A new counter-service fried chicken joint with a fine-dining pedigree is coming to Durham.
Howell, an eight-time James Beard Award semifinalist, is known for his Durham restaurants Nana's, Nanataco, Nanasteak and Bar Virgile.
Update: Thursday, Howell announced he plans to close Nana's.
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DeeLuxe, expected to open in July, will be modeled on Howell's popular fast-casual Nanataco, which is run by managing partner Jen Gillie. Robinson said the aim is to bring fine dining care to casual food.
"This will be fun and approachable," Robinson said. "People ought to be able to eat good, clean, fresh food, prepared to fine-dining standards, but be affordable."
To that end, DeeLuxe is named to help with a common Southern pronunciation and to dispel any notions of fancification that might come from "deluxe."
The two chefs have known each other for nearly 30 years, working together at Magnolia Grill when Howell was the sous chef for James Beard winner Ben Barker and Robinson worked on the line. Since then, Howell has opened fine dining Nana's, and has overseen or invested in projects such as Nanataco, Nanasteak and Bar Virgile.
Howell has been nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast from 2008 to 2015.
Robinson has worked near and far, spending time at Mondo Bistro in Chapel Hill and multiple restaurants in California, returning to Durham two months ago.
DeeLuxe will serve fried and herb grilled chicken, specializing in dark or light quarters. In the spirit of Nanataco's salsa bar, there will be a sauce bar with gravy, dips, Alabama white sauce and maybe the spicy, herbaceous Peruvian green sauce.
Sides will include Velveeta mac and cheese, spicy Asian cucumbers, crinkle cut fries, potato salad and others, often with Latin and Asian flavors, Robinson said.
Expect a few different chicken sandwiches, a Cobb salad and other leafy greens, and look out for $1 soft-serve ice cream cones.
"We want to give people a customizable chicken experience," Robinson said. "It can be that rib-sticking meal or something light."
When asked what he likes about fried chicken, Robinson doesn't get specific.
"Everything," said Robinson on what he loves about the crispy, crunchy, hopefully juicy, better-when-it's-spicy world of fried chicken. "It's kind of universal."
The Oval Park Grille closed last September and has been vacant since. Robinson said he and Howell started looking at the place a couple of months ago and signed a deal last week. They'll do some cosmetic updates to the dining room and make a few changes in the kitchen, but expect to be open next month.
For drinks, DeeLuxe will keep eight draft beer lines and make some basic cocktails, keeping some standbys flowing in those recirculating drink bubblers that usually dispense lemonade. In those will be a margarita, a mojito and rotating one.
"That's it as far as a cocktail program," Robinson said. "Fun, cheap and easy."
Robinson said he hopes the restaurant can become part of people's lives.
"To make a great restaurant that people can use in a number of different ways," he said. "Where it becomes a reflex and an institution that's seamlessly integrated into people's lives."