Signs of a city-wide renaissance in Durham are everywhere. Hardly a block is untouched by the sights and sounds of demolition and construction. Yet even through this dramatic—and sometimes turbulent—reboot, the city of nearly a quarter million demonstrates a staunch determination to maintain its roots and personality.
On the front of that effort is a hyper-local, farm-to-fork culinary culture more expected of its mountain-town cousin Asheville. In 2011, during the early days of Durham’s downtown revival, entrepreneur Seth Gross applied this burgeoning philosophy to two quintessentially American staples—a burger and a beer—at his first foray into restaurant ownership, Bull City Burger and Brewery.
“Back then Durham wasn’t a place where you really went downtown,” Gross says. “Of the three legs of the Triangle, [Durham] was frowned upon.”
These days, those frowns are much more rare, and Gross’s commitment to keeping things local is evident in every aspect of BCBB. Almost everything is made on site: buns, mayo, even ice-cream (as evidenced by the earthy, herbal quality from the infusion of real mint).
While Gross came into the venture with extensive experience in food and beverage creation, including a culinary school pedigree and an apprenticeship at the wildly popular Goose Island Brewery in Chicago, things weren’t necessarily smooth in the first few weeks at BCBB.
“The day we opened, we ran out of food,” Gross laughs. “The first six weeks were like riding a bucking bronco—or maybe, a bull is more appropriate.”
But keeping a focus on the vision of what a local burger could be has paid off. Lines at the counter service restaurant regularly stretch to the door and beyond. On a busy Friday night, BCBB will fill the bellies of locals with upwards of 1,000 burgers.
But even as the popularity of his space grows, Gross’s counter service restaurant model doesn’t lack for customer service. Once you’ve ordered and find a seat—choose from small booths and large, communal-style picnic tables—the staff takes over. Service is, simply, extraordinary. Employees help customers navigate the menu, describe the beers, explain the concept, and thank them (Gross expects every patron to be thanked a minimum of four times).
He’s equally passionate about what makes a great burger, A great burger starts with, well, great burger. And this is where Gross’ commitment to sourcing local really shines. All beef is pasture raised as the distinctive flavor proves. The menu offers 28 different burger toppings, from aioli to award-winning chili, and several types of cheese. But don’t ask him what a perfect burger is.
“I think of a hamburger as a canvas,” he explains. “There is no such thing as a ‘regular burger’. You can put anything on it, and we do.”
The attention to detail is carried over in the 57 different beer recipes offered at different times throughout the year. Bull City’s Parish Street Pale Ale, one of two beers offered year round, is a true-to-style British Pale ale that Gross describes as a “go-to thirst quencher.”
Seasonals like the dark and deep bourbon-barrel-aged Russian imperial stout and the surprisingly smooth Honorable Bell’s brown ale (which drinks like a medium brown cream stout) take up the other six taps. Standard duck fat or sweet potato fries, hot dogs, and the necessarily rockin’ Joan Jett veggie burger fill out the rest of Bull City’s menu.