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Durham's City Beverage

Hip, retro, suburban


If someone magically transported you into the Durham restaurant City Beverage and asked you to guess where you were, you'd probably guess a trendy neighborhood of a big city. The funky retro decorations, the kitschy records that adorn the walls, the curved bar and the pool table would all throw you off. At the very least, you'd think you were in close proximity to a college campus or a trendy town center.

You'd be wrong. Step out the door of City Beverage and you'd find yourself in a low brick strip of storefronts and offices in suburban Durham. It's about the least charismatic or bohemian place on earth. And yet, having just celebrated its first anniversary, City Beverage is going strong.

The restaurant is located at the intersection of Garrett Road and N.C. 751, between Hope Valley and N.C. 54, across the street from Woodcroft shopping center. It's the type of restaurant many of us wish we had in our neighborhood: multi-use, open from early morning 'til late at night, serving as a coffee shop, restaurant, bar and general neighborhood hangout.

And more than that, it's somewhere with personality, something one of a kind. Good independent places like this are rare outside of urban centers. Or at least they have been until now. It's possible that City Beverage is a glimpse of good things to come--genuine, fun restaurants with personality cropping up far away from the Ninth Streets, the Franklin Streets and the downtowns of our cities.

City Beverage opens at 7 each morning, serving Counter Culture coffee, pastries and specialty coffee drinks. By lunch time they are serving an eclectic American and international menu that has an almost Californian feel with its emphasis on fresh bright ingredients. Cilantro-crusted tuna tacos with black bean salsa and avocado and walnut salad are the most expensive items on the lunch menu at $9. The sandwiches are full of distinctive and well thought out ingredients, and starting at $6 are a really good deal.

Come dinner time, the menu expands and becomes more varied and slightly more serious. Appetizers range from Asian-style pork dumplings to a cheese plate to crab dip. Entrees include herb-crusted rack of lamb, five-spice pork chop and pan-seared organic chicken.

When I ask chef Chris Harris how he would describe his food, he says, "I call it Chris' food. I just make the food I'd want to eat." And he tries to keep it fun. "We want to have serious food but not be too serious about it. You can't be too serious when there's orange polka-dots all over the place," he says, referring to the interior paint job--purple with orange spots. "We don't want to exclude anyone," Harris says. "We want this to be a real neighborhood place."

As part of this effort, Harris and the restaurant's owner, Jim Earnhart (former owner of 23 Steps in Chapel Hill), have kept the menu affordable, with nothing over $20 and many items under $10. The idea is that the restaurant should be just as welcoming to someone who wants to drop in and have some "mini-burgers" and a beer, as it is to a couple looking for a three-course romantic dinner. The room, which the word "colorful" hardly does justice to, begs to be hung out in; this is much more restaurant-as-second-living-room than restaurant-as-destination.

Later in the evening the bar scene picks up, and City Beverage has an impressive martini and margarita menu to accommodate the drinkers, as well as 20 draught beers and 26 wines by the glass. On Wednesday nights beginning at 9:30 they host Trivia Night (which is apparently so popular that they have people sitting on the floor), and when the weather warms up they plan to have Thursday night jazz on the patio. Food is served until midnight or later, and the bar is open until 2 a.m. City Beverage is closed for only five hours each night.

I'm still not sure exactly who the clientele is at City Beverage. While the area surrounding the restaurant is mainly residential, it is also highly suburban, mainly subdivisions in one direction and the big fancy houses of Hope Valley in the other direction. I would think that the people living in these neighborhoods would be more likely to frequent the national chains and family restaurants that line 15-501 at the other end of Garret Road, or the restaurants at the nearby Streets at Southpoint mall.

It just goes to show that even I can underestimate people's good taste when it comes to eating out. Perhaps I am just jealous that City Beverage isn't in my neighborhood.

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