dark bittersweet chocolate mousse have been described as heaven on a plate.
“Spanish tapas and pintxos are one of my favorites, and not only because I have commitment phobia when it comes to choosing one dish, but because the Spaniards know what’s up when it comes to good food,” explained food writer Jenn Rice. “Thankfully, Chef Matt Kelly is obsessed with the Spanish culture, too, as Mateo is my cure when cravings hit hard.”
Sadly, there were several very deserving restaurants that just missed making our top-ten list. Counting House, Alley Twenty Six and Ponysaurus were all clustered near the top and are among our personal favorites. If you wish to see any of these restaurants make our list in 2020, you can aid these restaurants in their quest to move into the top ten by adding them to your list of favorite Durham restaurants on the CurEat App. So if you were looking for an excuse to eat out, now you have one!