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Your Essential Guide to Durham’s Restaurants

Estimated Read Time:
15 minutes

In a food city like Durham, it can be hard to know where to begin. Plan your Durham dining tour using this essential guide as a starting point for some of Durham’s best restaurants.

Posted By Kristin Bedinger on Oct 24, 2023

Over the past two decades, Durham’s reputation as a star in Southern food culture has been well-earned. Dubbed by Southern Living as “The Tastiest Town in the South,” and crawling with James Beard Award darlings and recipients of countless other accolades, Durham offers elevated takes on familiar flavors and all-new experiences with authentic international cuisines at restaurants at any price point or time of day.

As a former cook in Michelin-star restaurants and current restaurant-industry obsessive, I consider dining out a hobby. Now as Discover Durham’s senior manager of content, I’m here to guide you through the can’t-miss, essential restaurants unique to Durham. From fine dining to paper tray gourmet, I’ll help you find Durham restaurants perfect for celebrating milestones, satisfying cravings, a quick meal with the kids, or a date night that will solidify our city in your heart, mind and stomach as an unforgettable place to eat.

While we will update this list periodically with new favorites, we maintain a quarterly update of all the latest restaurant openings on our New Restaurants page. My food-loving colleagues at Discover Durham have also weighed in with their staff favorite Durham dishes.

Ok, here we go! This one covers a lot of ground — and you can trust that all these spots (and more!) are worthy of being deemed essential. If you’re looking for a quick recommendation, start by finding the header that best fits your ideal meal.

Breakfast & Coffee Shops

Durham’s beer and cocktail scene receives national attention regularly, but it’s no secret that our city’s coffee shops get everyone going each day, attracting visitors and residents with warm and inviting atmospheres and comforting and creative coffee drinks and pastries.

Cocoa Cinnamon is a beloved coffee shop with three locations across Durham. Stop in for delicious drinks made with house-roasted Little Waves Coffee and a locally made pastry. Choose the Lakewood location to enjoy freshly made churros rolled in flavored sugars on the patio, or settle into ample seating with your laptop. To see and be seen with a Vogue-approved coffee soda or trendy shaken latte, settle in amid the mid-century modern décor in the lobby at The Durham Hotel. If you’re looking to caffeinate in South Durham, stop at People’s Coffee, serving Triangle-based Black & White Coffee.

If you’re a grab-and-go breakfast person, downtown’s Loaf Bakery is your stop for flaky, crisp woodfired croissants and scones for breakfast, or grab a savory flatbread and legendary pecan chocolate chip cookie any time of day. We’re lucky to have some of the best bagels south of the Mason-Dixon Line at Isaac’s Bagels. Get there early, and don’t skip the takeout menu of signature sandwiches.

A couple enjoys coffee outside Cocoa Cinnamon on Geer Street in Durham, NC.

Cocoa Cinnamon Geer Street. Photo: Eric Waters / Discover Durham

For a more substantial breakfast Tuesday-Saturday, order a breakfast sandwich on a bagel or a biscuit, avocado toast or a breakfast burrito at Monuts, and don’t forget the homemade donuts. The continental vibe at Press Coffee, Crepes and Cocktails on the iconic American Tobacco Campus, voted one of Durham’s best new restaurants in 2022, immediately sets the tone for a fancy, relaxed weekend brunch. Go ahead and order a sweet crepe for the table. A breakfast/brunch staple in Durham for more than 25 years, Guglhupf Bakery Café & Biergarten has one of the best outdoor seating patios in town.

My personal favorite picks for an “if you know, you know” Durham breakfast are: a quick weekday stop for a breakfast taco at Lady Gold Tacos or a Sunday morning breakfast burrito from the Hatch Breakfast Burritos pop-up at Gocciolina (check both Instagram accounts for availability – Hatch and Lady Gold).

Durham’s Best Sandwiches & Lunch Spots

If sandwiches are your jam, check out downtown’s Toast Paninoteca for a great panino with homemade soup or salad. Go ahead and order a bottle of the salad dressing to stock your fridge while you’re there and enjoy the downtown scenery at the outdoor tables on a nice day. A few doors down, Alimentari at Mothers & Sons serves authentic, satisfying Italian-American sandwiches and salads and has a deli case filled with cured meats, sauces and fresh pasta by the pound.

In East Durham, Ideal’s Sandwich and Grocery bakes bread daily for its Northeastern-style deli sandwiches, including chopped cheese, Philly cheesesteaks, Italian heros, roast pork with broccoli rabe – you get the idea. My personal favorite is the roast turkey. Expect a line spilling onto the sidewalk until the sandwiches sell out each day. While you wait, browse the curated selection of Italian grocery items, natural wines and to-go packages of the shop’s focaccia and loaves.

