Dining review: Locals love Ninth Street Bakery and Virlie's Grill

CorrespondentDecember 12, 2013 

The Ninth Street Bakery label is a familiar sight on the shelves of area specialty markets and grocery stores, but many who buy their wholesome loaves may not be aware that the downtown Durham bakery doubles as a sandwich shop by day. Fewer still are likely to know that, since April, the bakery has been hosting a vegan dinner on Saturday nights.

Sandwiches also make up the bulk of the lunchtime business at Virlie’s Grill, a family-friendly diner just off the courthouse circle in downtown Pittsboro. Like Ninth Street Bakery, Virlie’s has earned a loyal following among locals. And like Ninth Street Bakery, Virlie’s offers a special dinner one night a week.

That’s where the similarities end.

Ninth Street Bakery

Tucked into the corner of a large bakery that has thrived in downtown Durham since long before the area became trendy, the dining area at Ninth Street Bakery is a quasi-industrial setting. The vibe is decidedly bohemian (chances are, the person at the counter taking your order will sport multiple tattoos), and the focus is on vegetarian fare.

But they welcome all comers, and they aren’t sticklers about the vegetarian thing. Your sandwich – chicken salad on seven grain, say, or The Vegan (hummus, cucumber, red onion, roasted red pepper, lettuce and tomato), or even roast beef on French bread – comes with a pickle spear and your choice of chips or a little packet of organic baby carrots. There’s also a changing selection of homemade soups, a daily special (veggie burgers on Tuesdays, falafel on Fridays) and a display case filled with house-baked pastries.

Still, there’s no mistaking where owner Ari Berenbaum’s heart lies. Berenbaum, who was head bread baker at Ninth Street Bakery before buying the place, conceived of the idea for a vegan pop-up restaurant with Matt Props, the bakery’s chef and a fellow proponent of the vegan lifestyle.

The first dinner, a sort of trial balloon billed as Ramen Night, proved so successful that regularly scheduled encore performances were an easy decision. To keep things interesting, Berenbaum and Props decided to build the menu around a different theme each week, with occasional repeats for especially popular meals.

Those menus, which are posted weekly on the restaurant’s Facebook page, read like an encyclopedia of world cuisines written by a vegan gourmet. In April, highlights of a Southern Soul dinner included a hoppin’ John salad with Tabasco vinaigrette, vegan mac-and-“cheese,” and chicken-fried tofu with smoky collard greens. In the months since, the itinerary has spanned the globe from Africa to China to India to the Caribbean to Germany.

In late November, Chef Props turned to his home turf of Northern California for inspiration. The resulting gastronomic adventure – fruit salad with fresh herbs in a roasted fennel vinaigrette, toasted quinoa porridge, banana chocolate tart with raw caramel sauce and roasted peanuts – was every bit as delightful as the more exotic destinations.

Seating is first-come, first-served for the vegan dinners, which are offered on Saturday nights from 5 to 9 p.m. The dining area is small (unless the weather gods are smiling, in which case a patio doubles the seating capacity), and tends to fill up in the middle hours. Plan accordingly.

Virlie’s Grill

Virlie’s Grill opened five years ago just off the courthouse circle in historic downtown Pittsboro. Fitting comfortably into that setting, the restaurant’s furnishings – a hodgepodge of farm animal prints, vintage game boards, Tiffany chandeliers and taxidermy – gives the place the feel of a small-town diner that has been around much longer.

Reinforcing that atmosphere is a steady stream of locals, many of whom know owner/chef Chris Pratt and his wife Megan by name. Most probably also know that the restaurant is named for Megan’s great-grandmother, whose picture graces the menu cover and hangs on the wall behind the counter.

People begin trickling in early (the restaurant opens at 6 a.m. on weekdays, an hour or two later on weekends) and begin ordering from an extensive breakfast menu that covers the spectrum from country ham biscuit to chili and cheese omelet to buttermilk pancake. Locally famous loaded hash browns – topped with two eggs, bacon, sausage, peppers, onions, cheese and sour cream – are a meal in themselves.

Come lunchtime, another signature item – the Reuben sandwich on marble rye, generously buttered and grilled – will have plenty of takers. The chicken salad melt has its share of fans, too, as do subs stuffed with anything from meatballs to fried catfish. There’s always a homemade soup or two (if bacon-tomato chowder is in the offing, you’ve hit the jackpot) to round out the meal.

Those with heartier appetites may opt for a hot entree, which, true to diner tradition, is available for lunch or dinner. Prices are diner-like, too, for everything from country-fried steak with gravy ($7.95) to linguine with chicken parmesan ($8.95). That includes two sides (fried okra is a must) and a dinner roll.

On Friday nights, Chris Pratt fires up a big gas grill behind the restaurant. He and his crew cook a variety of savory proteins over the flames, and I’m sure the salmon, chicken breast and shrimp are all fine. I take my cue from the locals who just call it “steak night,” though, and favor the 14-ounce New York strip or rib-eye (a 10-ounce filet is also offered).

The steaks aren’t prime, but they’re reasonably tender and juicy. What’s more, they’re a bargain at $18.95, including soup or salad, choice of potato, garlic bread and fat, addictively crunchy onion rings.

If you like, you can top it all off with a slab of homemade cake – pineapple, say, or strawberry with a mousse-like frosting nearly as thick as the cake layers. Just make sure you have a couple of notches to spare on your belt. or

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