Have Southern Food, Will Travel
Local restaurants dish out soul-warming comfort with iconic plates of southern food.
Posted By Nikki Miller-Ka on Jun 30, 2023
The crunch of juicy fried chicken, the melted top of baked macaroni and cheese, and the creamy texture of shrimp and grits — these are just a few of the quintessential Southern dishes that visitors, gourmands, and hungry people alike crave while visiting the South.
Durham is filled with fantastic restaurants that know the comfort and joy that Southern cuisine brings. Of course, flavor and taste are subjective but excellent representations of classic foods are essential. From fine dining to barbecue to independent bistros to soul food, Durham proves itself time and time again as the Tastiest Town in the South.
Southern food is the most amazing in the country, proven by its restaurants bringing their best fresh, down-home, local cuisine to diners. As a North Carolina native, professional food writer, and former restaurant reviewer, it’s been my job for almost 20 years to seek out the best that the region has to offer. Durham is my consummate pick for classic and innovative culinary pursuits.
After generations of honing the culinary craft and mastering the art of down-home cooking, one buttermilk biscuit at a time, you can bet that visiting Durham’s chefs and searching for quintessential Southern dishes is a treat. But which are the best spots to stop in and dine? How can you make sure you don’t miss a restaurant’s most transcendent, nostalgia-inducing dish? As seasons change, so do restaurant menus and customer tastes. This directory of outstanding tastes is the result of years traveling up and down I-85 to Durham for work and pleasure. The list below is not exhaustive, but it is the beginning of the journey to get you started on the southern path to culinary righteousness.
Biscuits and Gravy: Debbie Lou’s Biscuit Shop
A dish born out of the necessity during the Reconstruction period of the United States, biscuits and gravy is now a decadent, and sometimes over-the-top, breakfast staple. Located inside sister restaurant, True Flavors Diner, not only does this eatery have standard biscuits and sausage gravy, it also serves a chopped chicken and gravy biscuit and a steak and onion gravy biscuit. There are also options to add duck, sausage, or mushrooms for a bodacious meal.
Fried Chicken: Dame’s Chicken And Waffles
This iconic dish combines Scottish and West African frying techniques into a savory American union. Add spices and seasonings, and a legend is born. There aren’t many weekends where there isn’t a line outside of this institution on Foster Street. The fried chicken comes with waffles, flavor-infused schmears, and a side of southern hospitality.
Macaroni and Cheese: Vin Rouge
Mac and cheese came from France, but Americans perfected it. When you see Gratin de Macaroni on the Vin Rouge menu, know that it is perfect. Expect house-smoked bacon, handfuls of shredded gruyere, and a cheese crust you’ll need to crack to get into the creamy pasta.
Banana Pudding: Picnic
The words “banana” and “pudding” are synonymous with “barbecue” in this part of the South. Picnic presents a house-made pudding with sliced bananas and ’nilla wafers. It’s then layered with whipped cream tempered with a little gelatin so the soft peaks stay fluffy and high.
Shrimp and Grits: Nzinga’s Kitchen
Big and plump, juicy shrimp plus creamy, cheesy, spicy grits equals a soul-satisfying dining experience like none other at this popular brunch spot.
Chicken Fried Steak: It’s A Southern Thing
This heart-warming dish did not come to play around when it comes to comfort or flavor. Order up a plate of deep-fried cubed steak over hash browns, smothered in country sausage gravy, served with scrambled eggs and fresh fruit as a side.
Pimento Cheese: Parker & Otis
Pimento cheese is simple: shredded cheese, a cloud of mayonnaise, and diced pimentos or red bell peppers, and it’s what Parker & Otis is known for. Ethereal and popular, it’s best served on a grilled sandwich with bacon and sliced tomatoes or simply as a dip with crostini or crackers.
Collard Greens: Boricua Soul
Slow cooked in vinegar, hot pepper sauce, fresh garlic, and onions to produce silken leaves of green, the soul of this verdant side dish pairs well with the housemade pernil, empanadas, and tostones.
Fried Green Tomatoes: Beyu Caffé
The hot and crunchy panko-crusted discs of tangy green tomatoes here are stacked with house-made pimiento cheese, making this appetizer zing with flavor.
Lilting vibrant notes of New Orleans live in the ribbons of smoked turkey, sliced sausage, and okra that dance in a rich, dark turkey-based broth at this restaurant, an ode to Creole heritage. Throw in a side of garlic bread and it becomes a party.
Chicken and Dumplings: Lula And Sadie’s
There is complexity in simplicity. This southern staple is quite simple but it takes finesse to get it right. Part soup, part simmering stew, shredded chicken is simmered in a housemade stock studded with hand-dropped dumplings. The result is a hug in the form of a bowlful of goodness.
Chess Pie: Plum Southern Kitchen
This egg custard-based sugar pie has many origin stories, but the pie at Plum Kitchen is one of a kind. Made with toasty browned butter and sugar and crowned with a topping of seasonal fruit compote, this simple dessert is over the top.
Meat And Two (or Three): Home Plate Restaurant
Work your way down the steam table at this humble spot, picking and choosing your favorites from an array of choices: BBQ chicken, pork chops, country-style steak, mac and cheese, pinto beans, turnip greens, rice and more. Working from the notion that all dinners should consist of a meat, starch, and vegetable, this diner food plate became popular in the ’20s and is still appealing today.
Durham’s food reflects a richness of flavor, diversity, history, and culture. Whether you’re Southern by birth or by the grace of interstate (or international) travel, every bite of these dishes puts you a little closer to embracing the joy that is Southern food.
If you want to add plates of brisket and pulled pork sandwiches to your food tour of Durham, check out our roundup of Durham's Best Barbecue.