Portraits of a well-loved restaurant

For many patrons of a Durham bistro, it's the people who set the place apart

February 19, 2012 

  • Vin Rouge, 2010 Hillsborough Road, Durham, 416-0466, www.vinrouge restaurant.com

You enter to find a well-worn bar illuminated by chandeliers with grape clusters. You see 100-year-old French doors that lead to the patio, but you choose a doorway, draped with velvet curtains, that beckons into a back dining room.

At a cozy café table, you peruse a menu of French classics - duck confit, steak frites, cheesy potato-and-bacon tartiflette, salad Niçoise. Your server reads the mood of your table and responds with friendly chatter, or unobtrusive formality, as the situation requires.

For a moment, you might be in a bistro in a France, instead of Vin Rouge, just off Ninth Street in Durham. Marking its 10th anniversary this month, Vin Rouge doesn't have the national reputation and of-the-moment buzz some newer places are enjoying. Instead, it has earned a loyal following drawn to its understated bistro style and its characters who combine Southern hospitality with a dollop of eccentricity.

"This place has an energy about it. It's because of the people," says Ken Rosati, who sells wine to the restaurant and dines there with his wife and two children as often as twice a week.

Allow us to introduce them:

Here's the dapper owner, Giorgios Bakastais, a longtime Durham restaurateur who felt compelled to open Vin Rouge after dining at a bistro in Lyon, France. There's general manager Michael Maller, who is happy to pour you a glass of a wine he discovered on a recent trip to France's Loire Valley.

And here's gregarious executive chef Matt Kelly, who will regale you with stories about his early days in a kitchen when he turned out piping hot crème brûlées.

Some chefs tire of executing the same dishes over and over, like a rock star who is bored by playing hit songs every time he takes the stage. Not Kelly, now nine years into his tenure at Vin Rouge: "I'm really happy cooking what people enjoy eating."

Andrea Weigl

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