For several years, The Refectory Cafe, ensconced at Duke University with locations at the divinity and law schools, felt like a secret Shangri-La where vegan dal flowed from the water fountains and freshly baked bread hovered like thought balloons above all who ate there.
In my imagination, the cafe was frequented only by denizens of Blue Devil Land, whose entree into this magical eatery depended on the legal possession of a university parking pass. Such a parking pass is as difficult to procure as a vital organ on the black market (a visitor space is equally elusive). Given the time crunch at breakfast and lunch, many of us townies couldn't easily eat there.
That is, until this summer, when The Refectory Cafe closed its divinity school spot—it's still open at the law school—and moved off-campus to Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard. The building, once home to Asia Market (and before that a Pizza Hut), was gutted, renovated and brightened to complete a trifecta of appealing eateries along the boulevard that includes Foster's and Guglhupf.
Although the Refectory is famous for its vegan dal and other healthy, hearty, locally sourced lunch and dinner options, I'm a breakfast and brunch fan. As such, I have eaten at least six of them there in the last six weeks. If money were no obstacle, I would toss my toaster, eggs and stash of yogurt and granola, and let Refectory cook for me.
Let's begin with baked oatmeal ($3–$4.25). I'm not a fan of extra creamy oatmeal, aka oat soup, so the notion of oatmeal from the oven appealed to me. Whole oats and local cage-free eggs are baked with brown sugar and seasonal fruit, the most recent being blueberries. The oven turns the oats crunchy, with the consistency of a casserole. The sugar-blueberry combo is light enough to sweeten the dish without turning it treacly.
Eaten with a side of fried potatoes, deftly seasoned and served with just enough oil to light up your tongue's fat receptors, this combo will hold you over until lunch.
A standby is the local egg scramble ($8), which includes toast made from freshly baked bread and melted cheese. If you prefer a meatless option, request seasonal veggies as a side. Otherwise, carnivores can order it with sausage or bacon; as a veg, I can't comment on either, but the bacon appeared crisp and brown in the pan and gave me a very brief pang of meat-eating nostalgia.
On a recent trip, I dipped into my husband's bowl of cheese grits ($2) spiced with black pepper. Again, the consistency was ideal—not gelatinous but with enough body to grip the spoon. The ratio of cheese to grits also hit the mark, as did the pepper, which gave the dish a slight jolt.
My favorite thus far is the vegan breakfast scramble ($8), which could appeal to non-vegans as well. Grilled and spiced tofu (I'm guessing one of the spices is tumeric, which turns tofu yellow, like eggs) rests on a bed of stir-fried hominy and squash (the veggies change depending on local availability), which in turn sits in a pile of homemade chips. A word about the chips: Salted and crisp, they are wonderful, which is why I would prefer fewer of them. I will eat them at the expense of my vegetables or I will leave them on the plate, and then feel guilty about wasting food.
My doctor advises that I include more Omega-3s in my diet (from food sources, not pills), so now I eat flax and salmon. The ginger in the ginger-flax muffin, which was appropriately dense given the ingredients, was not as electrifying as Blenheim ginger ale but quite overpowering.
I have not tried the salmon gravlas—sliced hard-boiled egg and capers on bread with organic greens—but it's on the list for Trip No. 7.
Service is largely cafeteria-style, and en route to the cash register you'll pass a tempting array of fruit, muffins (including vegan ones) and yogurt parfaits (soy-based versions as well). Some dishes, such as the vegan scramble, are cooked to order and delivered steaming to your table. There is indoor and outdoor seating, the latter being picnic tables on the porch where you may be hypnotized by the soft music and gentle ceiling fans.
Weekdays, the crowds have been light, at least at 8:30. Even with a steady stream of people, you can be in and out in less than 20 minutes. The large windows and generous porch make for excellent people-watching. Two weeks ago, a steel-gray Bentley was parked out front. I had never seen one in the wild and would have been no less stunned if I had seen Bigfoot lumber across the boulevard.
"Is that a Bentley?" I asked the cashier.
"Yes ma'am, it is," she discreetly replied.
(I spent the rest of breakfast scanning the room trying to peg the Bentley owner.)
The weekend brunch is typically crowded, so if your group is larger than two, consider making a reservation. The scene is generally lively and garrulous. Last week, a woman celebrated her birthday and the room was abuzz with couples and families with kids.
Finally, the Refectory is no longer elusive but in a real place for everyone.