Recognized nationally as the “Tastiest Town in the South” and “America’s Foodiest Small Town”

Durham’s culinary culture is an eclectic mix of both traditional southern food as well as international cuisine. This exhibit highlights some pioneering and prominent eateries and important firsts for Durham restaurants from the 1800s to the present, as well as the efforts of individuals who fought to bring the community together at the table.

Restaurants listed in the 1887 city directory. Courtesy of DigitalNC.

In 1887, the city directory listed five restaurants, two of which were owned by African Americans and were located along Black Wall Street. As the workforce grew and more residents moved to Durham, diners, cafes, and luncheonettes opened shop across downtown and by 1920, Durham residents could choose from nearly thirty eateries.

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.

North Carolina entry of the 1960 edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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.

Left: View of the A.B. Morris storefront, looking southeast from Blackwell and Matthews streets, 1964. Courtesy of Durham County Library. Right: In the 1967 Duke Chanticleer, the yearbook featured this image of students enjoying a meal at the A.B. Morris Café. Courtesy of the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

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.

Left: Exterior View of the Tip-Top Fish House. Note that the beams under the roof are carved to resemble fish with open mouths. Courtesy of OpenDurham.org, Preservation Durham. Right: Advertisement from the 1963 city directory. Courtesy of DigitalNC.

Aside from popular flounder and shrimp dishes, Tip-Top Fish served grilled steaks, barbeque, and chicken. Many former patrons remember a human-sized scale outside the restaurant that was coin operated; one customer recalled their father letting them step on the scale before and after dinner to see how much weight they had gained. After Percy Watkins passed away in 1963, Ione and Lawing continued to run the restaurant until their retirement in the mid-80s.

The Palms

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.

Postcard showing the interior of The Palms. Courtesy of OpenDurham.org, Preservation Durham.
You can still see the tiles where the entrance to The Palms was. Visit the Artisan Market at 305 E. Chapel Hill Street to view this piece of the past!

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.

Top: Little Acorn advertisement, courtesy of DigitalNC. Left: Little Acorn kitchen, courtesy of The Herald-Sun. Right: Interior of the Little Acorn, courtesy of OpenDurham.org, Preservation Durham.

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.

Interior of the Donut Shop, 1950s. Courtesy of OpenDurham.org, Preservation Durham.

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.

Women of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company eating in the Donut Shop's Jade Room. Courtesy of the Durham County Library.

Left: Exterior of the Donut Shop. Courtesy of OpenDurham.org, Preservation Durham.

The College Inn

1306 Fayetteville Street

As its name suggests, the College Inn was a favored haunt for North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) students. Opened in 1933 by North Carolina A&T University alumnus William H. “Bill” Joneson Fayetteville Street, the College Inn served up affordable meals like barbeque, fried chicken, and chili dogs. Jones was deeply connected to the college community and hosted the reception for NCC’s first law school graduation in 1943; it was also rumored the College Inn supplied the kegs for some of the university’s fraternity parties. Performance venues in Durham’s Hayti were part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a collection of theaters and nightclubs that welcomed African American performers; Black-owned restaurants in Durham during the Jim Crow era, including the College Inn, attracted famed celebrities when they were in town for performances, including Duke Ellington. After Jones passed away in 1959, his wife Martha ran the restaurant through the 1980s.

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.

The first Chicken Box location on Pine Street (now Roxboro). Courtesy of OpenDurham.org, Preservation Durham.

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.

The Chicken Hut is the oldest Black-owned restaurant in Durham, and the second oldest restaurant in the city!

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.


Evans' United Department Store located on West Main Street. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.

While typical white-owned restaurants refused to seat Black customers before the 1960s, Mayor Emanuel “Mutt” Evans, Durham’s first Jewish mayor (1951-1963), ran the only integrated lunch counter in downtown Durham during the 1950s. Evans United Department Store, which had a large Black customer base, seated Black and White diners, until authorities, citing a local segregation ordinance, pressured Evans to build a wall between Black and White sections in his restaurant. But he refused to abandon his pro-integration stance. He found a loophole in the segregation ordinance, and by raising the height of the counters to leaning height and removing the chairs, he could still serve Blacks and Whites at the counter.

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.

Participants of the sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter in Durham. Courtesy of The News & Observer.

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.

Desegregating Dining Rooms

Protestors gathered outside the Howard Johnson's Restaurant. Courtesy of The Herald-Sun.

After the arrest of several students during a protest at the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant on Chapel Hill Boulevard, the protests reached a crescendo in May 1963, when over 4,000 demonstrators converged on Howard Johnson’s in the largest protest in Durham’s history, demanding the integration of all public facilities in the city. Following a month of massive demonstrations in favor of integrating public facilities, newly elected Mayor Wensell “Wense” Grabarek formed the Durham Interim Committee on Race Relations. The committee consisted of two Black members, Asa Spaulding and John Wheeler, and nine White business men, including cafeteria owner Harvey Rape, and was tasked to “resolve and reconcile” racial differences. By the end of the year, the protests, boycotts, and the committee’s efforts had forced most Durham restaurants, hotels, and other public facilities to integrate. With the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the remainder of Durham’s public spaces were legally desegregated.

International Cuisine

By the 1920s Durham’s demographics were beginning to change.

Construction began on Duke University and Hospital in 1928, and newcomers moved to Durham for construction and campus jobs. This included a small but growing international community: The 1930 census listed 361 out of 45,000 Durham residents born outside of the United States. Immigrants brought new flavors and food traditions to Durham, but these early international restaurateurs also had to take into account enduring Southern tastes.


The Lincoln Cafe storefront on South Mangum Street. Courtesy of the Durham County Library.

