Downtown Durham is the ultimate quick weekend jaunt for an avid city-stroller: I didn’t have to use an Uber or taxi once after arriving from the airport. The hippest point of the research triangle is filled with cozy restaurants serving up delicious twists on satisfying comfort food, bars that will make you forget you're in a town of undergrads, and an arts scene to rival cities much larger. And every place you want to go is within walking distance.
WHERE TO STAY
A branch of Dream Hotel group, Unscripted Durham is youthful, buzzy, and equipped with a hip rooftop pool and lobby bar scene, where “Have Fun” is clearly the mission statement (all staff wear a pin emblazoned with this motto). A nod to its ’60s motor lodge past, the hotel is covered with midcentury modern décor, pool-facing rooms feature motel-esque outdoor entrances, and very Instagramable wallpaper is around every turn.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Jack Tar & The Colonel’s Daughter
Located underneath Unscripted—and as an homage to the old space—Jack Tar bears the name of the former motor lodge that the restaurant currently inhabits. It maintains the ’60s diner vibe with an all-day breakfast menu including never-not-full cups of Counter Culture coffee and made-to-order crullers that are a must-order.
Just try to choose your favorite of the 14 varieties of pizza (not to mention options to customize your own) in either slice or pie form available at Pie Pushers. Can't pick? The Pace Car (corn, basil, jalapeno, parmesan and mozzarella) is worth a call-out. This spot is perfect for a quick, no-fuss snack or even hotel-room delivery after a night out.
Littler is for sure the coziest restaurant in Durham. I had no problem popping in and snagging a table without a reservation at 8:30 on a Friday, but if it's packed, you can order the full seasonally-changing menu at the bar as well. Highlights include the latkes benedict with smoked trout and the hearty braised pork shank with grits. Also, special shout out to the side veggies; you can’t go wrong with any of them as Littler does veggies so, so right. Fair warning: These are all generous portions.
For culinary thrill-seekers, the bar boasts a “Mercy of the Bartender” cocktail, which is...exactly as it sounds. I ended up with a citrus-heavy twist on a Paloma, with tequila, grapefruit and the welcome edition of blood orange and honey simple syrup.
Mateo Bar De Tapas
Mateo is the perfect marriage of an unlikely duo: Spanish tapas and seasonal southern flavor. Incorporating traditional Spanish elements with Carolina staples, the small-plate focused menu is an “let’s order for the table” kind of joint—you’re going want to try everything. The Costillas de Puerco (little pork ribs with pepper jelly) and Almejas Pequenas (steamed clams with boiled peanuts and ham) are standouts.
Parker and Otis
Part restaurant and part wine-slash-gift shop, Parker and Otis is a bruncher’s dream come true. After stealing a seat and ordering a sandwich (nearly impossible to pick a favorite) or grabbing a cheddar biscuit and coffee to-go, check out their an amazing selection of cookbooks, letterpress greeting cards, and local North Carolina goods. It’s a one-stop shop for last minute souvenirs and “treat-yoself” moments (don’t ask me about my stationary binge).
The local purveyor to most restaurants in the Durham area, The Parlour offers a daily rotation of seasonal homemade ice cream. I may have found myself on, uh, several visits to the storefront in one weekend. The salted caramel on a sugar cone is exceptional.
Kotuku Surf Club
This is your quintessential southern “local” hang. The beer offerings are a bit more advanced than your average dive bar, but Kotuku has all the elements that make a dive so loveable. (Junky bar décor? Check. Darts? Check. Separate pool room? Check.)
WHAT TO DO
This is the newest outpost of the Asheville-based brewery and by far one of the coolest of Durham (and there are MANY). At 11 a.m. on Saturdays—before the brewery opens at 12—Hi-Wire offers $5 yoga classes (bring your own mat, I grabbed mine from the hotel gym) and encourage practitioners to stick around for a pint after. You'll be lucky to have nabbed a spot: The massive space fills almost immediately with dogs, families, and food trucks. Locals congregate around a great selection of sour beers and ales while playing on two “pool soccer” fields (exactly as it sounds).
Durham Performing Arts Center
This state-of-the-art arena is walking distance from downtown and, with as many headlining musical acts (Chicago, Widespread Panic) and touring Broadway shows (Dear Evan Hansen, Cruel Intentions: The 90s Musical) as it has on the schedule, when you're able to snag tickets is when you should plan your trip.
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