Early Dining Culture
Much like the rest of Durham’s late 19th and early 20th century development, the growing tobacco and textile factories and their workers brought the need for an accessible and affordable food service industry. While Durham’s middle and upper class primarily dined from home, employing individual cooks, the working class often dined in saloons and restaurants.
The eateries featured in this section are just a few of the restaurants that Durhamites have recalled as their favorite spots. Although the mid- 20th century cuisine across Durham consisted of many of the same southern dishes, the experiences of Black and White diners differed greatly in the Jim Crow south. While most White-owned restaurants refused to seat African Americans, Black-owned restaurants opened to provide safe and comfortable dining for local Blacks and Black travelers.
Between 1936 and 1966, the Negro Motorist Green Book was a vital guide for African American travelers to identify safe places to eat and sleep.
Background Image: Cover of the 1960 edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
The Blue Light
In 1946, Carl Boy and his sons Carl Jr., James, and Sam opened the Boy’s Esso Service Center on Erwin Road and Pettigrew Street, while a family friend operated a hot dog stand on the property. After the stand’s operator lost interest, the family decided to expand their food service and constructed the Blue Light, a drive-in restaurant, in 1949. Residents and Duke University students frequented the spot and enjoyed hearty meals like sugar-cured ham, fried fish or chicken, Brunswick stew, and roast beef.
Sam Boy and his wife Gerry took over operation of the restaurant. In May 1963, The Carolina Times newspaper reported that massive protests had compelled The Blue Light and six other Durham restaurants to serve Black diners. In 1974, as Duke University’s enrollment grew, the Boys transformed the restaurant into a convenience store called Sam’s Quik Shop, to serve nearby apartments and dorms. As consumption patterns changed, Sam’s began to focus on craft beer sales and John Boy, Jr. began running the shop in the late 80s. By 2019, the Sam’s Quik Shop property had been sold to a developer for student apartments, affectionately named The Blue Light Apartments. You can still visit John Boy, Jr., at Sam's Bottleshop in South Durham.
The A.B. Morris Café
Opened by Arthur B. Morris on Blackwell Street, the A.B. Morris Café was a space where white customers of diverse class background, including Duke students, businessmen, and tobacco mill workers dined. They came to the Café for home-style lunches that included fried chicken livers, Brunswick Stew, and barbeque; in the late 1960s, a meat and three vegetable plate with iced tea cost $1.00. By 1967, Duke student Andy Moursund recalled that there were still separate Black and White entrances and lines to be served, but he often dined with his African American friends without incident. Moursund, a midwesterner, recalled years later that A.B. Morris was “the greatest restaurant I ever went to. By 1970, A.B.’s was one of many buildings in Durham demolished by Urban Renewal, and Nance’s Cafeteria, serving many of the same southern favorites, was constructed in its place. Maitland Nance and his family owned several spots across Durham including Maitland’s Top Hat, Mayola’s Chili House, and eventually Turnage’s Barbeque.
The Ivy Room
The Ivy Room was opened by Percy Poole in 1945 with a New York-style delicatessen on one side and the Cosmopolitan Tap Room located upstairs. The restaurant featured a gift shop filled with a variety of items, including caviar and Russian Sputnik cigarettes.
The restaurant was a certified seller of “Chicken in the Rough,” which consisted of half a fried chicken, shoestring potatoes, and a biscuit with honey. Much like Kentucky Fried Chicken, the meal was widely promoted by its creators Beverly and Rubye Osbourne in Oklahoma City. Another favorite of Duke University students, the restaurant offered a Student Night discount on its chicken plate.
Background Image: The Ivy Room entrance at center with the Cosmopolitan Tap Room at left and the deli on the right, 1980. Courtesy of OpenDurham.org, Preservation Durham.
Tip-Top Fish House
3300 Hillsborough Road
After gaining experience in the restaurant industry as a partner in other central North Carolina eateries, Percy and Ione Watkins opened the original location of the Tip-Top Fish House on West Hillsborough Road in 1959. A year later, the Watkins partnered with Norris Lawing and constructed a 200-hundred-person dining room just down the street from its first location. The new, state of the art restaurant was designed by local modernist architect Frank DePasquale and featured roof rafters carved with a fish head and tail.