Lincoln Café

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

Bartholomew "Bat" Malanga (standing) with Duke University student patrons. Courtesy of the Malanga Family.

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.


The Oriental

Left: Inside the kitchen of the Oriental, Courtesy of The Herald-Sun. Right: The Oriental advertisement in the city directory, Courtesy of DigitalNC.

Opened on Parrish Street in 1938 by proprietor Der Wo, The Oriental was Durham’s first Asian restaurant and possibly only the second in the state. Der immigrated from the Holy Sun District of Canton (now Guangzhou), China, to the United States in 1919, and worked in restaurants in Washington, DC, before moving to Durham in 1931. His wife Wu Mei On and their son Der Chuck Yee were not able to immigrate to the United States until 1949. As a new ethnic flavor in a southern community, the Durham restaurant featured a mix of Cantonese style food as well as American foods like steak and seafood to accommodate all patrons. Moreover, many of the front-of-house staff were White while the cooks were Chinese; according to the 1940 census, the cooking staff lodged with Der. Located just a block from NC Mutual Life Insurance Company, The Oriental only served White customers until civil rights protests by North Carolina College (now NCCU) students in 1963. After Der Wo passed away in 1953, his oldest son, Chuck, managed The Oriental until its closure in 1966 as a result of Urban Renewal and competition from suburban shopping centers.

While The Oriental served White customers, the Asia Café (1940), owned by Hugh Wong, at the corner of Fayetteville and Pettigrew streets in Hayti, served Black customers. In the late 1960s,the Moon Restaurant (later Four Seas and Peking Restaurant) opened on Morgan Street. Other Asian-owned restaurants include Bahn’s Cuisine (1988), likely the first Vietnamese restaurant in Durham, and Thai Café (2007) on University serves Thai dishes. Originally opened as a sushi spot in the 1986s, Yamazushi has been transformed by owners George and Mayumi Yamazawainto a Kaiseki restaurant, with a multi-course ceremonial service focusing on the artful presentation of small dishes to a few customers each evening.


In the mid-1990s, Durham’s Latino population was about 2,000 people; today nearly 40,000 Durham residents are Latino. That growth has changed Durham economically, culturally, and socially. There are dozens of Hispanic restaurants, groceries, bakeries, and food trucks serving diverse Durham customers. Latinos in Durham come from many places in Central and South America and bring a variety of food traditions to their new home.

El Chapin is thought to be the first Guatemalan restaurant in the state and is located on 4600 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard. Courtesy of ElChapinToGo.com.

In 1990, the official restaurant guide of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Discover Durham) only listed four Mexican restaurants: Tijuana Fats, Papagayo, Jacaranda’s, and El Rodeo, all highly Americanized. With the more recent growth of Durham’s Latino community, many regional “firsts” have opened. Authentic Mexican taquerias became popular as the Latino population grew. In 2001 Rosalie Flores, who immigrated from Mexico, opened the Super Taqueria restaurant. Flores said that nobody would rent property to her so she secured a loan from the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, a Black-owned bank, and built the restaurant herself. Her food attracted the Latino diners and just four years later, Flores expanded her business into a large supermarket, La Superior. In 2015, Rony Ordoñez opened what was possibly the state’s first Guatemalan restaurant, El Chapin, located on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard. Ordonez, who grew up and farmed in Jutiapa, Guatemala, first managed the Mediterranean Café in Chapel Hill before his employer encouraged him to open his own restaurant. Some of El Chapin’s most recommended dishes include the tamales and chicken stew made with a secret family recipe. Ordonez also makes fresh chirmol, a Guatemalan salsa that uses mint rather than cilantro. Other regional first include La Cacerola, a Honduran restaurant on Guess Road; El Cuscalteco serving El Salvadorian dishes which opened on Garrett Road; on University Drive, Mi Peru opened and serves Peruvian charcoal chicken; and Chamas Churrascaria, a Brazilian steakhouse that was located in Brightleaf Square and was in operation from 2005-2015.


The first Durham restaurant to serve African cuisine was the Palace International. In 1989 Maurice and Caren Ochola, two Kenyan natives who came to the United states for college, opened the restaurant on Broad Street. The Ocholas have shared African culture with the Durham community through traditional East African dishes as well as providing a space for musicians to perform. Although a fire destroyed the Palace International building in 2001, Ochola family reopened the restaurant in 2007 with their children Moses and Suzanna joining the business. In 2021, the restaurant closed.

Blue Nile was the first Ethiopian restaurant in Durham and opened in 1994 on Chapel Hill Road, closing ten years later. Goorsha's owners, Fasil Tesfaye and Zewditu Zewdie, brought Ethiopian cuisine back to Downtown Durham on West Main Street in 2017. In 2018, Zweli's Piri Piri Kitchen opened on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard as the entrepreneurial dream of Zimbabwean immigrant Zwelibanzi "Zweli" Williams; Zweli and her husband, City Councilman Leonardo Williams, have expanded their restaurant to a second location on Duke's campus and a third planned for the American Tobacco Campus under the name Zweli's Ekhaya, which focuses on foods from Bantu communities across Africa.


Suman Bhatia Catering

In 1990, Durham received its first Indian restaurant, founded by Suman Bhatia. Suman began her culinary career in Durham selling takeout from a private kitchen, and eventually moved into her own brick-and-mortar dining room right in the Brightleaf District. After evolving to a catering company over the years, Suman still claims to be "untouched by scandal" and if you're lucky, you might be able to book her services!


Dining Out in Durham was originally curated by Jeanette Shaffer and on display at the Museum of Durham History in 2022.

This digitized exhibit was designed by Lynne Lambert in 2023.