One of the most coveted items in the History Hub's new food exhibit is a white T-shirt with maroon raglan sleeves—the kind worn by adult softball teams that use kegs as bases. The shirt bears the restaurant name: "Annamaria's Pizza House" and under it, an illustrated plate of pasta, with the words "Spags and Balls."
Someone donated this gem from yesteryear to the History Hub for the exhibit F is for Food, part of the museum's "Durham A-Z" series.
The city's restaurant and bar scene has become so volatile—openings (Dashi), closings (Pop's), relocations (Monuts Donuts), that it can be difficult to remember what was where and when.
A selection of menus may jog your memory. The Ivy Room at 1000 W. Main (now Fifi's, a consignment clothing boutique) served fried chicken while sporting the slogans: "a bit of New York" and "chicken in the rough." A can of PBR at the Blaloc Cafe, 108 Morris St., (now Caktus) cost $1 and a bowl of vegan chili would set you back $3.95 in the mid-'00s.
In addition to the ephemera inside the museum, a crowd-sourced history continues on a chalkboard out front. There, a restaurant family tree has been drawn—note how many local chefs and restaurateurs cut their teeth at the Magnolia Grill—plus the names of beloved restaurants gone by: Honey's, AnotherThyme, the Green Candle and the Donut Dinette.
"We intentionally left it detailed but not comprehensive," says Patrick Mucklow, director of operations at the History Hub. "We wanted people to put their own voices in."
On the other side of the board, people have written their memories of specific restaurants. Someone had her first cup of coffee in Durham at Beyù Caffè. POW and KDS celebrated their first date at Sitar India Cuisine. For 20 years, Whit's Grill served a mean plate of smoked sausage links.
In the audio room you can hear oral histories of Durham's food scene, such as recollections of Annamaria's Pizza House, a Duke hangout from 1958-1986: "We had 13 tables and everybody was crowded in there," recalls one waitress. "We never had tickets. When people went to the cash register it was the honor system."
You can stroll down Durham's culinary memory lane online now that local cartographer Tim Stallman has built the mother of all rabbit holes, a digital time machine of the last 25 years of Durham restaurant history.
Using county digital restaurant inspection reports, Stallmann, who works at Savas, a web-development shop in Durham, mapped the comings and goings of local eateries since 1990. (Stallman is also a co-founder of the Counter Cartographies Collective; he teaches mapmaking at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke.)
If you wonder why Ninth Street Bakery is on West Chapel Hill Street, that's because until 1997, it was located at 776 Ninth St., where Elmo's Diner is now.
On the East Side, 950 E. Main St. was home to four restaurants in just three years: Lunchbox Express, Mary's, The Rib Man and Jeffrey's Take Out. Now it's Durham Convenient Tobacco.
In the 1990s, Guess Road near Carver Street was packed with oddly named restaurants: Lizard's Lick, the Dome and Lil Dino Deli and Grill. And In 2005, there were just three restaurants at the American Tobacco Campus. Trivia: Starbucks had a small shop there, but apparently couldn't make a go of it. Yes, you read that right: Starbucks could not survive in downtown Durham.
Besides the obvious nostalgia value, the map drives home just how difficult it is to operate and maintain a restaurant both in the best and worst of times. That said, does anyone really miss the Romano's Macaroni Grill?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Menu memoirs."