305 East Chapel Hill Street
Located in the heart of downtown across the street from the prestigious Washington Duke Hotel, the Palms served as a hub for Durham's business dealings. The Palms was opened on East Chapel Hill street in 1932 by Richard Green. In 1936, the restaurant was sold to Norman Reeves, owner of the Reeves' American Inn, also located in Durham. Reeves recognized the potential of the restaurant and sold his hotel to focus on the Palms. Advertisements listed good food, popular prices, and sizzling steaks as selling points for its customers. In 1947, its banquet room hosted a reunion for veterans of the Spanish American War. Over the next thirty years, the Palms changed hands a few times before ultimately closing in 1983 as a result of thee downtown area's waning activity.
Background Image: Exterior of The Palms restaurant. Courtesy of OpenDurham.org, Preservation Durham.
The Little Acorn
706 Rigsbee Avenue
Historically, the Central Park neighborhood was frequented by farmers, tobacco buyers, and their families during the auction season, which meant a busy season for local businesses. In 1940, Robert Roycroft and his wife, Virginia, opened the Little Acorn Restaurant on Rigsbee Avenue, just a block north of the tobacco warehouses. The Little Acorn was a popular dining spot for families coming from rural North Carolina for the auctions. The restaurant served traditional southern dishes like fried chicken and Brunswick Stew as well as barbeque that was roasted over a large pit outside the restaurant. Its advertisements proudly boasted that the Little Acorn was Durham’s largest restaurant and had air conditioning. Although the original restaurant closed when Robert Roycroft retired in 1971, his son, Earl, opened the Acorn Family Restaurant in North Durham on Guess Road which operated until 1987.
The Donut Shop
After returning from service in World War II, William Gaston Pearson II and his wife, Jessie Logan, opened the Donut Shop in 1946. Located on bustling Pettigrew Street near the Regal Theater and the Biltmore Hotel, the Donut Shop was a popular dining spot for the Hayti neighborhood. The state-of-the art restaurant featured several private dining rooms and a formal banquet hall called the Jade Room.
The Donut Shop closed by 1957, after W. G. Pearson II had graduated from North Carolina College with a law degree; he later opened a law firm and became the first African American district court judge in the state in 1977.
Left: Exterior of the Donut Shop. Courtesy of OpenDurham.org, Preservation Durham.
The Chicken Box / Chicken Hut
410 South Roxboro / 3019 Fayetteville
Prior to venturing into the restaurant business, Claiborne Tapp, Jr. tested his entrepreneurship with Tapp’s Grocery and Market, opened in 1947 on Morehead Avenue. In 1956 Tapp opened the first Chicken Box location on Pine Street (now Roxboro). The success of the Chicken Box led to expansion to five locations—four across Durham and one in Chapel Hill. Like many Black-owned businesses, Urban Renewal forced the Tapps to relocate to the current Fayetteville Street location; it was then renamed the Chicken Hut.
When Black protestors were arrested during the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant protests in 1963, Tapp sent Chicken Box dinners to the jail to feed them. When Claiborne passed away in 1998, his wife Peggy, her sisters, and son Tre took over; Peggy passed away in 2018 with Tre continuing the family legacy with hopes of passing it down to his daughters. Throughout its history, the Chicken Hut has served main dishes like fried chicken, ox tails, and fried shrimp and fish, with sides like collard greens, macaroni, and fried okra. Providing meals for those in need has been a guiding value for the restaurant for years; during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tre Tapp and his staff have provided upwards of 900 free lunches to students a day.
Background: Claiborne Tapp, Jr., working in Tapp's Grocery and Market. Courtesy of the Chicken Hut.
