But until this week, one of the foodiest downtowns in America did not have a top-notch burger and beer joint.
Bull City Burger and Brewery, which opens today, has filled that niche. Located on Parrish Street just off Mangum, the vibrant, locavore eatery mixes old school sensibilities (the grill workers wear two-cornered paper hats) with an urban vibe: High, pressed-tin ceilings, track lighting, large front windows for people-watching and red-clay walls.
The food, while exacting, is not fussy. And how could it be considering diners are seated as if at a picnic—at long, communal tables, the wood salvaged from old tobacco barns and corn cribs?
At a soft opening earlier this week, my husband, an ardent carnivore, declared the Bacon & Blue burger ($9) the best he had ever eaten—dethroning its counterpart at Williams Gourmet Kitchen in south Durham, which had held the No. 1 spot for 26 solid weeks.
The secret is, in part, in BCBB’s quality of beef, which is raised in North Carolina, grass-fed and free of antibiotics and added hormones. The meat is painstakingly ground at the restaurant, not so thin as to dry out, but thick enough to hold moisture. And when I say moisture, I don’t mean grease. BCBB’s burgers are not those fast-food grease missiles that leave a pool on the plate like a car with an oil leak.
Twenty minutes after the restaurant was scheduled to close at 5:30 p.m., Kim Walker, a longtime customer who volunteered to help on the final day, called a winding line of customers’ to attention. “We don’t think we’re going to have enough food for everyone left in line,” she told the crowd. “But that’s just a testament that you’ve been a blessing to this business.”
For two days, Dillard’s loyal patrons flocked to the restaurant to pay dues to the Dillard family, and, of course, to snag one more plate of barbecue. Burnette Smith, a Durham resident who has frequented the restaurant since at least the mid-1960s, made three trips today, deterred the first two times by a line that curved around the front door, and determined on her final stop to stand however long it took to get one more taste of barbecue, ribs, and carrot soufflé. “This is my last chance,” she said before waiting for nearly an hour.
Standing a few steps ahead, Geoff Bell echoed Smith’s sentiment. “This is the last supper and I hate that it’s the last supper. I don’t want it to be the last supper,” he said.
Julie Miller, who moved to Durham five years ago from Rock Hill, South Carolina, said she stood in hopes to stockpile some of the remaining meat to stretch out for a few more days. Among the Triangle’s many eastern-style barbecue stands, she favored Dillard’s South Carolina mustard-based sauce. “This is devastating to me,” she said of the restaurant’s impending close. “I’m getting 10-pounds.” But in that, Miller was unsuccessful.
Barbecue was the first thing to go today. According to Walker, the restaurant sold over 100 pounds in the last two days. But customers were happy to get whatever they could. And once up to the line, they reported the remaining foods to folks behind them.
“Hey, there’s carrot soufflé,” Smith accounted, smiling. “I see one hush puppy.”
Further back in line, customers swapped stories of Dillard’s past and penned their name in a guest book nearly 30 pages deep.
Seated in a corner near the restaurant’s entrance was Geneva Dillard, whose husband, Samuel Dillard, started the family business. She received customers much like a widow at a wake. Miller stopped to introduce her two small children, and lifelong friends swooped in to hold hands and offer both condolences and congratulations. The restaurant, though closing due to an uncertain economy, was going out on top.
“I’m proud to know that we meant so much to the community. I’ve felt blessed,” Dillard said, eyeing the restaurant’s outpouring of support. “But if I’d known this would have happened, I would have cooked more food.”
For the Dillard family, the business isn’t really over yet. On March 26, the Hayti Heritage Center will award the restaurant with its Hayti Legacy award. And the Dillards promise to continue to sell their much-loved BBQ sauce at area stores.
The first provocation comes when you fish out your money to pay and are told that your bread, donut, granola, etc. (there’s also coffee) costs whatever you feel like paying. The proprietor, Ari Berenbaum, says that "people like the gambit,” as he calls his fair-price practice.
But it's more than a mere gambit, and not everyone likes it. Watching customers’ flummoxed reactions to learning that they have some say over what goods cost is a lesson in how narrowly our economy works, how one-sided it is.
What’s bread worth? What's anything worth?