Durham is a vibrant, constantly evolving city, and its food scene easily keeps pace. Between the diverse student body at world-renowned Duke University and the proximity of Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the city emits an unmistakable cosmopolitan vibe. Durham’s treasure trove of creative and exciting restaurants makes finding an authentic taste of home or a new international food adventure a piece of cake, no matter where you call home.
The possibilities for eclectic eating are endless. Here, in no particular order of scrumptiousness, are 11 ways to take your tastebuds on an exciting trip around the world without ever leaving Durham.
Note: I was generously hosted by Discover Durham as I researched information for this article. However, all opinions are entirely my own.
1. Cocoa Cinnamon (Lakewood Location)
Starting your day in Durham is a genuine treat at Cocoa Cinnamon. Although there are three locations, the vibrant, cheerfully decorated Lakewood shop is where you want to be, because it’s the one that serves fresh hot churros.
This busy Latin-owned coffee house offers a variety of single-origin coffee, tea, and drinking chocolate. But it’s the long, star-shaped churros — crisp, with a soft interior — that steal the show. Choose from sprinkled regular sugar, cinnamon sugar, cardamom, or orange sugar. Or try two flavors in one order. The churros are even better dipped in coffee or hot chocolate.
In August 2017, two popular food trucks joined forces to create an even more popular bricks and mortar restaurant. The delightful result is Namu, a combination Korean restaurant and craft coffee bar.
Namu’s atmosphere is casual enough for the college crowd, but also suitable for date night. The dining room is bright and spacious, but the star is definitely the stunning bamboo Zen garden. Complete with a meditating Buddha.
As for the food, try the Bibimbap, which begins with a white rice and spring vegetable base, topped with your choice of meats or tofu, and more vegetables. The entire glorious concoction is then crowned with a fried egg.
3. Sister Liu’s Kitchen
For extraordinary Chinese food, Sister Liu’s Kitchen is a true gem. A 2019 nominee for Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant, this casual eatery combines bold flavors and textures with the kind of culinary skill that only comes from a love of tradition and a lot of practice.
All the dishes at Sister Liu’s shine, but the dumplings are the restaurant’s specialty. Steamed or fried and filled with perfectly seasoned chicken, pork, or shrimp, these succulent morsels pack a powerful flavor punch that will have you placing another order before you know it.
4. Boricua Soul
Phenomenal fusion cuisine awaits at the heart of Durham’s historic American Tobacco Campus. Boricua Soul combines a Euro-African foundation, born of the slave trade, with savory Southern soul food and a generous helping of Caribbean flair. At this no-frills eatery, everyone can find something to love.
The crispy empanadas make for a hearty snack or a base for an eclectic meal. Try one of Boricua’s hearty bowls, or order some tasty fried sweet plantains or beer battered fries to share.
Located in downtown Durham, Spanglish serves an impressive assortment of Puerto Rican dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This fast-casual restaurant gently blends traditional Caribbean flavors with modern know-how to create an atmosphere and menu that has diners coming back to try another and another offering.
Spanglish’s menu includes breakfast platters, as well as creative versions of avocado and French toast. The lunch and dinner menu offers salads, sandwiches, soups, empanadas, bowls, and main dishes. Try the El Capitán Mofongo (plantain bowl) consisting of large, plump shrimp in an exquisitely seasoned tomato-based criollo sauce and garnished with sliced avocado.
Pro Tip: Spanglish’s menu includes plenty of vegan, keto-friendly, and vegetarian choices.
For a tantalizing taste of authentic Zimbabwean cuisine, the place to go is Zweli’s. Located a short distance from downtown Durham, Zweli’s enticing flavors and techniques have been wooing Durham diners with traditional Zimbabwean dishes since 2018.
Zimbabwean food is definitely on the spicy side, but it’s not all about the heat. It’s about the flavors, textures, and aromas. Appetizers to try include fried plantains and vegetable or beef samosas. You can opt for Zweli’s signature Piri-Piri Chicken for your main, or try the Braised Oxtail.
Excellent choices for sides include peanut butter spiced collard greens, and jollof rice. Most sides are vegan-friendly and can be combined for a superb and satisfying meal.
