An Insider’s Guide to Downtown Durham

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Janice Little with her daughter, JoyAna, at Gibson Girl Vintage
It’s a little bit of shopping, and a little bit playing dress-up for Janice’s daughter, JoyAna, at Gibson Girl Vintage.

Photography by Beth Mann

Janice Little

Janice and her husband, Greg, live with their daughter, JoyAna, 2, in the North Street neighborhood. They have lived in Durham for nine years and downtown for five.

Where did you move from, and why did you choose where you live now? I moved to Durham after college, and found that a lot of my friends were moving to the area, too. I stuck around to look for a job and put down roots. Four years later, I moved into the North Street neighborhood, where folks of diverse abilities live alongside one another. We currently stay in a home in the neighborhood called the Corner House. There are eight of us who live together, and our friendship was first formed at Reality Ministries, where my husband works.

What was it about our downtown that made you want to live here? I love the walkability of the city. It has so many wonderful things to do and places to eat. Even though Duke has a huge presence, it doesn’t feel like a “college town.” I enjoy the support of small local business, as there are only a few chain restaurants downtown.

Share some insider tips and tricks for coming downtown. We love date nights at the Quarter Horse Bar & Arcade – Mondays and Tuesdays are “free play” with the purchase of a drink. Gibson Girl Vintage – it’s new and [has] awesome clothing (especially love the vintage children’s clothes, which would make the perfect unique baby shower gift). Cocoa Cinnamon’s community coffee fund – you can donate toward a fund that provides free coffee for those who can’t afford it. Also the churros at the Lakewood location are so good.

The downtown event I look forward to every year is … The Holiday Patchwork Market [at the Durham Armory] is amazing. The selection of vendors is really excellent, from fine art to handmade crafts to food items, and there is a price range that fits any budget. I try and have all of my Christmas shopping completed by Thanksgiving, but if I’ve missed anyone I can be sure to find something really special at this market. On top of that, the [market] offers free child care while you shop. How awesome is that? 

My go-to downtown restaurant is … Bull City Burger and Brewery. Delicious burgers, locally sourced beef, and I truly can’t resist the pickle chips. There is a kids’ play area that always makes our family’s experience more enjoyable.

If I’m with a group of friends, we always go to … Hi-Wire Brewing. Usually a good food truck is parked there, [plus] so many creative and delicious beer options, [there is] always enough seating, fun games (pingpong tables, soccer pool, shuffleboard, cornhole, foosball), a huge outdoor field for kids, and they often have live music. 

For a drink, I head to … Fullsteam – laid-back, kid-friendly, and it’s basically in my backyard.

Durham Farmers Market
The farmer’s market has a wide variety of beautiful flowers and lots of fruits and vegetables to choose from

My favorite weekend activity is … the farmers market –  we enjoy a slow walk in the morning [and] are committed to supporting local farmers and building consistent relationships there. [We] grab a sweet pastry from any number of incredible bakeries, and buy a bouquet of flowers to brighten the week. We often run into a few friends and have some space to catch up, and we wrap up at Durham Central Park for our girl to run around and play with other children.

My favorite quiet spots, outdoor spots … The Durham Hotel coffee shop during the day and the back patio of The Accordion Club for the early evening.

If I’m looking to buy a gift, I go browsing at … The Mothership. It’s close by, and the local artists/vendors have a good price range.

When Third Friday rolls around, you can find me at … Golden Belt – lots of studios with a rotating exhibit space that hosts diverse artists.

Advice for moving downtown? Check out all of the neighborhoods and rent for a while before buying – they are all so unique.

Amos Cooper Jr., owner and “chief fixer” at Bull City Butler

Amos grew up in Durham, having moved to the city when he was 5. He attended Lowe’s Grove Elementary, Pearsontown Elementary, Lowe’s Grove Middle, Jordan High and then North Carolina Central University. He moved to Raleigh in 2006 “for a change of scenery and for the nightlife Raleigh had at the time,” he says, but “quickly learned that it wasn’t exactly for me.” As new shops, bars and restaurants opened in downtown Durham, Amos returned to visit frequently, eventually moving to Golden Belt’s lofts in 2015 before buying his house in the Old North Durham neighborhood in June 2016. “Durham was alive in a much more inviting way than Raleigh had ever been,” Amos says.

Amos Cooper Jr. eating a burger at Alley Twenty Six
You can’t go wrong with the burger at Alley Twenty Six, Amos says.

What was it about our downtown that made you want to live here? More than anything, it was the relaxed, unpretentious, diverse nature of downtown. I also liked the options of local places to eat, drink and mingle. You didn’t have to fit into a certain group or dress a certain way to stroll downtown and pop into any of the local businesses.

