In its first incarnation, the building on the corner of Foster and West Geer streets in Durham was an auto service station. Built in the late 1940s, the brick colonial-revival structure was the typical gas station of day—complete with a convenience shop and two service bays. The station eventually closed for business, and the building sat idle, in need of more repair than any car that was ever serviced there.
But it always held the interest of Andrew Magowan, owner of Geer Street Garden, which now occupies the historic space. “I loved the building,” he says. “I rode by it for years.”
When Magowan heard the building had finally been purchased by a developer, he jumped at the opportunity. After running a restaurant that was “fancier,” he saw the old building as a chance to open a spot that had no pretention.
“Growing up I never felt normal,” he explains. “I wanted a place where everyone feels relaxed and normal.”
After a massive renovation, elements like exposed ductwork and brick walls remind diners of the space’s previous incarnation as a service station. One notable addition is the spacious patio out back, where rows of picnic tables help create a communal vibe.
Which, even more than the catfish tacos or pasture-raised beef hamburgers, was the point.
“Really, what I want is for the food to disappear into the background of people just enjoying themselves,” Magowan says.
Even so, the dishes are a draw, too. What began as a theme of bar food has morphed into a simple but varied menu that touches on several different influences. In addition to burgers and tacos, regular items include Southern-leaning favorites like grilled pimento cheese and fried chicken and arugula salad, as well as a simple but genius paring of brie, avocado, and caramelized onions on a baguette. Specials, such as house-made gnocchi with Italian sausage ragu or roasted chicken and spoon bread, showcase Magowan’s versatility.
And then there’s “The Pile.”
When wanting to create something to really “soak up beer,” Magawan’s mother suggested poutine (for the uninitiated, that’s a blood-slowing dish of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy, popular in parts of Canada). With a few tweaks, Geer Street Garden’s version features a friendly mess of fries, fried chicken, jalapeños, bacon, gravy, melted cheddar cheese, and a choice of two additional sauces. While Gross says there are a few types of people who can conquer The Pile, he recommends sharing it. However you tackle it, perhaps a long hike at Eno River State Park is in order beforehand.
A simple but well-curated collection of craft beers, wine, and cocktails pairs well with the menu. That focus on the eclectic also pairs well with Magowan’s vision of his typical customer.
“You don’t have to be some particular type of person to come here,” he says. “You could be a business person or someone with rings and tattoos all over their face. Anybody will be appreciated here.”