Most North American cities have been decimated by the surrender of public space to the automobile, the rise of suburbs and the spread of the big box stores.  Durham,  North Carolina is no exception.  You can walk the downtown in the middle of a working day and wonder if the city is inhabited.  There are no people in the streets.  Then you spot a restaurant with patrons inside and it dawns on you that all is not as it seems.  There are signs of life, signs of urban renewal.  There are condo conversions in the works and people are moving back to the city’s core.  Thanks to the tobacco business, Durham was always a blue collar town, but those jobs have all moved on.  Ironically, the spectacular redevelopment called the “American Tobacco Campus” doesn’t allow smoking.

To learn a little more about this revival and sample some of offerings of the restaurants that have sprouted in the city in recent years, we signed up for a Taste of Carolina walking tour of Durham.  Joe and his partner, Lesley, are unabashed food junkies who are enthusiastic about the restaurants, farm markets and food makers in the tri-cities area.  On this particular Saturday, they are assisted by Dean, director of training for a wine distributor.  We meet nine other foodies from North Carolina and elsewhere outside the old Bull Durham building, adjacent to the new Performing Arts Center and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

We are soon on our way to “Toast,” a cosy, Italian inspired sandwich place.  It’s packed on this Saturday afternoon.  We squeeze around a handful of empty tables and are soon enjoying our first repast, a spicy lentil dish and goat cheese on toast.  It is delicious.  Our next stop is a spacious, combination gourmet food store/ cafe called “Parker and Otis,” jam- packed with foodstuffs and wine.

It is not far from Brightleaf Square, the first successful renovation of a tobacco warehouse complex in the area.  From there, we make our way down to a lovely restaurant near the farm market called “Piedmont”, named after this particular part of North Carolina.  Shrimp and minced clam on the half shell arrive at our tables, an introduction to their Mediterranean-inspired menu.

“LocoPops” is an intriguing start-up, launched four years ago by a Southern girl named Summer looking to escape from the corporate world.  She was inspired by two women in a Mexican craft shop to go south of the border, where she learned to make popsicles.  That was the beginning of a gourmet popsicle business, which has expanded rapidly, now boasting five locations in the tri-city area.  The popsicles come in water-base and cream-base flavors, and mind-bending combinations.  Wasabi and chocolate chip would seem to collide, but when you allow your taste buds to override the critical left brain, it is amazing what flavors can work together.

The next-to-last stop was one of the pioneers in the new wave of Durham’s downtown restaurants, “Rue Cler”.  It was inspired by the street in Paris bearing the same name, a market street not far from the Eiffel Tower.  We enjoy a respite from walking, our first glass of wine and a delicious salad.  When we leave, our group threads its way through one of the huge parking garages that litters the city and we gradually make our way back to where we started.

“Tyler’s Taproom” is located in the American Tobacco Campus complex.  Its specialty is tap beer from small, craft producers.  There are sixty to choose from, so a lot of the fun is reading through the extensive menu.  Joe is generous to a fault, and I enjoy a full glass of Belgian beer after the sample glass included as part of the tour.

In our afternoon of wandering, we have skipped over some of the city’s renowned restaurants, but it has been an eclectic introduction graced with southern hospitality.  If it takes restaurants to revive a city, I’ll do my best to help them out. Whenever and wherever I can, I’ll walk or take my bike.

How else can you work up an appetite?


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