7. Sweets By Shayda
When your sweet tooth starts clamoring for attention, Sweets by Shayda has the solution. A Le Cordon Bleu Paris–trained pastry chef, Shayda has had a love affair with pastry since childhood. Her Durham patisserie is where she fashions all her macarons, pastries, and croissants by hand, using French butter and the finest flours.
Shayda offers a selection of over 20 macarons daily, all made with almond flour. Temptations include Dark Cherry Cheesecake, Cinnamon Crunch, Salted Caramel, and a variety of chocolate options. Seasonal favorites such as Pumpkin Spice pop up throughout the year to complement holidays.
Try the Breakfast at Tiffany’s Macaron, a blue shell filled with Earl Grey cream and decorated with pearl-like sprinkles. The cream emits a subtle hint of tea and is phenomenal in both flavor and texture.
8. Pincho Loco
Summers in Durham are hot, but no matter what time of year you visit, you have to indulge in at least one ice cream treat. Pincho Loco, a Latino-owned ice cream shop, offers a tempting array of cones, cups, shakes, popsicles, and other frozen delights.
Alongside traditional varieties, you’ll find luscious Latin-influenced concoctions containing Mexican vanilla, and guava. For adults, the tequila flavor imparts a definite boozy bite at the back end, and the Kahlua has an added crunch from chocolate chips. Tiger’s tail tastes as good as it looks, with stripes of Mexican vanilla, butter pecan, and chocolate fudge.
Pro Tip: Non-dairy options are available at Pincho Loco.
Outstanding traditional Cuban food, fresh, and locally sourced is what you’ll find at COPA, conveniently located in downtown Durham. Created, owned, and operated by a talented and energetic husband and wife team, this friendly eatery is the ideal spot for a special occasion or a treat-yourself dinner.
The charcuteria — an assortment of Spanish cold meats with Spanish olives, cornichons, and manchego cheese is made for sharing. For your main, try the elegant Havana-style fish, filleted and cooked en papillote.
Beverages include traditional mojitos and daiquiris, creatively named concoctions with interesting backstories, and a selection of excellent wines to pair with your meal. COPA offers the option of substituting a sugar-free syrup in most cocktails.
Dining at Goorsha is as much an experience as it is a meal. At this modern Ethiopian restaurant, You can acquaint yourself with familiar foods prepared and seasoned in an entirely unfamiliar, but pleasing way. After all, everyone’s tastebuds are entitled to some adventure.
Start with one of Goorsha’s delightfully original craft cocktails to set you up for the wonders to come. Most plates are ideal for sharing, enabling you to appreciate the variety of ingredients and cooking techniques found in Ethiopian cuisine. Dishes such as minced beef tartar, refreshing beetroot salad, and perfectly seasoned yellow split pea stew, garnished with sliced jalapeños will introduce your palate to exquisite new flavors.
Traditional Injera, the bread served with every Ethiopian meal, is made from teff, a fermented gluten-free grain. If you like, you can use torn pieces of this tangy, spongy pancake-like bread to pinch up bits of food and eat it the traditional way.
Pro Tip: Goorsha’s friendly servers know their food. They will gladly answer your questions about the menu, so you can make decisions based on your preferences.
Combine classic Indian fare with British pub grub, and you have a culinary match made in heaven. Add a traditional pub atmosphere complete with rich dark paneling, and you have Viceroy.
As soon as you enter, the irresistible aroma of Indian spices envelops you in a warm olfactory hug. Take a seat and explore your options. Depending on what Viceroy’s creative chef has prepared, you might find culinary hybrids such as sausage roll, constructed of puff pastry stuffed with curried pork sausage, or curried shepherd’s pie.
If you prefer more traditional Indian dishes with a modern twist, you might begin with fried crispy cauliflower coated in a chickpea flour batter and sprinkled with charred curry leaves. Be sure to add housemade tamarind or mint chutney for dipping.
Then move on to Hariyali chicken, boneless breast meat marinated in tenderizing spiced yogurt with coriander, and baked in a screaming hot tandoori oven. Accompany your meal with basmati rice and lentil dal, staples of Indian cooking, and some fresh-baked plain or garlic naan. Wash it all down with a soothing yogurt-based Turmeric Mango Lassi.
Pro Tip: Viceroy gives you the option to order your food mild, medium, or hot.
See what else makes the Raleigh-Durham area such an interesting destination: