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Durham Faves

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I'd love to hear some feedback on people's favorite restaurants in Durham. Why are they your favorites? What are the best dishes there?

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  1. The Federal--great for low-cost, high-yield meals. Wonderful specials, including the occasional duck breast, house-cured pastrami, braised pork shoulder, etc. On the fixed menu, all the sandwiches, the carnitas, and the burger are all very dependable. Service can be less than ideal and the place can get very smokey.

    Vin Rouge--lovely unpretentious French bistro fare. I love the boudin blanc on apple-cabbage coulis. Liver is very good, as is the carmelized onion tart. Boullabaise is nice. Avoid the oysters smothered in cheese--bad concept or poor execution, but either way, a loser.

    Super Taqueria--great tacos al pastor, carbon, cabesa, lengua, tripa. Good, filling tortas. Very cheap, very satisfying.

    Dillard's Bar-B-Q--some here will slam me for this but I think the 'cue's fine and the fried chicken is better than fine. I much prefer this place to the more-popular Bullock's.

    Nikos Taverna--not extraordinary, but perfectly good Greek food at reasonable prices. Fish is always good.

    Blue Nile--again, not extraordinary, but perfectly good Ethiopian. I think I prefer the Ethiopian place in Chapel Hill but either will satisfy when the craving hits.

    Hong Kong Restaurant--Chinese food is very disappointing in the Triangle. In Durham, this place is the best we've found. The salt and pepper squid is good, and the specials menu is pretty reliable. Dim sum is served and is serviceable but too greasy.

    Magnolia Grill--$$$$, but the best of the high-end places IMHO. Menu changes every few weeks so I can't recommend a particular dish. Get dessert, there are usually a number of wonderful choices.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Tom M of Durham NC


      Sadly enough, I think Blue Nile is closed -- it's not where it was, at any rate, and I think it's being replaced with something else.

      1. re: DingoWallaby

        Confirmed. What a drag--I liked that place.

        1. re: DingoWallaby

          How is Queen of Sheba in Chapel Hill, I really like Ethiopian food but haven't been yet.

          1. re: Rory

            In my experience, the food was very good, but the service was spotty, and pretty slow.

          2. re: DingoWallaby

            The owner of Queen of Sheba is the wife of the couple who owned Blue Nile. From what I heard, they got divorced and she came to Chapel Hill to open Queen of Sheba. I think she was always the main chef at Blue Nile, which may explain the post above about it not being stellar..?? Queen of Sheba, on the other hand, is great. I'd recommend the vegetarian options over the meat dishes - that's just my preference. And you can't leave without getting some sambusas (I'd recommend more than one order!). The hot tea is also really good (pretty sweet, though, if that's not your thing). The service can be a bit spotty at times, but overall it's OK...or at least it doesn't really phase me. And sitting outside on the deck is really nice when the weather permits. Plus, the owner is VERY SWEET...such a nice lady.

            BUT...a developer that recently purchased the land her restaurant is on will be knocking the building down soon. Fortunately, he has offered to build her another, but that would likely mean waiting for 1-2 years...not so feasable. She doesn't know what to do in the meantime (still needs to make $$), so there's a good chance that Queen of Sheba's days are numbered. I hope everyone will frequent this place more...maybe it will give her the incentive/hope to set up shop somewhere temporarily?? Anyway...keeping my fingers crossed...

          3. re: Tom M of Durham NC

            Add Chosun Ok to my list. Just had my first meal there and it was very, very satisfying. Friendly service, great portions, lovingly prepared entrees. I suggest they change the name to Chosun Awesome.

          4. Tom's calls seem about right, though Dillard's is not an experience I would care to repeat. Hong Kong Restaurant is good for dim sum, probably the best in the Triangle. Eastern Light is probably a bit better for everyday chow, assuming you select your dishes carefully and stick to the Chinese menu. Their homemade noodles and potsickers are particularly good. Food aside, Hong Kong has a major ambience problem -- the place is approaching shack status. While I'm on the subject, let me reiterate my appreciation for Red Palace in Raleigh, as far as I know the only restaurant serving high-quality Chinese-style Chinese food in the Triangle.

