DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — On a recent Sunday, chatter from people waiting on the sidewalk for tables at Dame's Chicken and Waffles wafted on a fall breeze across a tree-lined plaza where several people sat, read and sipped coffee. Across the street, a group celebrating their friends' anniversary wandered into the barroom of Pizzeria Toro to drink cocktails and eat Neapolitan-style slices.
In the past decade or so, downtown Durham has become a destination for diners, carousers and art lovers after years as a business district that was mostly lifeless on nights and weekends. The influx of trendy establishments has helped Durham shed its former image as the grittier sibling to North Carolina's capital city Raleigh or the bucolic college town Chapel Hill in a tri-city region known as the Triangle.
Its relatively compact size makes it easy to traverse the walkable mixture of bars, restaurants, galleries and music venues, yet the area is also dense enough to allow for hours of immersion without running out of things to do.
Main Street, which runs northwest to southeast, features such historic buildings as the century-old First National Bank Building, the art-deco Snow Building and the towering Hill Building, where the 21c Museum Hotel opened this year. Running parallel is Parrish Street, which was once nicknamed "Black Wall Street" for its mix of black-owned businesses including an insurance company whose former headquarters earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Both streets are focal points of walking tours by outfits such as Preservation Durham.
South and west of downtown's core are several retail and housing developments in former tobacco warehouses from what was once the city's signature industry.
Durham's restaurant scene has been noted by Bon Appetit and Southern Living magazines. Highlights in the heart of downtown include Revolution, where wine-paired tasting menus are created to-order starting with the three-course "Feed Me" option and growing from there. Savory beignets are a must-try appetizer at the French bistro Rue Cler, one of the pioneers of the downtown resurgence when it opened a decade ago.
The area is as equally well-suited to an afternoon gallery hop as it is a late-night bar crawl. More than a half-dozen galleries dedicated to local artists inhabit storefronts, while the Durham Arts Council typically offers several exhibits at its campus.
The Durham Performing Arts Center hosts touring theatrical performances and big musical draws such as Jackson Browne, with other national acts playing the nearby Carolina Theater. Motorco Music Hall and The Pinhook are smaller rooms with a divey vibe for catching indie rock bands and local up-and-comers.
On downtown sidewalks after dark, it's not unusual to dodge packs of college students or young professionals going from bar to bar. Fullsteam Brewery stakes Durham's claim to the craft beer boom, while Alley 26 incorporates such handcrafted mixers as watermelon green tea and mole bitters in its cocktails.
Among the most recent entrants to downtown are luxury hotels such as 21c and the brand-new Durham Hotel, which features a rooftop raw bar and sleek downstairs lounge.