Rockwood neighborhood institution Foster’s Market has been serving sandwiches, prepared foods and sky-high slices of layer cake for 30 years. Founder Sara Foster is a pioneer in the inception of the gourmet café. In the Brightleaf District, try seasonal East Asian-inspired dishes and delicious house-made pastries all afternoon at Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets. The katsu sando and seasonal vegetable salads are always menu favorites, and be sure to treat yourself with an ice cream sandwich.

Eastcut Sandwich Shop serves up sandwiches on round rolls or heros in the 15-501 district. The Dagwood Turkey is an easy weekday choice, and the cutlet sandwiches will satisfy a serious appetite. Don’t miss the side of curly fries.

If you’d like to pair a delicious sandwich with shopping for cute Durham souvenirs, cookbooks, toys and secretly one of the best retail wine selections in town, try Parker and Otis in American Tobacco Campus. It’s only a matter of time before every Durhamite has a favorite number on the sandwich menu board.

Durhamites enjoy lunch at Rose's Noodles, Dumplings and Sweets.

Rose's Noodles, Dumplings and Sweets. Photo: Discover Durham

Award-Winning Restaurants

Keeping up with the national accolades for Durham’s restaurants and bars can be hard. Saltbox Seafood Joint is a current headliner, with Chef Ricky Moore winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2022. The casual spot serves famously fresh local seafood, and with a menu full of the catch of the day, you may be unfamiliar with some of the names you see on the board. You truly can’t make a wrong choice. The hush honeys and fried broccoli and brussels sprouts aren’t to be overlooked. I always opt for a fish platter, but I’m even more happy to go with a friend who wants to order the fried oysters or scallops for the table.

Mateo Bar de Tapas, four-time James Beard nominated chef Matt Kelly’s first restaurant, serves Spanish tapas with a southern soul. Bring friends and order the paella and don’t miss the seasonal specials on the chalkboard or the many sherry options ranging from dry, saline fino to sweet, ripe Pedro Ximénez.

As you read on through this guide, you’ll learn that Chef Mike Lee doesn’t miss with his niche Asian cuisines. Sushi lovers rejoice over scoring a coveted table at M Sushi, the only North Carolina restaurant to make OpenTable’s top 100 restaurants in 2021. The omakase is beyond worth it for the trio of scallops alone. M Tempura, one of only a handful of true tempura restaurants on the East Coast, was named by Bon Appetit as one of the top 50 best new restaurants in the country in 2019. On the same acclaimed list in the same year, Sister Liu’s Kitchen is a hole-in-the-wall worth seeking out with homestyle Chinese food and handmade dumplings.

M Sushi: industrial-chic space turning out traditional Japanese seafood, plus sushi options, based on Omakase

M Sushi. Photo: Discover Durham

As for our bar scene, Durham is home to the only two nominated James Beard outstanding bar programs in the state of North Carolina: Alley Twenty Six and Kingfisher, craft cocktail spots located just across the street from one another on East Chapel Hill Street downtown. At Alley Twenty Six, the cocktails are the stars – especially the Mexican Herbalist or anything made with Durham Distillery Conniption Gin – but you’ll be pleased if you give the dinner menu some of your time. Kingfisher’s atmospheric basement makes for a perfect date spot to ponder the inspiration behind some of Durham’s most creative cocktails.

Without going too far down a craft beverage rabbit hole, we’d be remiss not to give mention to three-time James Beard nominated Sean Lilly Wilson as an outstanding wine, beer or spirits professional for his work as the chief executive optimist behind Fullsteam Brewery (also the only brewery in North Carolina to win a Good Food Award, let alone ten).

Cocktails being made at Kingfisher in Durham, NC.

Cocktails being made at Kingfisher. Photo: Scott Myers Photography

International Foods

On a trip to Durham, you can experience the flavors of the world, no passport required. It’s hard to go wrong with one of Durham’s many taquerias, but Guanajuato Restaurant is my favorite for street tacos, menudo and pupusas. Read our full list of Durham’s best Mexican food to get your fix, from burritos to tostadas. Beyond Mexican cuisine, explore the flavors of the Caribbean and South America with upscale Cuban cuisine and cocktails at COPA. Across the street, Luna Rotisserie and Empanadas is a more casual option for rotisserie chicken, empanadas and sides where you can get a wholesome meal even if you’re on a keto diet. The grain bowl is a very satisfying option and the Patacon Pisao is one of the most innovative and delicious sandwiches in town. Boricua Soul is another spot where you can get a great bowl. At this food truck-turned-brick-and-mortar spot in American Tobacco Campus, Puerto Rican cuisine meets soul food.

Goorsha and its sister café, Gojo, have brought the flavors, textures and convivial atmosphere of Ethiopian cuisine to the Brightleaf District. A combo platter is a feast for your eyes and your stomach as well as a fun option for a big group to share.

