Gluten-Free Travel: Carolina Dreaming

Raleigh and Durham offer fun, culture—and amazing gluten-free finds

 

You might know Durham as the barbecue-slathered city in the heart of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, but this funky destination has much more to offer than slow-cooked meat and a top-ranked university. Once a thriving hub of the 19th-century tobacco industry and home to the early 20th-century Black Wall Street, today Durham showcases its colorful history while focusing on its bright future.

The Bull City is my home base, but as a relatively new resident who’s frequently on the road, I still approach Durham as a wide-eyed visitor. I’ve quickly grown to love the area’s innovative culture, breezy green spaces and friendly folks. And as for gluten-free food? The Triangle has plenty. Join me on a whirlwind tour of Durham and its next-door neighbors, Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

discover downtown durham

To explore the heart of Durham, start in the city’s compact downtown area. Browse through cool boutiques, check out historic architecture and marvel at cutting-edge contemporary art. The 21c Museum Hotel offers some of the hippest accommodations in the city, along with rotating exhibitions of works from big-name contemporary artists.

Grab lunch or brunch at Dos Perros, one of the city’s best traditional Mexican restaurants. Since this spot has a dedicated gluten-free fryer, you can enjoy Mexican dishes that are usually off-limits, like chile relleno and flautas. Even the mole here is gluten free, so you can indulge in the smoky pollo con mole accompanied by a margarita on Dos Perros’ sunny patio.

On the north side of downtown, stop by the Durham Farmers Market and join in the lively scene in Old North Durham. On spring weekends, you’re bound to find food trucks, yard games and patio-centered fun where Motorco, Parts & Labor and Fullsteam Brewery meet. Over on the west side of downtown, take a spin through the Brightleaf District. Two former tobacco warehouses anchor the area’s shops, which specialize in records, gifts and local designs.

No matter where you wander, don’t miss your chance to dine at Mateo, one of my all-time favorite spots in town. This upscale tapas restaurant has plenty of local flavor, and the servers can tell you exactly what’s gluten free on the daily menu. Highlights change with the season, but you can always enjoy Spanish-style bites that show off North Carolina’s best seafood, pork and cured ham.

In the evening, prepare to be entertained. The historic Carolina Theatre screens films and hosts intimate concerts, comedy performances and family-focused events. Nearby, the excellent Durham Performing Arts Center is the city’s go-to for off-Broadway shows, musicals and star-studded concerts.

catch a game and sip a cider

Durham’s downtown area might be on the small side, but there’s plenty going on, especially in the spring. April marks the start of the Minor League Baseball season, and cheering on the Durham Bulls is fun whether you’re a big fan or just taking in the atmosphere.

Get there early so you can have time to take a walk through the adjacent American Tobacco Campus. Once a massive complex of tobacco warehouses, the campus now houses the headquarters for Burt’s Bees, North Carolina Public Radio and several great restaurants. Fill up on gluten-free pizza at Mellow Mushroom prior to the game, since the Durham Bulls Athletic Park isn’t known for its gluten-free options.

Whether you’re looking for somewhere to celebrate the Bulls’ win or you’re planning to skip the game altogether, head a few blocks east to Bull City Ciderworks. For years, this naturally gluten-free cidery has crafted the best adult beverages in town, using creative ingredients like hops, ginger, tart cherries and bacon. The cidery even has its own fledgling urban orchard to produce ciders with a hyperlocal edge.

get some fresh air

Spring brings sunshine and warm breezes to Durham, so you’ll want to make the most of the great weather. Before hitting the trails, stop by Happy + Hale, a bright and welcoming salad and juice spot on Duke University’s main drag. Get a brightly colored smoothie to go or linger over a gluten-free Incredibowl packed with superfoods like quinoa, kale, squash, beets, black beans and pumpkin seeds.

I never leave this spot without grabbing a brownie or a blondie from JP’s Pastry, a local certified gluten-free bakery that makes a mind-boggling array of delicious sweets.