            I would certainly add Guglhopf, the Q Shack, and Miranda's Taqueria to the list of Durham Faves. And if you avoid the buffet, Kashmir is not bad for Indian.

            At the opposite end of the cost spectrum, I'm sure others would add Nana's and Four Square to this list. There's a real argument to be made that these are better than Magnolia. I am myself a bit doubtful about the cost/quality ratio at all of these restaurants. If money is no object, then by all means enjoy yourself.


            3 Replies
            1. re: Sinophile


              Have you tried the dim sum over at the Neo China in Cary? I've only been once, years ago, and it was a madhouse--hour plus wait at the door--but I was very impressed with the food: neat and fresh, with some nice presentation touches that Hong Kong completely foregoes. I'd return if I thought it was possible to get a table in a reasonable amount of time. The rest of the Neo China menu is nothing special, as I recall, but their dim sum was quite good on my one visit.

              1. re: Tom M of Durham NC

                I've eaten many times at Neo China. None of the three local dim sum eateries -- Neo China, China One, and Hong Kong -- are entirely satisfactory. Neo China has by far the best ambience, but the food tends to be bland and predictable, and they shop it around until it's dead cold. China One probably has the most skillful cuisine, but the place has the ambience of a morgue, and they too shop food until it's dead cold. After many years of visits and much reflection, I've recently come to the conclusion that, all things taken into account, Hong Kong is the place to go. The steamed food leaves something to be desired, but the fried food is quite good -- I especially like the taro-crusted shrimp cakes -- and it's always hot.

                Best of luck,


                1. re: Sinophile

                  For Chinese I think the best deal in town is China Wok. The hot and sour soup is delicious and their regular menu items are all good quality for cheap prices. It is out of the way and definitely not a place to go for the decor.

                  For other local foods I eat at Thai Cafe for Thai food, Miranda's for mexican, Kashmir or Sitar for Indian. I used to go to the Saladelia Cafe quite often but haven't been there in a while. I put a premium on cheapness though and am not so willing to pay more money for better food except on special occasions. Also, I go to Pulcinella's for Italian. I love the salad and bread that come with the meal, and I've found all the entrees that I've tried to be very tasty.

            2. Thanks for the feedback, guys. I've been around here for a while, but I keep thinking I might be missing something, which is why I posted my request. We had a great experience at Vin Rouge early on, but then some very so-so ones, so we haven't been back. But I'll give it another go. Same for Hong Kong. Time to head back, I suppose. I've been a China One regular, but they can be a bit uneven. Being a sinophile myself, I'm dying to make the trek to Red Palace, but Raleigh is always such a mental haul. I need to round up a group and head over there, though. I just recently tried Eastern Lights after reading about it here and liked the food a lot. I agree about the upmarket restaurants in town - Nana's is probably our favorite, but money is an object - it's fun occasionally to get a drink at the bar and have an appetizer or two. I'm not too big on hoity-toity "excellent choice, ma'am" dining - I just like good food and preferably a decent vibe. What do you think of City Beverage?

              1. I think City Beverage is great for lunch. I really like their salads and burgers. But their dinners have been hit or miss and can be pricy for what you get, service is less than desired, and it can be a long wait to get your food.

                I'd like to put in my two cents on Sitar India Palace and Four Square. I think they have a lot to offer.

                1. I really like City Beverage for a casual dinner that is tasty without being expensive or heavy in a fun atmosphere, and they have good beers on tap. Sadly, last time I went they no longer had the mini turkey burgers with brie and green apples, which was my favorite, but the salads are also ample and tasty. That said, I wouldn't go with more than 3 or 4 people - I took a group of 8 or 10 once and it was a total fiasco - the waitstaff were totally overwhelmed (we were just a group of grad students wanting burgers, not demanding), we waited for a long time and then our food took absolutely forever and all came at different times, and they refused to divide our checks. I wasn't allowed to suggest a restaurant again for a long time.

