Just inside the front door, you’re greeted by Velma and Betty and Faye and maybe a dozen others, all names that evoke a time and place when waitresses (they wouldn’t have been called servers back then) called all their customers “Honey.” These are not actual people, mind you, but names on cards, one of which you’ll be given to take to your table once you’ve placed your order at the counter.
On the counter just a few feet away, a chocolate cake on a cake stand dares you not to order a slice. You lose the dare. Then you ask the friendly woman taking your order about the large black and white photo of a Pure gas station on one wall. She tells you the picture was taken in the 1950s, and that we’re standing in that building now. After extensive remodeling, the gas station became home to Grub last summer.
Other clues — narrow dining room, booths, retro chrome counter stools, sugar packets on every table — reinforce the initial impression. Clearly, you think, Grub is a nostalgic tribute to the classic American diner that dominated the landscape in the middle of the last century.
But hold on a sec. That countertop isn’t Formica but poured concrete. Behind it are a couple of flat screens and a bar stocked with local drafts, wines, and the makings of house specialty cocktails. There’s a patio and a rooftop bar, neither of which comes to mind when you think “classic diner.”
So what is this place — vintage American diner, or something more modern?
Short answer: yes. Slightly longer answer: the vibe at Grub promises the best of both worlds, and the food delivers on that promise. The menu is an eclectic tapestry of traditional and contemporary fare, interwoven with a strong unifying thread: Virtually everything is made from scratch.
The pastrami on Maybelle’s Pastrami sandwich is cured and smoked in house. The bread and butter pickles on the Cubano burger are house-made, and the “holiday ham” is brown sugar-glazed, roasted and sliced on the premises. The Gobble Down — house-roasted turkey, cranberry relish, lettuce and havarti on toasted Texas three-seed bread — hits the spot any time you’re hankering for a taste of Thanksgiving.
Granted, the kitchen doesn’t actually catch the cod on the Barracuda sandwich. But they do fry it to a moist, flaky turn with a golden-brown panko crust, and serve it on a brioche bun with cucumber dill salsa and citrus mayo on a brioche bun.
Mediterranean Tuna, punctuated with artichokes and green olives, is a refreshing take on the old diner classic tuna salad sandwich. And you don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy the Towson Bridge Shrooms: beer-battered shiitake and oyster mushrooms with feta, Sriracha Ranch dressing and mixed greens on toasted ciabatta.
Sandwiches come with your choice of side, from a selection as varied as the rest of the menu. I like the butterbean corn salad, and the house chips are worth the $1 splurge.
After 5 p.m., a supplemental menu of specials makes choosing even more of a challenge. The list changes daily, but you can generally count on a few dishes featuring house-smoked meats. Sriracha honey-glazed smoked wings and baby back ribs (dry rubbed and finished with a Cheerwine barbecue sauce) have earned more or less permanent spots on the list. Beef brisket also makes frequent appearances. (Pro tip: trimmings from some of these smoked meats go into some of the tastiest, meatiest Brunswick stew around.)
Other recent specials have included a blackened cod entree salad, fried Brussels sprouts sandwich, and a textbook moist, crunchy-crusted chicken fried chicken, served with homemade turkey sausage gravy, mashed potatoes and green beans amandine.
True to diner tradition, Grub serves three meals a day. And true to its own mission, the breakfast menu (served until 3 p.m.) offers a varied mix of traditional and contemporary options.
Keep it old school if you like with a breakfast biscuit — the Best Bird, say, with fried chicken, maple pepper bacon, bread and butter pickles, and honey-butter drizzle on a buttermilk biscuit. Or the Country Road: ham, fried egg, melted sharp cheddar cheese, and creole mustard on a sweet potato biscuit.
Or loosen your belt and and get The Slammer: two eggs any style, sausage (pork or turkey, but be advised that the pork is some of the best around) or bacon, and an exemplary buttermilk pancake with real maple syrup. Oh, and your choice of grits (which needed salt when I had them, one of just a handful of near-misses I’ve encountered at Grub), breakfast potatoes or fruit. As long as you’re being bad, might as well spring for a homemade cinnamon roll. And what the heck, maybe a couple of doughnuts.
Looking for something a little more au courant? Check out the Breakfast Bowls section of the menu, where you’ll find options (all of them gluten-free) such as the Maple Honey Nut Bowl and Maggie’s Veggie Bowl (stoneground cheddar grits, mushrooms, spinach, peppers and roasted corn). Or look under the Smoothies heading, where you’ll be tempted by a rainbow of drinkable breakfasts ranging from Greena Colada (spinach, mango, pineapples, banana, coconut oil and honey) to Blue Devil (house-made cashew peanut butter, blueberries, bananas, almond milk, and vanilla whey protein).
Regardless of which meal you’re there for, or whether you’re already in a sugar coma, don’t even try to resist the siren call of the cake stand. The carrot cake is excellent, but the dark-as-sin-double chocolate cake decorated with strawberries and blueberries is worth selling your soul for.
Grub is the latest venture of veteran local restaurateurs Wendy Woods and Stacey Poston. Woods, a native of Durham, opened Piper’s in the Park with childhood friend Piper Lunsford in 1999. The three women also own NOSH on Erwin Road.
Their newest venture is a labor of love and an homage to their hometown heritage. (The work shirt mounted on one wall belonged to Woods’ father, who managed the parts department at the local Chevy dealer.)
But if the inspiration for Grub is rooted in the past, its mission is just as clearly focused on the present. Or, as the restaurant’s website puts it, Grub “is dedicated to offering high-quality, affordable cuisine complimented by quick, friendly service.” I’d say they’ve achieved that goal.
And I’m sure Velma, Betty and Faye would agree.
1200 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham
Atmosphere: classic diner, updated
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly and attentive (counter service, but they occasionally check on your table)
Recommended: Brunswick stew, Maybelle’s Pastrami, The Barracuda, dinner specials, breakfast biscuits, The Slammer, house-baked cakes and pastries (especially the double chocolate cake)
Open: Tuesday-Friday 7:30- a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio and rooftop bar; parking in small lot and on Gattis Street