What were some pleasant surprises once you had settled in? One big, refreshing surprise was how willing people were to help you make connections in the community.

Where’s the best parking? Parking downtown can be intimidating, but it’s really easy if you know where to go. I generally always encourage people to find parking at the Unscripted Hotel garage, Corcoran Street garage or the Chapel Hill Street garage. There is also the Church Street garage [the entrance is actually on Ramseur Street] that a lot of people are unaware of.

What are downtown’s hidden gems? There is a cute small shop called The Mothership. Many people have never heard of it, but have been very close by. It’s located on the back side of Motorco. It’s another local shop where you can find things made and sold by local hands.

Another hidden gem is Everyday Magic. It moved into a space above Rock’s Bar and Hair Shop, which by the way has a great beer selection. You don’t have to have a cut to pull up to the bar and have a drink. It’s also a great place for a group to pop in and have a round, especially if someone is getting a trim.

Everyday Magic is a magic shop offering intentionally made goods created by witchy makers from around the world. Now, don’t let that description scare you. They have great gifts and little things for the house, even if you don’t believe in herbs, tarot cards and crystals. Another must-mention is The Zen Succulent. If you need a green thing for your home or as a gift, you should definitely stop by this gem. It’s a very calming, relaxing experience, much like the name suggests.

Two more: It’s A Southern Thing has bottomless mimosas for Sunday brunch, and Geer Street Garden has a breakfast buffet on Sunday for $12.90. Both are great for groups!

Last on the list would be The Fruit. It’s a great space that has a host of events that literally cater to everyone. Whether it’s a documentary, a burlesque show or a phenomenal jazz trio, definitely check out their calendar of events.

The one downtown event I look forward to every year is … One? Impossible! My list, in no particular order: Black Wall Street: Homecoming, CenterFest, Black August in the Park, The Art of Cool Festival, Beaver Queen Pageant, N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Bull City Food & Beer Experience. They all are a great sampling of the culture that makes this city!

My go-to meal downtown is … I’m a huge foodie, so this is difficult. A couple of my favorite foods at a few of my favorite places: The burger at Alley Twenty Six, deviled eggs at Bar Virgile, the chicken sandwich at M Kokko, the katsu sando at Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings and Sweets (also the best ice cream sandwiches around), and the hipster poutine at Parts & Labor.

If you are looking for a place to go with a group of friends … a couple places that I like are: 106 Main – great, great dive bar with super affordable drinks. You definitely won’t break the bank, and they have plenty of seating. Bar Brunello – a wine drinkers’ paradise. Super quaint inside, and they have a lovely patio out back for when the weather is nice. Esteban Brunello, the owner, is usually behind the bar and is perhaps one of the friendliest faces you will ever see. West End Wine Bar – also great for groups, with a large wine selection. The Roof at The Durham – great downtown views, great craft cocktails. Alley Twenty Six – one of my personal faves. Unscripted’s pool – great rooftop patio with a tasty selection of small bites, and don’t skip the frosé drinks!

For a drink, my go-to spot is … Alley Twenty Six! Hands down, some of the best cocktails around served by the best bartenders around. My favorite is the Mexican Herbalist – it’s been my go-to for years!

I have to also mention Bar Virgile and the recently opened Kingfisher.

My favorite weekend activity downtown is … running to Bulldega to pick up eggs and bacon. I spend Monday-Friday downtown, so during the weekends, sadly, I’m usually home cooking breakfast.

If I’m looking to buy a gift, I go browsing at … Parker & Otis or Morgan Imports. You literally cannot go wrong. You can find the perfect card, a locally crafted gift or some other cute item. Also they are on the same block, so it’s very easy and convenient to browse both.

When Third Friday rolls around, you can find me at … Vert & Vogue to start and then casually strolling around any of the numerous galleries. Don’t miss CCB Plaza. It’s a happening area where you will see many of the young creatives hanging out. Music, art, cyphers, and you can treat yourself to ice cream at The Parlour.

The one thing I’d like to see downtown is … Let’s make that two things. The first being a dessert bar of sorts. A great place to get elevated, tricked-out desserts after a good meal, a night on the town or a DPAC show. Second would be a lounge of some sort. Durham is at a place now it can support a nice place for adults to kick back with a down-tempo, house music vibe. Bonus points if the place also serves dessert. We can kill two birds with one stone.

Any advice for people looking to live downtown? Do it! It’s not cost prohibitive, but it’s not cheap and only getting more expensive. The plus is all the fun things you can do and how convenient they are!