The traditional sadza, peanut butter collard greens and piri piri chicken at Zweli’s earned it the title Durham’s best new restaurant in 2019. The owners have expanded with beautiful Bantu tapas, cocktails and a menu of South African wines at the new Ekhaya in American Tobacco Campus.

Dovi Cauliflower at Zweli's Ekhaya in Durham, NC American Tobacco Campus.

Dovi Cauliflower at Zweli's Ekhaya. Photo: Zweli's Ekhaya

Find handmade pasta inspired by chef Josh DeCarolis’s Italian nonna at Mothers & Sons Trattoria downtown, where my best recommendation is to fully go for it with a four-course, Italian-style meal with salads and bruschetta to start, followed by a pasta or two to share, a hearty protein entrée with vegetable sides and dessert. You may overdo it, but an after-dinner espresso or aperitif will set you straight. Experiment with the extensive selection of amaro to aid your digestion.

Further north of downtown, find a charming, handwritten menu of Italian classics and seasonal specials at Gocciolina. Sit at the bar to meet friendly regulars and order whatever crudo is on the menu, cacio e pepe and homemade cannoli for dessert.

For French food, find escargot, foie gras and moules frites for dinner and weekend brunch at Vin Rouge in the Ninth Street neighborhood. Rue Cler has served French fare on East Chapel Hill Street since 2006 with beignets you’ll dream of later.

If you weren’t already inspired by Chef Mike Lee’s accolades, try M Pocha for Korean street food or M Kokko as a tiny chicken comfort food spot that not-so-secretly serves some of the best ramen in town. Just down the street, Dashi is another ramen shop with an izakaya serving Japanese-inspired grilled skewers and small plates upstairs. Pay attention to their social accounts to catch their popular omakase series as their announced each month. Namu is something of a hidden gem, bringing causal Korean eats amid a bamboo forest tucked away near a shopping center.

Viceroy serves great modern Indian cuisine and cocktails downtown. When I’m craving a hearty and flavorful lamb curry with a side of naan, this is where I go. And when they say spicy, they mean spicy!

The olive colored storefront of Vin Rogue is tucked away on the street corner on a sunny day.

Vin Rouge. Photo: Discover Durham

Southern Staples

When you think North Carolina, you think barbecue, and Durham’s got the goods. Lawrence Barbecue at Boxyard RTP was named one of the best new barbecue joints in the South by Southern Living, and Picnic is one of the only spots in the state for hand-picked, whole hog barbecue made with humanely raised pork. Bullock’s BBQ is a family-owned institution in operation since 1952 and Mike D's BBQ Smokehouse & Retail opened in summer 2023 to well-deserved fanfare after making a name for himself with his signature sauce and rub. Get the details on these and more of Durham’s Best Barbecue Spots in our blog post.

Southern food isn’t just about pork. Dame’s Chicken and Waffles has a choose-your-adventure menu of crisp fried chicken paired with waffles, “schmears” and “drizzles.” Lula and Sadie’s serves photo-worthy red velvet chicken and waffles for brunch and all the grits, fried catfish, pulled pork, red beans and rice and mac n cheese you can imagine for lunch and dinner. Lovers of Cajun and Creole cooking will appreciate a low-key meal at Nzinga’s Kitchen or a sit-down dinner at Seraphine.

Quick tip for any restaurant in Durham: if you’re a fan of oysters, be sure to order those sourced from NC waters when you see them on a menu. While NC is not as well-known an oyster source as New England, the northwest or the Gulf of Mexico, our bivalves are small, briny, vegetal and clean. They come in fresh from the coast a few times a week and are healthy and sustainable. Give them a try!

Local Favorites and Special Occasion Spots

Some of Durham’s most popular spots for regulars to drop in for a bite or a full dinner just happen to be among the best in town. Take a tip from the locals and make a low-key stop at an unexpected time to experience a restaurant you might otherwise consider for a celebration. Pizzeria Toro serves wood-fired pizza with seasonal toppings in their bustling downtown location. Grab seats at the bar, order the Aperol Margarita with your dinner, and blend in with the locals. NanaSteak’s award-winning wine list and local ingredients make the restaurant a perfect spot for appetizers and drinks or a full dinner. Its location next to DPAC makes it a perfect spot for a pre- or post-show bite.

Littler is an intimate restaurant committed to seasonal sourcing and inventive, vegetable-forward dishes and responsibly sourced proteins. This cozy restaurant is known for its killer soundtrack and is meant to feel like a dinner party. Reservations are recommended because the space is, quite literally, littler than most. Plum’s inviting atmosphere and well-priced weeknight family dinners also make it a hit.

At Parizade’s outdoor dining area, you’ll find a serene oasis amid the busy Ninth Street District. The upscale locavore Mediterranean flavors have made the restaurant a Durham institution and a favorite for holidays and special occasions.