                  Same goes for Federal - I've had great food and great times there, but you have to be very laid back, not in a hurry, not in a big group, and engrossed enough in your conversation that you don't mind if your waitperson disappears for a half hour or so. Having lived in Chapel Hill and Durham for a few years, I've just come to expect this kind of uneven, uninterested service in general and try not to get uptight about it.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: dubedo

                    How does a place with service so lacking still get so many recommendations? I ate once at Federal, and although the food was quite good, I really have no desire to return. There are other good places around to eat where the wait staff aren't a__holes, and at least act like they appreciate customers being there. How would the servers pay rent if they had no customers?

                    I think it is a shame that there is so much support for a place like that. The ownership should be embarrased that everyone in the Triangle thinks their wait staff sucks.

                    Sorry for the rave, but poor servcie has really been getting to me lately. Diners should be more proactive in letting management know when they are having a bad time. How will they fix it if they don't know there is a problem?

                  2. Chapel Will,

                    You should steer clear of Tonali, then, at least for the time being. I've never encountered such bizarely dysfunctional service in my life. At least one other hound, I recall, reported the same experience. Having to turn on the lights herself, scrounge for her own silverware, etc. I actually had to eat a salad with my fingers because I simply could not procure silverware of any sort.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Sinophile

                      Simple, because Federal and Tonali provide good food at prices that other places can't touch. For some-- like myself-- that is enough to overcome the service shortfall. I would rather patronize such places and hope that they overcome their service issues rather than closing.

                    2. Ordinarily I would agree entirely -- food trumps service. The service at Tonali, however, was so messed up that it interfered with my ability to relax and enjoy the meal. I believe that this is the first time I have ever been distracted to this extent by service, or rather by non-service. Tonali is fine -- good food, cheap prices, small portions -- but not good enough that I owe the place my allegiance in the absence of silverware (in addition to bringing the wrong dishes, bringing the wrong bill, bringing our appetizer after our entree, and so forth).

                      1. I've really got to take up for Tonali. I'm going to guess it went something like this:

                        Dude wants to open up his own place and scrapes together just enough to do so. His reputation from 4 sq. causes a bit of a stir so he's fortunate enough to get some steady biz right out of the gate. Tonali becomes the darling of the foodie websites (see the half dozen or zo threads on google's triangle dining board as well as a few here). Now all of a sudden he's packed all day and is scrambling to get (and train) enough staff to cover his ass. Oddly enough, he can't just snap his fingers and make this happen. Inevitably people start having bad experiences because he's only human and can't do every job himself. Due to the enormous hype (not created by him, mind you) people begin to have high expectations and get pissed about their experiences (not just you David).

                        I know it sounds like I'm making excuses for the guy, but I'm just trying to provide some perspective. Sometimes a guy is simply guilty of wanting to open his own place despite not having deep enough pockets to ensure a seemless opening. That category includes most places not named Outback, Cheesecake Factory, PF Changs, etc. Just the type of place that Chowhounds claim to support.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: detlefchef

                          How long has Tonali been open, and how long would you suggest waiting for the place to get the bugs worked out before going there expecting a good and at-least-competently served meal? I've never been and am anxious to try it, but the message I'm getting is that the time to check it out is still a ways off.

                          1. re: Tom M of Durham NC

                            I'm not advocating that everyone wait it out or the poor guy will go under. I think you should go right away under the understanding that there's a chance the service might be off. Mind you, I've never experienced any of the bad service reported by others. It hasn't been stellar or anything, but completely fine. So it's not a forgone conclusion that the service will be bad. I mean, it's not like you'll be laying out big bucks or anything, so I think it's worth the risk of getting sub par service

                            1. re: detlefchef

                              Right, didn't realize this was an inexpensive place, just saw Four Square and thought $$$$$. I'll check it out.

                            2. re: Tom M of Durham NC

                              I've been there at least 1x per week every since I discovered Tonali about a month ago. We've had nothing but great service and awesome food..hence the rate at which we frequent the place! Granted, we've been going during the week, which may account for the difference in experience. However, I think detlefchef is right - the chef/owner (who is SOO SOO NICE and really cares about what he's doing) is probably just scrambling to get these kinks worked out. Try going during the week - he usually comes out from the kitchen and chats with folks.

