Follow the advice of these content creators as they share the best ways to explore our downtown
By Isabella Reilly and Amanda MacLaren | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Take a gastronomic excursion through the broad variety of cuisines offered at downtown restaurants and bars by embarking on a Small Plates Crawl on Thursday evenings. This dining initiative, created in partnership among nearly a dozen participating establishments, allows visitors to enjoy special small plates, drink pairings and/or discounts. COPA co-owner Elizabeth Turnbull, who helped start the event, says she has noticed an uptick in Thursday night business since the program launched in February. “Overall, there has been enthusiasm and interest from the community, and excitement to do something a little bit different,” Elizabeth says.
Current participants include Mateo Bar de Tapas, Alley Twenty Six, Taberna Tapas, Viceroy, COPA, Luna Rotisserie & Empanadas, The Patio at Unscripted Hotel, Dashi, Queeny’s and M Pocha. Alley Twenty Six owner Shannon Healy says the Small Plates Crawl allowed him and chef Carrie Schleiffer to lean into their shared passion of food and drink pairings, and they offer a new combo each week. “We’ve had a really strong response,” Shannon says. “A lot of our guests come in and get offered something they normally wouldn’t.” The dining initiative inspired the cocktail bar and restaurant to adopt more regular small plate and drink pairing options in the future, Shannon says, adding that Alley plans to continue to participate in the crawl.
Don’t sleep on Alley’s Jazz Brunch Sundays with Grammy-nominated jazz trumpeter, composer and recording artist Al Strong, either. Al brings a rotating lineup of musicians to perform during Sunday brunch, which is served from 10:30 a.m-2 p.m. with music from noon-2 p.m.
“I haven’t had a bad meal or drink at Alley Twenty Six yet and would recommend anything on its menus. Snack on burrata or coconut shrimp with some of the most gorgeous and delicious cocktails (one time I got a drink that came with a flamingo floatie, and it brought me so much joy)! If you’re feeling hungry, the Alley Burger lives up to the hype. The black truffle cheddar, bourbon-bacon jam and chipotle aioli makes for a beautiful combination. I was immediately converted on the first bite. Mateo Bar de Tapas was the first tapas place I’d ever been to (thanks to my Spanish boss at my first job out of college in a research lab at UNC), and their queso frito is one of those dishes that simply changed my life for the better. I was skeptical and confused when my boss ordered a fried egg at a nice restaurant, but trust me, this is nothing like any fried egg you’ve had before. It’s a simple dish, of course, but the manchego, romesco and maitake mushrooms transform an everyday ingredient into something exceptional. Whether you’re with a group or friends or on a date, tapas at Mateo are a perfect idea. I’d say throw in one of its famous paellas, too! Being a seafood lover, I’m partial to the Seafarer paella, which comes with shrimp, squid and mussels. You can even add scallops, octopus, and/or clams to it! I’m Korean, and M Pocha feels right as the last destination of the night (“pocha” is short for “pojangmacha,” a tented street food stall). It has a great kimchi stew that hits the spot. The dish used to come with housemade Spam, but now they make it with pork shoulder and tofu, which is more of a classic take. I appreciate that you can get a side of additional steamed rice, which is sometimes exactly what you need to finish your stew (or any meal!). I love sitting by its window, especially on a weekend night; you can really appreciate the liveliness and energy of downtown.” – Juyoung
“If I had to choose, my ideal Small Plates Crawl would be to Alley Twenty Six, COPA and then Queeny’s, but you honestly can’t go wrong with any of the participating restaurants. I would start at Alley Twenty Six because I love its cocktails. If the weather is still warm, I’d order a frozen blackberry tequila frozé with poké nachos. During the cooler seasons, I’d go with a tequila-based cocktail with hanger steak. Then, I’d head to COPA to get the fried pork belly and Cuban meatballs. My last stop would be Queeny’s for one of their amazing burgers, if there is any space left in my stomach. If I’m feeling really crazy, I’d finish the night with a glass of sauvignon blanc.” – Joy
Juyoung Shin began documenting adventures around the Triangle with her sisters in 2018 as the Three Shinsters. The blog has evolved into Better with Ju where she hopes to spread little joys in her life with her community by sharing a bit of everything – a local restaurant she’s loving, a recent trip she’s taken, books she’s reading and more.
Joy Caracciolo is a food blogger eating and drinking her way through the Triangle and beyond as Joy Eats World. She enjoys exploring local and minority- owned food spots, coffee shops and everything in between with her friends and family – especially her son, Julius – and uses her platform to encourage others to explore and experience the diverse businesses that the area has to offer, hopefully helping those small businesses thrive in the process.