Take advantage of the sunshine and head to Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Durham’s beautiful public botanic garden. This expansive outdoor space is fun for all ages to explore, and you’ll find smaller gardens with everything from ferns to azaleas to carnivorous plants here.

If you’d rather get up close and personal with animals, visit the Duke Lemur Center in Duke Forest. This fascinating research center gives you the rare opportunity to see about 20 species of lemurs. Be sure to schedule a behind-the-scenes tour ahead of time, as the reservations at this popular place fill up quickly.

After working up a serious appetite, plan dinner at Primal Food & Spirits, Durham’s only completely gluten-free restaurant. Since this spot focuses on primal cuisine, you’ll find tons of braised and grilled meat, seafood and veggies on the menu.

I suggest starting your meal with the deviled eggs, which come topped with candied bacon, or the grilled octopus, which boasts a smoky ancho chile sauce. Make your main dish the rich, creamy shrimp and grits or the braised and grilled Springer Mountain Farms chicken thighs with mushroom vinaigrette.

check durham’s event calendar

Warm weather means festival season in Durham, and if you time your visit right, you can attend one of the Triangle’s hottest events. I had a blast at Moogfest, which combines music, technology and art, and I can’t wait for the annual event to return each May.

expand your horizons in chapel hill

One of the things I appreciate most about Durham is that when I’m looking for something new, both Raleigh and Chapel Hill are right around the corner. Just a 15-minutes drive west of Durham, Chapel Hill is home to an artsy community that’s dotted with public parks and quirky shops.

On Saturday mornings, make a beeline for the Carroboro Farmers Market, where you can pick up fresh bread and baked goods from Imagine That Gluten Free, along with seasonal produce, honey, cheese and much more. Take a stroll through the North Carolina Botanical Garden or see what’s on display at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center or at the Ackland Art Museum, all of which are associated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Next, make your way to buzzing Franklin Street for some window-shopping and a bite to eat. The Mediterranean Deli is known for its great Middle Eastern food, which it serves cafeteria-style, but the real draw for gluten-free diners is the pita. The Med Deli bakes its own gluten-free pita in a certified facility so you can enjoy pita sandwiches or fresh bread with your salad.

visit the state capital

Just a 30-minute drive southeast of Durham, Raleigh is home to some of the Research Triangle’s top museums, historic sites and restaurants. Take a Sunday morning stroll through downtown Raleigh, where you’ll find many of the capital city’s best spots around Moore Square and Nash Square.

Be sure to fuel up at my favorite Raleigh brunch spot, Fiction Kitchen, which serves up Southern favorites with a twist. Everything on the menu is vegetarian or vegan, and many dishes are gluten free. I usually opt for the huge Farmers’ Plate, which comes with grits, cage-free eggs and tempeh bacon, along with a mug of hot coffee. It’s the perfect fuel for a walk through Raleigh.

Just a block or two from Fiction Kitchen, the Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh is a fun spot to see small yet awe-inspiring art exhibits. Nearby, take a tour of the North Carolina State Capitol grounds or check out an exhibit at one of the downtown museums. The neighboring North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina Museum of History offer an interesting glimpse of local history and regional geology.

If you’re in the mood for an early dinner, make your way to Poole’s Diner, a classic diner originally opened in 1945 and recently refurbished by James Beard award-winning chef Ashley Christensen. The Southern menu changes almost weekly, depending on what’s in season. Poole’s is incredibly accommodating for gluten-free diners, so you’ll have no problem finding something to tempt your taste buds.

No matter which part of the Triangle you’re planning to focus on, I always recommend visiting in the spring. In addition to full event calendars and gardens in full bloom, you’ll also find fresh spring ingredients on every menu and an endless array of delicious food to try.

Travel Editor Anna Sonnenberg is a food and travel writer who has journeyed around the world gluten free since being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012. She launched her website, glutenfreejetset.com, in 2013.

Raleigh skyline photo by twbuckner

All other photos by Loren Sonnenberg

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