                            3. re: detlefchef

                              I wouldn't say I was "pissed off" by the service at Tonali. "Amazed" would be more like it. You will remember that my original post on Tonali was largely complimentary, and that I by no means ruled out a return visit. My chief complaint did not actually concern the service, but the smallness of the portion, which required us to to follow up our meal with a snack at Eastern Light. In any case, I encourage people to return to Tonali, which is clearly a work in progress. I will almost certainly return myself.

                            4. I wasn't going to say anything about Tonali, but I can't hold back any longer. Several weeks ago I read the rave reviews about Tonali and told a couple of my favorite food fanatic buds and we rushed straight there. I'm one of those people who gets annoyed by constant service complaints. It always seems as though that's the most important thing to an American diner, often more important than the food. I'm more of a food quality and ambiance sort of person when it comes to eating out - which is why I enjoy City Beverage. We had another very nice evening there on Friday. Best crab cakes in town. But I digress. Our Tonali experience was the single worst dining experience any of us had ever had in Durham (I've been here off and on since '82). We had some Margaritas at our friends' house because we knew there would be no drinky-poos. Fine. The service sounded a lot like what Sinophile got, so I won't repeat it. No silverware, etc. The food wasn't all that great....what we got of it, that is. The smoked chicken/avocado soup everyone was going on about had absolutely no avocado in it - chicken, not so smokey, and the soup had a campbell-esqe taste to it. They told us they had run out of beef for the somethingorothers (appetizers), could they make them with chicken...fine. No biggie. Then we waited...and waited...and waited...nothing. When we asked about our main courses, the waitress asked "what are you waiting for?" My 12-year-old son had eaten nothing but a spoonful of my soup by this point. Not that anybody noticed. They had not only run out of a particular kind of beef, but all beef (we got there at 7). Our fish tacos also never materialized. Finally, we gave up and ordered takeout Chinese and had that at our friends' house. We're going to wait a while and go there for lunch and see if they've gotten it together.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: suse

                                Service is a tricky issue. As an overriding principle, good food trumps most service issues for me. But some places achieve critical mass, where it's no longer possible to enjoy the food because the service is so neglectful. There have been times that the missus and I have wanted to eat at the Federal, for instance, but thought the better for it because we aren't in the mood for casual service and potentially long waits for our food. We'd probably eat there *a lot* more often if the service were more predictable. And we haven't been back to Fishmongers in years despite the fact that we really enjoy the food because, after a number of pretty bad experiences with the service there, we had our single worst service experience in our years in the Triangle. Between the time we ordered and the time our food came, 1 hour and 15 minutes passed. The place wasn't that crowded; it couldn't have been because the kitchen was hopelessly backed up. The waitress did not come check on us once; she rarely appeared on the floor, so I couldn't even find her to ask what was taking so long with our food. I don't know if the food would have ever come if I hadn't finally found the waitress and told her we'd be heading over to the Joyce for dinner in 10 minutes if our food wasn't out by then; that was after an hour+ of waiting. When I tell friends this story, they recount similar nightmare experiences with the place. How it remains in business is beyond me.

                                1. re: Tom M of Durham NC

                                  I forgot to mention that that time at Fishmongers we had ordered appetizers. When I finally flagged the waitress down at the 1+ hour mark, I asked her to cancel the appetizers because--well, appetizers are supposed to come well before the meal and less than an hour after you order them. She told me she couldn't because they were already being prepared. They came with the entrees.

                              2. For the record, I think food trumps service, too. It's just that having done everything in a restaurant from wash dishes to manage, I am regularly disappointed with restaurant staff and owners not showing more pride.

                                Unfortunately, this issue is not exclusively a restaurant issue, that's just the industry nearest and dearest to my heart. I think most of our grandparents are/would be ashamed of the idea of customer service being a deaprtment, rather than an additude or ideal to strive for.