Bites of Bull City was created eight years ago by Amber Watson, who moved to Durham in 2012. Her blog and website and associated social media accounts began as a way to combine Amber’s background in writing and publishing with her passion for discovering and promoting local restaurants, and has since grown into a recognized and reputable food news outlet.
“While I’m an avid fan of all M Restaurants, M Pocha is the perfect start to a Small Plates Crawl because its Asian street food fusion menu is totally unique and perfect for mixing and matching appetizers with a partner or friends. At this lively little bar, I’d start off with the shrimp toast: Japanese milk bread and North Carolina white shrimp with wasabi sweet chili sauce. I love heading up to The Patio rooftop bar at Unscripted Hotel for views of downtown, casual poolside vibes and a menu with many delicious appetizers and entrees. Off the current menu, I’d put in an order for the large crabcakes and fried green tomato sliders. Just a short walk downstairs at Jack Tar and the Colonel’s Daughter, I’d cozy up in a booth or take a table on the front plaza and order its tequila-steamed clams (sometimes it’s steamed mussels) with Firsthand Foods chorizo and garlic bread, as well as an order of the crispy duck wings. When it comes to ending the night on something sweet, I’d head over to The Parlour for a scoop of one of its seasonal ice- cream flavors and enjoy it out on the plaza, or if it’s still early enough, I’d walk down to Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets for a homemade ice-cream sandwich.” – Amber
“Little Barb’s Bakery is definitely a hidden gem that I hope people discover now that it’s located in the Durham Food Hall. This bakery has only been open and taking orders for about a year now and just recently got its own space inside the food hall. I tried the cake pops from there, and honestly can say that it was the best (and prettiest) cake pop I’ve ever had. It definitely deserves more shine on the blogs and in the media. Another one of my favorite hidden gems is Gojo, Goorsha’s Ethiopian coffee shop. Many people only know Goorsha for its traditional Ethiopian lunch and dinner dishes. Its patio is a great place to work remotely, because it’s quiet, shady, and you can get a good cup of coffee with an amazing Ethiopian breakfast sandwich. And I feel like people are sleeping on one of my favorite coffee shops – EverLou Coffee Co. They are dog-friendly, have great service and there’s always exciting special drink menus that have unique, delicious flavors.” – Joy
“One of my favorite places to bring visitors and guests is 21c Museum Hotel – you can’t beat a free, 24/7 modern art museum. Take pictures and explore the original bank vault in the lower level, and get brunch or dinner from the sleek in-house restaurant and bar, Counting House. The Durham Arts Council is another great building to wander through and look at the cool art displays. The Museum of Durham History, just across the street, is an easy spot that offers interesting exhibits for every age. Downtown’s Third Friday Art Walk & Gallery Crawl (more on that, above right) is a fantastic time to explore all these buildings and little galleries tucked in around the city. Everyone knows about the American Tobacco Campus, but not everyone spends time exploring its interior. Along with the grassy lawn in front of the Lucky Strike Tower, there are cool nooks scattered around with hammocks, a fire pit and life-size chess set. Up by Burt’s Bees’ office, there is a light-changing waterfall fountain and a beehive viewing window on the outside of the building.” – Amber
Mix It Up
The Mix at Durham Station features tunes by Patricia Murray, aka “DJ Piddipat,” at the transit center every Third Friday. The event started in 2019 through a partnership between GoDurham and Downtown Durham Inc. and was envisioned as a way to kick off the Third Friday Art Walk & Gallery Crawl.
“During the season, DJ Piddipat greets pedestrians and visitors to the transit station with upbeat music,” says DDI President and CEO Nicole Thompson. “We invariably have a few people dancing and a number of people stopping to sit and listen awhile.” Patricia says she looks forward to playing at The Mix each month and interacting with the Durham community. “It’s fun to watch people plop down wearily, start patting their feet, and then jump up and dance,” Patricia says. “I love cheering people up, especially those who have had a tough workweek.” She takes song requests, but she says she most enjoys slipping in some global melodies into her playlist, like R&B tunes from Indonesia, Mexico, Kenya, Egypt and South Korea. The Mix will resume for its fourth season next spring, running from April to October 2023.
