The face of the clock determines just what sort of gathering you'll find at La Residence. On Fridays at lunchtime, crepes leave the kitchen stuffed with sweet and savory fillings, from sriracha-spiced shrimp to bananas and chocolate. But as the sky darkens, a more classical air settles over the dining room. The fireplace begins to crackle, and patio lights flicker on above brick flooring. Now, Executive Chef Lemar Farrington and his team begin to prep appetizers of baked brie and warm bruschetta—overtures to an innovative French supper. They fill crispy pot pies with fresh seafood while monitoring pink cuts of filet mignon. Every night finds them experimenting with a different risotto and fish, just as each season heralds a new menu, replete with ingredients from local farms.
Even when dusk has come and gone, the restaurant doesn't sleep. Four nights a week, it becomes a late-night cocktail lounge: Cafe LaRez. Guests sip on mojitos, mint juleps, and French 75s made with gin and champagne. A dance floor beckons to antsy feet, but sitting-room corners and a terrace by Rosemary Street provide space for quieter chats. On some evenings, the restaurant even hosts weddings, amplifying the romance of the occasion with its rose gardens and historical charm.
Chefs at Tandoor Indian Restaurant draw on the culinary traditions of India's northern Punjab region, an area known for complex flavors and vibrant presentation. Though lamb curry, chicken tikka masala, and meat samosas have always been a staple at the eatery, a recent renovation has reinforced the feeling of stepping onto another continent. “Following the aroma of classic Indian spices you arrive at a completely refurbished place,” says the Chapel Hill News, “filled with mythological art and sculpture, newly painted doorways, metal bird sculptures and butterfly topiaries as well as new booths, rugs, curtains, covers and cushions.”
The lilting, tangled choruses of Bollywood videos drift from televisions above the paisley booths. In the kitchen, chefs work quickly around a clay tandoori oven filled with licking flames, much like a pyromaniac’s vacation slideshow. Mango-chutney cheesecake and other colorful dishes match a dining room, which the Independent Weekly says “is filled with vibrant colors inspired by owner Binda Bhupal's homeland: mango orange, Kashmiri hot pink, Bombay yellow, peacock blue.”
At Mint Indian Cuisine, it's the smallest parts of the dish that matter—the spices. With marinades, chefs infuse their meals with loud or subtle flavors that ring through the mouth like edible symphonies. A secret mixture of Indian seasonings soaks into their signature dish, the Mint chicken kebab, for a full night before the food gurus heat it in the tandoor oven. That oven also pours out freshly baked naan, which meets the standards of full flavor by donning layers of garlic or rosemary. Pounded spices accompany handpicked spinach and seasonal ingredients in vegetarian platters, which act as zestier alternatives to meat than imaginary steaks.
With so many herbs and flavors at its disposal, the kitchen experiments with Indian staples and more obscure dishes alike. Chefs cover the chicken tropical tang, for example, with a raw mango paste and a light coat of spices, simultaneously evoking and augmenting West Indian traditions. Guests can sample this and other dishes that range from fiery to sweet while live sitar music spreads a sense of serenity throughout a dining room accented by white tablecloths.
Tony, the owner of Bandido’s Mexican Cafe, learned the tricks of the trade while working at his family’s Mexican restaurant as a teenager. Today, he and his wife own and operate three Bandido’s locations, which serve sizzling fajitas, crisp tacos, and burritos stuffed with beef, chicken, pork, or sautéed spinach. The Herald-Sun's readers praised Bandido's as the Best Mexican Restaurant in 2009, and the restaurant returns the favor by awarding individuals who finish the El Gigante burrito—a massive compilation of steak and chicken fajitas, rice, black beans, and shredded cheese—with a T-shirt and gentle pats on the back. The restaurant often hosts live entertainment, and the Durham location supplements its selection of lunch and dinner fare with a Sunday brunch menu served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
A red bicycle hangs on a wall at The Red Bicycle Coffee Café and Catering. Its perpetual stillness contrasts the bustling activity of the café's baristas, who grind single-origin beans for bold cups of coffee and creamy lattes. Though the beans are imported from exotic locales such as Hawaii, Ethiopia, or India, the local coffee artisans at Joe Van Gogh in Hillsborough check the expiration dates printed on each bean before roasting them to ensure a fresh taste.
In addition to steaming cups of joe, guests can sip Mighty Leaf whole-leaf teas, nibble locally baked pastries, and chomp into sandwiches loaded with deli meats and cheeses. The Red Bicycle's light morsels and laid-back atmosphere also attract local artists and musicians, who display their work on the walls and swing by to strum a guitar or perform Brahms's Second Concerto on the kazoo.
Sky-blue walls frame floor-to-ceiling windows and accents of red brick as friends and couples savor Mediterranean flavors atop white tablecloths. Vespa Ristorante's menus flaunt a combination of culinary creativity and a mastery of Italian cuisine in a cast of unique dishes— such as apricot-stuffed pork loin wrapped in prosciutto and dressed with a fig and port sauce—while still honoring tradition with homemade lasagna and veal scaloppini. The artfully plated entrées pair exquisitely with a selection of Italian, international, and intergalactic wines. Vespa Ristorante also caters to private parties with customizable menus that offer tastes of the restaurant's most popular dishes, desserts, and wines.