The Green Candle
542 East Pettigrew Street
Many North Carolina Central University alumni have shared fond memories of the home-style cooking of Azona Allen at the Green Candle, first located on East Pettigrew Street in 1953. The affordable food for college students included popular dishes such as meatloaf, oven fried chicken, and short ribs, all served with sweet tea. Allen’s entrepreneurial spirit brought on a unique food service model with just one meal being served to crowds a day; diners remember her strictness in operation—once the food was gone, they were closed. The Green Candle’s reputation reached far beyond the Hayti neighborhood and Durham with performers Tina and Ike Turner stopping by while on tour and James Brown being denied service when he arrived after closing time. Like many of Durham’s Black-owned businesses in Hayti, Urban Renewal resulted in the demolition of the Green Candle’s Pettigrew Street location. The city constructed a building for relocating displaced businesses called “Tin City,” where the Green Candle temporarily reopened. Allen later moved the restaurant to the Phoenix Square shopping center on Fayetteville Street and continued to serve patrons until 1998 when she retired at the age of 81.
Left: Azona Allen, Courtesy of The Classic Restaurants of Durham.
On June 23, 1957, Rev. Douglas E. Moore led six young African American men and women, Mary Elizabeth Clyburn, Claude Glenn, Jesse Gray, Vivian Jones, Virginia Williams, and Melvin Willis, in a nonviolent protest at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor. After refusing to leave the “whites only” section of the ice cream parlor, the group was arrested and charged with trespassing. Durham’s Royal Ice Cream Parlor sit-in was one of the earliest of its kind in the state.
Three years later, on February 1, 1960, the famous Woolworth’s sit-in in Greensboro took place with a similar one following in Durham the next week. Over forty North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) students and four from Duke University organized sit-ins at the Durham lunch counter. This prompted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to visit Durham where he gave his “A Creative Protest” speech.
Left: Protestors march outside the Royal Ice Cream Parlor. A young Senator Floyd McKissick Jr. is in center. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.
A 1927 article in the Durham Morning Herald reported that 75 of the 80 Greeks living in Durham were in the restaurant business. Emmanuel Mike Galifianakis arrived in Durham in 1919 after immigrating to the U.S. from Greece. Shortly after arriving, Galifianakis opened Mike’s Weenie Stand and served hotdogs. His early food service endeavor was so successful that in 1920, Galifianakis was able to purchase the former Page’s Café location and called it Lincoln Café. He became a U.S. citizen in 1926 and married, Sophie, that same year. Galifianakis was an early proponent of integration and removed the restaurant’s partition long before 1964. While the café served southern classics and breakfast for factory workers, Galifianakis also prepared traditional Greek dishes for community members. It was reported that Fats Domino and Nat King Cole dined at the café when they were in town. Upon Galifianakis’s death in 1958, IOUs from patrons who were unable to pay for food during the Great Depression were found.
He was also the father of Congressman Nick Galifianakis and grandfather of actor Zach Galifianakis.
Left: Mike and Sophie Galifianakis. Courtesy of Pick Nick: The Political Odyssey of Nick Galifianakis from Immigrant Son to Congressman.
Annamaria's Pizza House
When U.S. troops who occupied Italy during World War II returned home in the 1940s, they brought with them a newly developed taste for pizza. New Jersey native Annamaria Malanga moved to Durham in 1949 with her husband, Bartholamew “Bat,” to seek treatment for their daughter Aggie’s kidney disease with Duke doctor Walter Kempner’s Rice Diet. Pizza arrived in Durham when Duke University (and later Washington Redskins) quarterback Sonny Jurgenson asked Annamaria to make him a pizza and it was popularized among students. Annamaria and Bat briefly served patrons out of their living room before opening Annamaria’s Pizza House in 1958 on 6th Street (now Clarendon Street) in the Trinity Park neighborhood. While pizza remained their staple, the Malangas added other traditional Italian dishes to the menu such as spaghetti and meatballs, and veal parmigiana. In 1986, following the deaths of Bat and Aggie as well as a sharp increase in rent, Annamaria’s closed.
Background: Annamaria Malanga. Courtesy of the Malanga Family.