Sheila Amir, writer and owner/creator of “The Bulls of Durham”

Sheila moved to Durham from Phoenix four years ago (on Oct. 20, to be exact) “because I fell in love with the city the one time I came to visit in September 2015. I instantly knew Durham was home, so a month later, I packed what fit in my car and drove 2,200 miles home to Durham.

Sheila Amir at the Local Jazz series at The Fruit
Sheila’s newest downtown interest has been the Local Jazz series on Monday nights at The Fruit.

What was it about our downtown that really “sold you” and made you want to live here? American Tobacco Campus captured my attention right off the bat. The water tower, the waterfall, all the incredible brick. But as I climbed all over downtown, going from [the old] ballpark to [the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park], the combination of Durham’s realness and diversity was captivating. I really hope we never lose either.

Share some insider tips and tricks for coming downtown – where’s the best/easiest parking? I’m pretty sure it’s the same distance to park on Geer Street by the original ballpark and walk into downtown as it is to park on the top floor of any of the parking garages. Plus, you get to see more of Durham going to and from.

What are downtown’s hidden gems – businesses, public art, special events – that people don’t seem to readily know about? One of my favorite best-kept secrets in Durham may only excite other vegetarians – King’s Sandwich Shop low-key has the most delicious, biggest and best-priced salad in Durham. I’ve done extensive salad research in the city.

Key piece of info for my gluten-free friends: Pompieri Pizza has gluten-free pizza that’s not just edible, it’s also delicious! That may be the rarest thing on earth. Also, most of Dos Perros’ menu is gluten-free, including the acclaimed chile relleno.

The Sunday brunch at Geer Street Garden has a cult following for good reason. It’s delicious, but you gotta be willing to go hard for those eats. If you know, you know.

I’m digging the new Local Jazz series on Monday nights at The Fruit. Tickets are affordable, music is incredible, and The Fruit is a Bull City gem unto itself.

My all-time favorite thing about downtown Durham is sitting outside Cocoa Cinnamon on Geer Street and chatting with people. I’ve met some of my best friends there.

The one downtown event I look forward to every year is … CenterFest. I love, love, love seeing all the local artists.

King's Sandwich Shop
Insider tip: If you love a good salad, try the one at King’s Sandwich Shop!

My go-to meal downtown is … King’s salad and tater tots paired with Cocoa Cinnamon Americano. Delicious and very Durham. Food tastes better when you know it’s made by people who care about the food and the community. I personally think it’s incredible to walk up to King’s and have the owner take your order. That’s real. That’s Durham.

If I’m with a group of friends, we always go to … The Durham Hotel, because it’s where you go to have a great time. Daytime, it’s the best meeting spot. In the evening and weekends, it’s hands down the best place for cocktails and convo. The staff is always friendly. Always.

For a drink, my go-to spot is … The Durham Hotel because nothing pairs better with an Old Fashioned than views of the Bull City.

My favorite weekend activity downtown is … During baseball season, a Durham Bulls game. DBAP is the happiest place on Earth. Everyone wears coordinating outfits. Everyone is kind to one another. Everyone is in a good mood. Everyone is the home team. Outside of baseball season, my favorite weekend activity is eating delicious food downtown [while] waiting for baseball season to return.

My favorite quiet spots and/or outdoor spots, are … I have a semi-secret table at The Durham Hotel [where] I wrote most of “The Bulls of Durham.”  That table is forever in my heart and still where I get a lot of work done.

If I’m looking to buy a gift, I go browsing at … Dolly’s Vintage because they seriously have everything. I mean everything.

When Third Friday rolls around, you can find me at … Pleiades Arts gallery, which is becoming 5 Points Gallery. I love going there and seeing the art and hearing from the artists themselves the meaning behind their work. Plus, I’m a huge fan of Darius Quarles and his art.

The one thing I’d like to see downtown is … More pet waste stations. There are very few places to dispose of dog waste. When my dog, HJ, was alive, I rarely took him downtown because I didn’t want to chance carrying a bag of dog mess around all of downtown or throwing it away in a garbage bin next to where people eat.

Anything else you’d like to add about yourself or the way you spend your time downtown? I love downtown, but I also know there’s a whole incredible city out here. It’s truly unbelievable all that Durham has to offer. Bull City magic.

John Schelp, community activist and street historian

John Schelp in The Regulator Bookshop
Ninth Street may not be within The Loop, but it’s right on the edge of downtown and has many wonderful shops, like The Regulator Bookshop, which has been in business more than 40 years.