                                That being said, I think if the right people are running the show, you don't need 15 year professional waiters from San Fran, Chicago, or NYC to provide good service. Students and the like will do just fine, as long as the management teaches them to maintain a level of pride.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Chapel Will

                                  I think that that is for the most part true-- but i have to go back to charlie's point that sometimes the guy who actually knows what he's doing, ie, the owner, is incapable of managing the floor, the kitchen, and the dishwashers in the middle of the lunch rush. he's trying to get the food out (although it sounds as though they're not even doing that). especially if you're a new restaurant, you may not even be able to attract a good managerial staff; indeed, that could be more difficult than attracting good servers. in fact, it's the pressure to open that will often keep a restaurant from taking the time to train its staff properly. pride or no pride, ineptitude is tough to overcome. that said, it sounds as if tonali should close for a sunday, bring EVERYONE in, and say "look, suckahs-- this is how things are going to run, or you're fired". good food will trump service issues for a limited amount of time before people start getting upset.
                                  to contradict my entire argument, though, and CW knows this as well as anyone--you never know what's happened behind the scenes when the wheels totally come off during service. could be someone just slipped and fell in the fryer, or quit in the middle of service, or any number of things.

                                2. Queen of Sheba is owned by the same woman who used to own Blue Nile. (Sorry this ended up in the wrong place.)

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: rockycat

                                    Just for the record, I believe the owner of Queen of Sheba is the ex-wife of the owner of the now sadly defunct Blue Nile.

                                    I would agree with the above posts that the food at QoS is good, but the service is lacking. The interior also lacks some of the charm of Blue Nile.

                                  2. and, to go back to the original bent of the post-- faves in durham--
                                    love guglhupf. i think it's already been mentioned, but for my part, they do some of the best pastries in the triangle, and the patio is a nice place to sit and have a beer on an autumn day. pretty good food, too.
                                    pop's is good for a moderately priced bottle of wine and some pasta. not blow your mind good, but very good for not a lot of money.
                                    chamas churrascuria in brightleaf square is a brazilian barbecue-- i don't usually get the full meat treatment, as it's pricey. but the lunch buffet, even without, is excellent. lots of great roasted vegetables and house made pickles, and good feijoada-y rice and beans.
                                    super taqueria-- mmmhmmm. really most of the taquerias in durham, esp. super and miranda's.
                                    locopops. one of the best additions to the city since the bulls.
                                    mag grill--$$$$, yes, but i have dreams about his tender-as-mother's-love octopus, veal cheeks, and that wild mushroom grits souffle. don't love the ambience, but the food is, after 20 years, still some of the best around.
                                    f the q shack. decent brisket, but the rest is pretty awful.
                                    bullocks is where it's at, as far as i'm concerned.

                                    6 Replies
                                    1. re: HeelsSoxHound

                                      F the q shack? Really?? Admittedly, I've never ordered any meat other than the brisket. But I've had barbeque brisket in Austin that was nowhere as good as Q Shack's. And the mac & cheese at Q Shack is sinfully good! I think between the brisket and the sides (not to mention the Colin Farrel-esque guy who works behind the counter), Q Shack is certainly worth the trip.

                                        1. re: like2run

                                          I don't think it's fair to say Durhamois is WAY off on the Qshack. While I agree with you on some posts for sure, you mentioned some places, such as Chamas, which in my book is fine, but by no means excellent - Guglhupf pastries - okay, but not their strength. We won't even talk about your love of Bullocks. Did Durhamois slam you for it? No! For you to slam Durhamois is just silly.

                                          1. re: suse

                                            1) It appears like2run was saying that Heelssoxhound was "way off" on qshack not durhamois. Check the "replied to" part of the post.
                                            2) Since when did simply not agreeing with someone by saying that they're "way off" constitute "slamming" them?

                                            1. re: detlefchef

                                              okay everyone: thanks, detlechef for setting the record straight; thanks, suse, for being like my protective big sister; thanks like2run and heelssoxhound for your input on qshack. let's all move on and talk about the food we love!

                                              1. re: durhamois

                                                Sorry, ya'll. I was having a dyslexic moment. And I did think that "slamming" was a little too hard after I sent the post. Apologies. Now, let's move on.