We’re Going Shopping
Downtown Durham Inc. offers several resources and activities to highlight the Bull City’s downtown establishments. “DDI works behind the scenes creating promotions and providing resources to help businesses attract customers and to highlight the merchants that make downtown Durham such a cool and vibrant place,” says DDI President and CEO Nicole Thompson.
The organization launched a downtown merchant map this year, which Nicole says helps visitors and residents quickly find their current favorites and easily discover new spots. The mobile-friendly map allows users to filter their search by specific cuisines, retailers, services, hotels and performance venues. Many downtown merchants also have scannable QR codes in their shop windows for easy access to the map.
“As a 6-foot-1-inch, plus-sized woman, it’s honestly hard for me to find clothing at a lot of boutiques, but I love buying Durham-themed T-shirts from Hometown Apparel on Ninth Street for myself and others. Another one of my favorite places to browse and shop is Bulldega Urban Market. The Blend of Soul pressed juices – specifically the berry bombshell and lemon crush – are some of my favorite products to buy there. I’m also a huge fan of purchasing items from our local coffee shops, like bags of Little Waves Coffee Roasters’ beans from Cocoa Cinnamon or pretty coffee accessories from EverLou Coffee Co. My absolute favorite place to shop for books for myself and my son is Rofhiwa Book Café. I recently purchased “Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender, and it was such a great read. There is a wide variety of books to choose from, but if they don’t have what you’re looking for, they often offer to order it for you. It’s been empowering to not only have access to so many books written by Black and brown authors, but also have a Black-owned place to enjoy these books.” – Joy
“One of my favorite shops to spend time in when visiting other cities are bookstores – they’re quiet, calming and full of new worlds to discover. My love for bookstores rings true when I’m in my own city as well – Letters Bookshop moved into a brand-new, charming space downtown last year, and it’s the perfect place to get lost looking for your next good read. I’ve always been an office supply/ paper nerd, and Parker Paper Company’s small-yet-packed storefront near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park is the cutest and brightest little shop, full of colorful pens and pencils, erasers, notepads, cards and puzzles. The child in me finds everything about it charming. That inner kid also loves the fun and funky nature of Dolly’s Vintage. A huge portion of the store is devoted to vintage clothing (and gloves, jewelry, purses, etc.) along with cute gifts and trinkets to browse, including some local Durham swag. There’s so much to look at every time you go, and it’s great for older kids/ teens, too, because it’s fun to try on new outfits with retro flair. Lastly, Bulldega isn’t just a good place to go for bread and milk, it’s also great to shop for small local gifts. I often take guests who are in town and looking for a bit of Durham to bring back – they can stock up on edible treats like Durham Toffee and Counter Culture Coffee, plus Bull City Candles, lotions, dish towels and mugs with Bull City charm.” – Amber
Downtown Durham Inc. kicks off the holidays with the Durham Arts Council’s Art Walk Holiday Market on Nov. 19 and 20 followed by Small Shop Saturday, complete with a tree lighting at CCB Plaza, on Nov. 26. Visit the American Tobacco Campus on Nov. 30 for the annual tower lighting. Durhamites can expect many downtown festivities this holiday season, DDI’s Nicole Thompson says, and lucky winners will be awarded digital SpendaBull gift cards which can be used at more than 50 downtown businesses. DDI also plans to provide a map so visitors can easily find all their favorite downtown light displays.
Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
I have grown to love the quarterly food truck rodeos at Durham Central Park – I am always on the lookout for my favorite food trucks, like Bulkogi, Chirba Chirba Dumpling and Royal Cheesecake & Varieties, to name a few. They always have some of the best food trucks in the Triangle, bounce houses for the kids, and upbeat music playing – just great vibes all around. I also enjoy spending time at the American Tobacco Campus on Sunday afternoons when it’s warm, because Boricua Soul hosts a weekly event called Patio Jazz with local musicians in front of the restaurant. It’s always a really dope experience, especially when you go with family and friends. – Joy
Motorco Music Hall is one of my favorite places downtown. In addition to being a concert venue, it plays host to a lot of community events, like Duke University vs. UNC basketball games, the Great Durham Pun Championship, a recent Taylor Swift festival and more. I’ve even gone to a Tinkering and Drinkering event hosted by the Museum of Life and Science a few years back! I feel so lucky we have places like Motorco in Durham that add so much richness to our community. Of course, I love its restaurant, Parts & Labor; the hipster poutine, with its grilled bulgogi beef, spicy kimchi, sharp yellow cheddar cheese, Sriracha aioli, green onion and cilantro, has been my go-to for years! – Juyoung