New to the scene, Little Bull’s menu is full of bright, fresh flavors, shareable plates and quality ingredients at very reasonable prices. Try the birria dumplings, ceviche and whole chicken, and save room for a plantain split for dessert.

A spread of dishes at the seasonal restaurant Littler in downtown Durham, NC.

Littler. Photo: Forrest Mason

Cheap Eats

On the corner of Geer and Foster streets, King’s Sandwich Shop is a Durham institution serving burgers, hot dogs, crinkle-cut fries and milkshakes since 1942. True locals know there’s nothing like a NC-style burger topped with chili, slaw and mustard. Satisfy your walk-up burger stand dreams here.

Pie Pushers is a family-owned downtown pizzeria with seasonal special slices that take inspiration from comfort food classics. Order a slice with a salad on top to feel virtuous, and Italian wines by the glass are better than they need to be. For more of Durham’s best pizza (and we’ve got a lot of options,) read our blog post.

In the Ninth Street District, budget bites abound. Climb the iconic staircase to the legendary Cosmic Cantina and find filling burritos for less than $10, plus nachos, tacos and more. Around the corner, Banh’s Cuisine is a no-frills, cash-only counter-service spot for flavorful Chinese and homestyle Vietnamese specials on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Parts & Labor’s menu of elevated sliders, wings and salads are perfect snacks between beverages. Thai @ Main St. serves flavorful, traditional Thai dishes. Go for the hearty lunch specials and bring a doggy bag home for dinner.

A chili slaw hot dog and tots at King's Sandwich Shop in Durham, NC.

King's Sandwich Shop. Photo: Discover Durham

Durham’s Best Burgers

Sometimes when you want a burger, nothing else will satisfy. Whether it’s a crisp-around-the-edges smashburger, a thin patty burger or a juicy, gourmet burger with all the toppings, we can direct you on your journey.

The burger at Bar Virgile is practically ideal. Double smashed patties, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and Russian dressing in a compact size that won’t leave you full of regret. Plus, you can enjoy a nice cocktail along with it. When you’re talking about burgers in Durham, you have to mention the over-the-top burger at Alley Twenty Six. Medium rare truly means a cool, red center in the thick patty, and the bacon onion jam adds unparalleled richness. If the full burger sounds like too much, you can always opt for the junior.

A burger and fries from Durham's original locally-owned burger joint, Only Burger

Only Burger. Photo: Only Burger

For a great pub burger, try Dain’s Place and The Federal. These are also easy spots for takeout if you’re not in the mood to sit down for a beverage. Dain’s Place takes the edge for fans of tots. If you’re looking for a fully customizable experience, try Bull City Burger and Brewery, where you can build your own burger, hot dog or veggie burger from a plethora of topping choices. Fun fact, BCBB makes everything in-house except for the ketchup. Queenburger made a name for itself with a creative outdoor pop-up during Covid-19 closures, and its popularity has led to a full-fledged brick-and-mortar serving fast food-style smashburgers, shoestring fries and frozen Dr. Pepper (insert eyes emoji).

Only Burger is Durham’s original locally-owned burger joint. Its menu of signature burgers and sliders, plus microbrews and milkshakes, make it a destination in western Durham.

For our recent roundup of burger options, take a look at this Instagram post (please check for availability before you go out as a few of these places are no longer in business).

Kid-Friendly Restaurants

Durham is an excellent place for a family-friendly adventure, with plenty of kid-approved attractions and, of course, great places to eat. Diners are always a hit for breakfast with the kiddos. Hit up Elmo’s Diner on Ninth Street for all the pancakes, scrambled eggs and hashbrowns your heart desires. If you’re heading to the Museum of Life & Science, have no fear – you can spend hours exploring and refuel with lunch from the onsite café. Over on 15-501, there are many kid-friendly attractions, and a stop at UHills offers dining options for the whole family. BB’s Crispy Chicken is a no-brainer for kids and adults, especially on Tuesdays when kids eat free, and those looking for a healthier choice can opt for a salad or smoothie at Happy & Hale without getting back in the car.

For dinner, Durham Food Hall has many kid-friendly options – from burrito bowls at Ex-Voto to pizza and gelato at Napoli Pizzeria and Gelateria to fried fish filets and coleslaw at Locals Seafood Restaurant & Market. Plus, the Food Hall is right next door to Durham Central Park and its playground and interactive pixel wall.

Our Picks by Durham Neighborhood

If you’re exploring the depths of your surrounding Durham neighborhood, we’re here to help. For our picks on what to eat, see, do and where to stay by district, read our district guides.

This list is an expanded version of the food and drink itinerary in our Visitor Guide. Check out the full guide here or request a print version to help you plan your next trip.

About the Author

Kristin Bedinger - Sr. Manager of Content
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Lover of plants, books, wine, cooking for my friends and hanging with my pup, Arlo. Find me trying every new bar and restaurant in Durham the moment it opens.