As Chapel Hill Road curves just past the Lakewood Shopping Center, the soft beams of street lamps shine through the windows of the old Davis Baking building, blending in with the dapple of candlelight inside the new restaurant now occupying it. The Lakewood is literally illuminating that corner of the neighborhood by the same name.
At a table reserved for five toward the back, where there used to be shelves of powdery Mexican pastries and breads, Sandro Mendoza, twenty-four, sits on a bench bolted to a whitewashed wall. He quickly spots the menu item with the most irony.
"Elote?" he says, laughing. "Every time I see something in Spanish, I order it because I know it's going to be bad."
He goes back to translating the menu into Spanish for his mother, Juana Xotenco, who is sitting at the head of our table. "So this comes with a cheese supposedly from a farm. This is ... basil? What's that again?"
"Es albahaca, mijo," she clarifies.
I invited the mother and son to dinner to get their perspective on The Lakewood. The family has been living in Lakewood for more than twenty years. Mendoza and I share the bench seating; across from us sit Victor Resendiz Apolonio and his sister, Alicia. Their family owns Azteca Grill, a Michoacan-style Mexican restaurant down the street.
I didn't want to review The Lakewood the way the INDY normally reviews restaurants. I wanted to address something else, an uneasiness that's gnawed at me for the last several years: food is touted as an equalizer, yet the idea is rarely challenged. In Durham, food is an element of great pride, and the gateway drug for newcomers to experience a new South hallucination, free of complexities. So we tend to separate stories of fancy food from those of whatever else we've deemed trendy, cheap, and kitsch: the tacos, the chicken and waffles, the dumplings. That distance results in disparate worlds—one less accessible than the other.
Still, when our world has gone to shit, a meal at a nice restaurant provides us with an escape, one we tell ourselves we deserve. But who is we?
The beast of gentrification is all around Durham: its pros, its cons, its overuse as a blanket term for all of the city's problems, its inevitability. We've criticized the lavish bars, the newest rooftop pool, and the purple neon hotel lights now speckling our sunsets. But on some level, we've also embraced it.
So why aren't we talking about this in food media? I can't ignore it, especially when thinking about The Lakewood, the second endeavor by Scratch chef-owner Phoebe Lawless. I was excited about The Lakewood opening when I heard it was Lawless's project, but that wasn't the neighborhood's reaction. At least not the folks I know.
"They replaced our panaderia," says Resendiz Apolonio. The thirty-two-year-old has been in Durham half of his life. He works full-time at A Southern Season's warehouse and at the family restaurant on weekends. His sister Alicia cooks in the Azteca kitchen with their parents six days a week. "Bread and tortillas is essentially life for many Latinos. When you take that away ..."
Alicia finishes his sentence. "The community resented it for a while."
These are the foodies I wanted to talk to, our city's construction workers and cooks and immigrant mothers and first-generation sons—the residents of Lakewood. In conversations about gentrification and food, the media often ignores the residents, many of whom also work in our food worlds, amid the upheaval they're caught up in.
Alicia lives just a couple of blocks away. Recently, her landlord decided to sell the two-bedroom house she rents with her husband and three young children. Given a month to leave, they still hadn't found an affordable home two weeks in.
"We used to have everything close by, and it was a welcoming place for us who came here from other countries," she tells me later. But a slow shift of business closings, like laundromats and Hispanic tiendas, marked a cultural transformation.
"Everything that has always been downtown is now moving over here," says Alicia. "And it's displacing the Hispanic community."
"This is something I've been hyperaware of since I started this project," says Lawless, who opened The Lakewood three months ago.
Two years ago, Lawless says, she began reaching out to community members to see how they felt about the restaurant. She met with church leaders next door. She spoke to local businesses and residents.
"To do the food that I want to do with the understanding of the community—that's a significant challenge to navigate," she says. "It's not over by any means. It's essentially a journey."
When we talk about immigrants and food, we usually focus on their contributions as workers or participants in bringing a new food to us. Rarely, if ever, is it the other way around. But they are eaters, too.
We order the copper pennies, a $7 starter of pickled carrots, and Resendiz Apolonio jokes that they even eat money here. The Lakewood's prices are high. A steak plate with broccoli and homemade gnocchi with hollandaise puts you back $25.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
Lawless, who's been cooking for fifteen years in Durham, realizes this. "The choice that I've made is, Do I charge people what needs to be charged for this beautiful food? Or do I serve commodity proteins and cheese and seafood to accommodate a community? I've chosen to source my ingredients from local producers who I have built relationships with."
Take that steak entrée (which both Resendiz Apolonio and Mendoza loved). Lawless says she buys the protein for about $6 "without anything else on the plate, without paying my staff fifteen dollars an hour minimum. There's an idea that people who do this food want to make a lot of money. That's not the case."
None of my fellow diners complained about Lawless making money.
"To be honest, I'm not even sure if it's the restaurant," Mendoza says. "She's just trying to get her business going, just like everyone else. It's the way the town is growing. It starts with fancy restaurants, then new houses around, then people you don't usually see in this area—white people. It's fine, and now it's, like, more diverse, but the housing prices are increasing. That's why people are leaving—a lot of people can't afford living in a spot that's one thousand dollars for two rooms."
The most recent U.S. Census data shows that in the census tract encompassing Lakewood, the average median household income was $43,509. For Hispanics, the median drops to $34,286.
"I doubt that's accurate," says Resendiz Apolonio. "It could be a lot lower. Latinos don't always participate in the census."
Lakewood has traditionally been an affordable neighborhood for low-income communities; median rents in its census tract increased a little more than $200 from 2000–15—from $622 to $854 a month. But the rapid rate of inflation and development could mean just as much of a price gouge in the last two years.
And our food scene might be contributing to that—forcing immigrants to migrate yet again, perpetuating a state of transience that contradicts the signs sprouting a welcoming message through manicured garden beds.
"There are neighbors with those signs in their yards," says Mendoza. "But I don't see them at the protests. They barely even wave at me. For a lot of Hispanic immigrants, we don't stay in one spot. We move a lot because rent gets higher. But I finally feel now like Lakewood is home, because we've been lucky enough to stay."
As we sit at the table that Friday night, Mendoza cuts into his steak and surveys the room.
"White people stare too much," he says.
Every other diner in that room is white. His mother, Juana, says she's been curious about the restaurant but didn't feel welcome. Alicia says she's never seen a Latino walk in, and she wasn't sure what kind of place it was.
"It's named after the neighborhood, but it's definitely not overly welcoming to us," says Resendiz Apolonio.
I relate this conversation to Lawless.
"I know how lucky I am to be able to do what I do," she replies. "To have the luxury of sourcing locally and a customer base who's willing to pay what those real costs are. I like that the two pastors from the church next door come in for supper or brunch, and that some of the kids in the neighborhoods are getting their first jobs at The Lakewood."
Once "baby Scratch" opens at this location in a few weeks—with coffee and pastries—she hopes "more people in the neighborhood will feel more comfortable coming in."
Discomfort in these conversations exists when we have trouble listening to others' opinions without taking offense. But perhaps the food—which we all enjoyed—provided a semblance of comfort. Juana noted that for $7, the price of the copper pennies, she could buy a bag of carnitas from Azteca and feed her family. Still, she stabbed a slice of carrot with her fork, carefully examining it, nibbling and savoring the flavors, investigating them with her palate.
"They're a lot like the carrots we make, too, but just sweeter. Maybe there's thyme in there? But no spice."
"Kind of like the elote," Mendoza says. "No pica nada. But you know, it's better than we thought."
"See," says his mother. "You just have to try things!"