Our best new restaurants offer everything from craft sandwiches and drool-worthy breakfasts to build-your-own fry baskets and Italian-American pasta
By Matthew Lardie | Photography by John Michael Simpson
It was love at first sight for Ideal’s co-owner Ian Bracken. “ As soon as I saw 2108 Angier in East Durham, I knew it was the place,” Ian says. He and Culinary Institute of America classmate Paul Chirico turned their sandwich shop and neighborhood grocery into one of Durham’s most talked-about restaurants.
All of the bread at Ideal’s is baked fresh daily, and the menu reads like a love letter to the Northeastern delis the pair grew up loving. There’s a Philly roast pork sandwich, an egg-and-cheese on a homemade English muffin (classic corner store offering) and one of the most true-to-form Italian subs available in the Triangle. The Harlem chopped cheese sandwich, with ground beef, onions, sharp provolone cheese and housemade chop sauce, might be the closest thing to an original found south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The small grocery section offers frozen meals (hello, lasagna!), fresh local veggies, ice cream, dry goods like pasta and even wine, creating a sort of small Italian market that really doesn’t exist elsewhere in Durham.
Ideal’s has joined its neighbors like Sofia’s Pizza, Cates Hot Dogs and Rofhiwa Book Café in transforming East Durham’s little downtown into a dining destination in its own right. “The neighborhood has been incredibly kind and welcoming to us, and we look forward to continuing to grow as a community with everyone,” Ian says.
Press Coffee, Crepes and Cocktails joined the American Tobacco Campus restaurant scene last summer after a yearlong pandemic delay, but has hit the ground running with its unique style of European-inspired cafe offerings. This is the second location for Press, which originated in Graham.
“Press was truly born out of the idea of being something that was both surprising yet familiar at the same time,” says co-founder Jason Cox. “[My business partner and culinary director] Brett [DeVries] came up with the idea of taking this very French thing and then mixing familiar Southern ingredients with common European items.”
Press offers a truly massive menu of breakfast crepes (both sweet and savory), sandwiches, salads and toasts during the weekdays. On the weekends, it transforms into the ultimate brunch machine, with hash brown waffles, steel-cut oats bowls and an entire list of brunch crepes. The salmon crepe is like a three-way marriage among New York City, North Carolina and Paris, and it comes with house-cured lox, marinated mushrooms, red onions, Swiss and hoop cheese, topped with over-easy eggs, chipotle hot sauce and hollandaise.
DeVries and his team follows up the impressive food menu with a wide range of beverages including coffee and espresso drinks, a full wine list, craft beers, cocktails and apertivi, and even a selection of Spanish-style gin tonics.
While the world may be opening up to travel this summer, a European vacation might still seem a bit too risky for some. Press Coffee, Crepes and Cocktails stands ready to serve up that leisurely cafe breakfast or lunch you might have had in Paris, Rome or Madrid, right here in the heart of Durham.
Picture it – a heaping pile of piping hot french fries topped with barbecue and ranch sauce, bacon, cheddar cheese and your choice of fried or grilled chicken. Or perhaps honey garlic sauce with cheddar, shrimp and steak? Maybe you have your own french fry fantasy. Well, you can make it all come true at Mr. Fries Man, located below the Brightleaf on Main apartments at 1105 W. Main St. This popular (and so far only) North Carolina outpost of a concept first started in Gardena, California, is owned by Jaquetta Bratley and Safiyyah Williams. The pair first fired up the fryers in January of this year.
The concept is simple and delicious. It starts with the fries, and then customers can choose from one of the store’s menu options (like the aforementioned barbecue bacon ranch or honey garlic shrimp steak) or create their own combination. There’s an assortment of sauces like the Smack (sweet and spicy), the Hello (sweet and tangy), Mango Habanero, Lemon Garlic and more. Add-ons like steak, crab, bacon, chicken (fried or grilled), or Beyond Meat add to the customization possibilities.
If you’ve ever been the kind of person who’s thought, “I could make a meal out of these fries,” Mr. Fries Man might just be your new favorite downtown Durham joint.
The city lost one of its most popular spots for wood-fired pizzas when Treforni closed in early 2020. Luckily the Cinelli family (who also own Vieni Ristobar in Holly Springs and Vivace in Raleigh), stepped in to fill the void in late 2021 and opened Vici Ristobar in the same space off Highway 54 in south Durham.
The restaurant’s tagline plays on the famous phrase attributed to Roman ruler Julius Caesar, “veni, vidi, vici” – I came, I saw, I conquered. Vici Ristobar invites customers to make one slight addition to the quote: “I came, I saw, I conquered, I ate.”
And eat you can, with an extensive menu of Italian favorites, from pizza to pasta and everything in between. While its predecessor was primarily focused on the pizza part of the equation, Vici Ristobar branched out to create a lunch and dinner atmosphere that offers the comforts of Italian-American food with the draw of a cocktail-meets-sports bar.
Ziti al forno. Pasta fagioli. Parmigianas chicken, eggplant and veal. Vici Ristobar’s menu reads like a greatest hits list of some of America’s most beloved Italian classics. Order the sausage and pepper pasta, and you’re transported right back to Grandma’s house in New Jersey. Or opt for a hand-tossed, New York-style pizza to relive those late nights in Manhattan. There’s even its famous grandma-style margherita pizza, a Cinelli family original recipe that lives on at Vici.
The Bull City is home to a lot of great pizza, and some stellar Italian spots to boot. Vici Ristobar is a welcome addition to that scene, especially for those of us from up North who crave a little taste of home every now and again.