Brace yourself, language purists, I'm about to use the g-word.
Yes, I mean gastropub. As in a bar that serves food that foodies rave about, alongside wine, beer and cocktails as carefully cultivated as the pasture-raised local beef in the hamburgers. As in Geer Street Garden, the coolest thing to hit Durham's warehouse district since Fullsteam Brewery and Motorco Music Hall sparked a renaissance in Old North Durham last year.
Believe me, I wish I could come up with a different word. The coining of precious terms for foodies to toss around is one of my pet peeves. But this is a gastropub if ever I've seen one. Owner Andrew Magowan, formerly of nearby Piedmont, has set up his new shop in the handsomely retooled former Fletcher's Gulf station. The dark, high-ceilinged interior sports smooth concrete floors, exposed brick and an accent wall of weathered front doors. The patio seating is all spanking new, wooden picnic tables with clear views of rusted chain-link fence left over from the neighborhood's industrial heyday. Run your hand under the table to find hooks for dog leashes.
Geer Street's menu echoes its spare décor, but its familiar staples—chicken wings, fries and fried chicken-and-arugula salad—are too fresh and tasty to occupy the same category as ordinary bar food. The slight but audacious menu has nine appetizers and nine entrées. On my first visit, the aforementioned fried chicken-and-arugula salad ($10) surprised me. The greens are noticeably crisper than those that usually fill my weekday salad bowl, and the cornmeal-breaded chicken keeps its crunch under copious amounts of tangy ranch. The preparation reminded me of eating a casual dinner at the home of a good cook.
The fried chicken plate with potato salad and coleslaw ($10) is an ideal rendition of a picnic. The chicken is tender and juicy inside with that crunchy, thick coating. My friend wanted a bit more salt but I liked the way mild seasonings let the flavor of the chicken come through. Perhaps they should set a bottle of Texas Pete on the table for those who like more of a bite in their bird. Or they could offer one of their delicious house-made sauces—spicy mustardayonaise, sirichanaise or horseradish mayo.
Most everything I tasted was well made and sturdy without a lot of flourish, including a burger ($9) on my second trip. The local beef offers such rich, deep flavor that it needs scant accompaniment, and therefore arrives wearing just lettuce and tomato atop a puffy, assertively toasted bun. You can add bacon or cheese for $1, and other toppings are negotiable. (The listing reads: "what-have-you $?") Red-skin potato salad with chunks of boiled egg and celery was a perfect side.
My one serious complaint involves dessert. The chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream and salty peanut caramel sauce ($6) hit a nostalgic note with its echoes of the tin roof sundae ice cream of my childhood: sweet and sticky with just a touch of salty crunch. But the banana pudding ($6) missed its mark. Banana pudding is a tricky endeavor because it cannot be assembled at the last minute. It must be allowed to sit so that the flavors and textures of the wafers, pudding and banana have a chance to meld. Geer Street's version involved most of the essential ingredients, although I cannot forgive the sin of meringue omission. But it was too new. The saving grace was that I took it home in a leftover box and ate it the following evening after dinner, by which time it was much closer to ideal.
Those who prefer to drink their sugar will find plenty to like on Geer Street's libations lists. A dozen draft selections, for $5 each, include lagers from as close as Fullsteam and as far away as Germany. Bottles of PBR and Miller High Life ($3) are available, too. The wine list offers a few interesting by-the-glass selections, including the very popular Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler Noble House Reisling ($8), which is just the thing to cool you down, be the source of your heat rising mercury or spicy chicken wings. I've not yet tried any of the house-made cocktails, but with the summer stretching out before us, I'm sure I'll make it back for a Durhamite (vodka, black tea and lemonade, $8), at least once.