John is a writer, a former president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association, and a former vice president of the city’s NAACP chapter. His collection of vintage Durham postcards has served as a key source for scholars documenting the city’s history. Twenty-seven years ago, he moved from Carrboro to Rosehill Avenue because, he says, he “saw the remarkable potential of this quiet neighborhood-with-no-name near Ninth Street and Duke.”

What was it about our downtown that made you want to live here? After weeks of house hunting, my wife and I were relaxing outside the Weeping Radish with a very cold brew, watching the late-day sun on the red-orange brick, enjoying the sweet smell of tobacco being cured across the street. That was the moment I fell in love with Durham.

What are some things about downtown that people don’t seem to readily know about? At the height of segregation, Dr. Lucinda McCauley Harris started Durham College on South Roxboro. For a while, the campus was next to a flour mill – where DPAC stands today. (The men’s and women’s dorms were in large houses, across Mangum Street, where the courthouse is now.) Muhammad Ali dedicated the gymnasium when the campus later moved to Fayetteville Street. Five thousand alumni now work everywhere from City Hall to the World Bank. Love these hidden connections!

The downtown event I look forward to every year is … CenterFest. Both my kids were Labor Day babies, and both made their first forays into the sunshine at CenterFest.

My go-to meal downtown is … M Sushi because it’s always amazing – and it’s cool and dark.

If I’m with a group of friends, we always go to … Arcana because the live music is wonderful – and it’s cool and dark. And Dain’s Place, a lively neighborhood bar where you can meet interesting people.

For a drink, my go-to spot is … The Pinhook because I love the name. Before Durham existed, the settlement of Pinhook was a traveler’s rest 100 yards southwest of the Erwin Cotton Mills. A rough and roaring place where UNC students came to “go off on a lark,” and two residents raced on the train tracks for a bottle of liquor. (Pinhookers are folks who live on the edge of society; those who make tiny profits by repackaging and selling tobacco leaves that had fallen to the warehouse floor.)

My favorite weekend activity downtown is … Preservation Durham’s history tours, starting at the Durham Farmers Market. Then stop by to see what’s new at the Museum of Durham History.

What are your favorite quiet spots, outdoor spots … Corner of Main Street and Mangum where Walgreens once stood. Songwriter John D. Loudermilk told me he had a girlfriend in West Durham, another downtown and another in East Durham. Every time he visited the East Durham girlfriend, he’d stop by the Walgreens to buy a flower. One day, in 1958, Walgreens was having a sale on candy, so he bought a rose and a Baby Ruth and wrote a song about it. When it started playing on the radio, he got a letter from the Baby Ruth company, ordering him to cease and desist. As the song zoomed up the charts, he got a second letter saying he could keep going. Later, based on little Marven’s Alley in East Durham, he wrote the song, “Tobacco Road.”John SchelpIf I’m looking to buy a gift, I go browsing at … Vaguely Reminiscent, Bull City Fair Trade, Hometown Apparel and The Regulator Bookshop. Coolest gifts and some of the nicest folks in town.

When Third Friday rolls around, you can find me at … I used to love taking my kids to the art studios at Golden Belt. They’d explore on their own while I’d bump into friends, old and new. These days, Vert & Vogue is doing some really cool Third Fridays.

The thing I’d like to see downtown is … an after-dinner stroll-and-greet on Main Street. I spent three weeks in Italy last year, where every night after dinner, hundreds of people would go for a stroll on the main street. No destination, just a mellow time to walk past shops and restaurants to meet and greet neighbors and friends.

Any advice for people looking to live downtown? Get to know and love the new library (the renovated Durham County Library’s Main Library on Roxboro Street is expected to reopen in early 2020), especially the North Carolina Collection. It’s one of the most exciting things on downtown’s horizon. And the Hayti Heritage Center hosts some amazing events.

Sheila O’Rourke, interior designer

Sheila and her husband, Dave Lines, have lived in Duke Park for seven-and-a-half years. They rented for a year in Forest Hills when they first moved to Durham, “specifically to be in a walk zone to get my daughter into kindergarten at Morehead Montessori,” Sheila says. Then her daughter was accepted at Central Park School for Children, and the family bought a house near the school.

They have three kids, Josephine Lines, 13, Oliver Lines, 11, and Henry Lines, 11.

Sheila O'Rourke and David Lines enjoy ice cream from The Parlour with their children
Sheila O’Rourke and David Lines enjoy ice cream from The Parlour with children Josephine, Oliver (in blue) and Henry (in stripes) in CCB Plaza. Photo by Kate Medley

Where did you move from, and what was it about downtown that really made you want to live here?  We moved from Montclair, New Jersey, which is a commuter town of New York City. Dave was offered a job about nine months after we put Durham on our list of [places where] we would like to live.
We moved the next month.

