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What Being The 'Tastiest Town In The South' Means For Durham

Shelly Green with Durham's award for the Tastiest Town in the South
Leoneda Inge

It’s a booming year for the Durham food scene. In February, four of its restaurants became James Beard semi-finalists, and today Southern Living magazine declared Durham the “Tastiest Town in the South.”

To Phoebe Lawless of Scratch bakery, the news comes as no surprise. On Tuesday, she was sitting outside her café in downtown Durham, where a farmer was dropping off two big bags of fresh arugula.

“The evolution over the past two years since we’ve been here is amazing. And I love the attention that the food scene is getting,” she said. Lawless started her business in 2008, baking her pies in her home kitchen and selling them at the Durham Farmer’s Market. But people were hungry for more. In 2010, she opened a bricks and mortar location downtown. Now, business is booming.

Southern Living’s “Tastiest Town in the South” award was announced Tuesday. Jennifer Cole, the Travel and Features Editor at the magazine, came from Birmingham to deliver the news.

“Man, the restaurants, the food trucks, the brewers, the coffee roasters – it’s such a collection of people and flavors and tastes,” Cole told a crowd at the Durham Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “And to be able to boast about it like this…y’all own that!”

In 2000, there were about 300 restaurants in the city and county. Today, there are over 700. Fifty-two restaurants have achieved a Celebrated Cuisine status, meaning they’ve been regionally or nationally reviewed, are not part of a chain, and are independently owned.

Shelly Green, president of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, says visitors to Durham spent more than $200 million on food and beverages last year, making this a special award.

“This one is really important because it is an already identified market segment that we are trying to attract,” she says. “So we’ve been working on foodies to come to Durham for the past three years.  So now this is just like one more feather in our cap that we can say…this is not just us saying it, Southern Living said it!”

The distinction was determined by an online vote from Southern Living readers. Editors identified ten “Tastiest Towns” in the south, and readers could vote during a seven-week period early this year. Others on the list included Asheville, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Louisville. Durham came in first, beating out Memphis, which came in second.

The magazine praised Durham’s “reverence for everyday pleasures (we’re talking coffee, beer, pizza, and pie, here)” and called it “one of the hottest food destinations in the South.” The May issue of Southern Living will feature a story about Durham and its restaurants.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
Laura moved from Chattanooga to Chapel Hill in 2013 to join WUNC as a web producer. She graduated from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the spring of 2012 and has created radio and multimedia stories for a variety of outlets, including Marketplace, Prairie Public, and Maine Public Broadcasting. When she's not out hunting stories, you can usually find her playing the fiddle.
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