We visited Durham during the interviewing process twice. What sold us was our walk to the farmers market [on] our first day. The walkability and liveliness that we saw on that Saturday, I think, really showed us Durham was where we could have some of that city feeling while living in a small[er place].

What were some pleasant surprises once you had settled in?

The Duke Park neighborhood. We didn’t know anyone who lived here until we found our house. And we really love its proximity to downtown, but with houses that are a bit larger than some of the downtown bungalows. A real mix of people, too – old and young from many walks of life.
       The Beaver Queen Pageant.
       The Durham Bulls.
       Paul Sobin and Mira Shani at Durham Yoga Company, two of the best yoga teachers I have ever had in 25 years of doing yoga. [Paul now has his own studio, Thousand Petals Yoga, in Chapel Hill.]

The downtown event I look forward to every year is … The lighting of the American Tobacco water tower and live music on the first Friday night in December.

Share some insider tips and tricks for coming downtown. My favorite place to work out of the home is The Mad Hatter’s Café & Bakeshop. Lots of seating, good Wi-Fi, great light, lots of food and drink options.

Walk around American Tobacco Campus – it’s just cool. Any season.

For a drink, my go-to spot is … I love the roof deck at The Durham Hotel for drinks and to watch the sunset.

If I’m looking to buy a gift, I go browsing at … Parker & Otis.

My favorite meals downtown are at … Luna Rotisserie & Empanadas, Mateo, Elmo’s Diner to make my kids and husband happy, and The Parlour for lavender ice cream.

If I’m with a group of friends, we always go to … My favorite way to get together with friends, to be honest, is to go on a run with them. I like to run with them along the Ellerbe Creek Trail. If I go out with friends, we often go to The Durham Hotel – rooftop for drinks, or in the winter, the bar/restaurant on the first floor for a hot toddy. 

My favorite quiet spots, outdoor spots … Walking around downtown on the one or two snow days we get – it’s dreamy seeing [it] blanketed in snow. 

*Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Editor’s Picks

Amanda MacLaren executive managing editor
  • A pizza at Boxcar after burning calories playing DDR
  • Go-to bar meals/snacks: Canuck Poutine at Parts & Labor; a Frito pie at The Accordion Club; ordering Heavenly Buffaloes Idaho waffle fries with Heavenly Buffalo dry rub to Ponysaurus Brewing Co. while watching the sunset (or football) – if we stay long enough, I get a couple $1 scoops of Ponysaurus’ own snacks
  • It can’t be said enough: churros at Cocoa Cinnamon Lakewood. Get a dipping chocolate, and go to town!
  • Bulldega – it’s just always there when I need anything! Hours are great, and it stocks my fave zero-calorie Raspberry Mint MATI Energy drinks
  • Chet Miller/Parker & Otis, Indio, Vaguely Reminiscent, Bull City Fair Trade and The Regulator Bookshop – if I am in need of a funny, quirky, sweet, local greeting card
  • I love Bar Brunello, Esteban is the greatest (and their outdoor patio is a pleasant, quiet spot inside the city), but I’ve discovered a new wine bar that I love – Convivio. Chef Paolo and Sommelier Giuseppe are so welcoming; I envision many a cold winter night in this warm space!
  • Get creative at the Durham Pixel Wall at Durham Central Park
  • My fave dessert: the vegan Earl Grey tea cake from East Durham Bake Shop
Hannah Lee assistant editor
  •  Mexican coffee at Beyu Caffe
  • “Moscow something something” at The Atomic Fern and play a board game in their gigantic booths.
  • Moogfest for all ye techno lovers – the best way to check out all the music venues downtown in one weekend
  • Mothers & Sons – I recommend the squid ink tonnarelli
Michael McElroy managing and business editor
  • LaunchBio’s Larger Than Life Science – a great way to network with science and tech leaders and learn about fascinating and hard to spell things. Plus you get to see The Chesterfield. Plus, there’s beer.
  • The Garden of Eatin’ in Durham Central Park is a small but lovely spot. You can pick herbs, read about the plant and tree species there, and pretend you’re lost in a peaceful forest that smells amazing.
Beth Mann photographer
  • The Duke Arts Annex is not only a selfie heaven (check out mega-colorful Satellite Park in the morning for best light), it’s also home to free arts workshops throughout the school year
  • Zine Machine at Durham Armory on Oct. 13: a “printed matter festival” with comic book artists, zine writers, poster/letterpress printers and more 

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