Food & Drink

Here’s your first look at Kingfisher, downtown Durham’s newest cocktail bar

Cocktails, as well as cocktail bars, sometimes take time.

After a year of work, Kingfisher is opening Wednesday in downtown Durham. The new cocktail bar from husband and wife Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker has transformed the basement of an old office building on Chapel Hill Street, into a lounge where one can drink the seasons.

Kingfisher bills itself as a farm-to-cocktail bar, with drinks swapped out seasonally and coolers and shelves stocked with jars of preserved and fermented ingredients, from peaches to boiled peanuts.

Summer stars on the opening menu, with drinks mixed with watermelon and cantaloupe and even a zero-proof one made with tomato water.

There’s a smoked Old Fashioned intended to conjure feelings of drinking whiskey by a fire or smoking hog, Umstead and Vanderwalker said. Their signature drink, a strawberry daiquiri, relies on strawberries dehydrated from the spring and lasting all year, rather than those anemic September strawberries flown in from thousands of miles away.

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Michelle Vanderwalker is a designer and artist and is creating and cultivating Kingfisher’s vibe, aiming to give drinkers a dark and intimate spaces using lighting to create distinct areas within the space. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

There’s even a cocktail nodding to Kingfisher’s seven month delay in opening, made with Jeddah’s tea, shiso, vermouth and soda and called “When Are you Opening?!,” a question countless times over during the past year.

“We want a complimentary menu, the ability to be seasonal but also sustainably a-seasonal,” Umstead said.

There will also be a kegged cocktail on tap, eventually the ginger tonic from Lil Farm, a housemade sparking water, as well as wine and beer.

The bar has more of a snack program than a food menu, with bites of martini olives and spiced pecans, building up to shareable plates like duck rillette and butterbean hummus. Late night cravings might lead to orders of grilled cheese, with Kingfisher planning a basic cheddar on 9th Street Bakery bread, and a rotating gussied up version.

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Michelle Vanderwalker finishes up some painting details at Kingfisher Bar on Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in downtown Durham. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Umstead built the beverage program and the concept of the bar. Vanderwalker, a ceramic artist, made thousands of tiles for the bar top, as well as mugs and drinkware for the cocktails and wine, the vases for flowers and the plates and bowls for the kitchen.

There are touches of brightness and texture all around the dark basement bar, with velvet banquettes of blue and green, and two nooks for larger parties. Most of the bar was built into the renovated space, but a wall of exposed century-old bricks survive.

The bar itself is three quarters of a horseshoe, with Umstead saying he prefers its more conversational curve to the straight line. The walls and tables are made of reclaimed wood from Maine.

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Sean Umstead of Kingfisher Bar mixes a Bee Durham cocktail on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Umstead plans to bring farm to cocktail to the downtown Durham cocktail bar. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

“It’s hyper-seasonal,” Umstead said. “We wanted something approachable and flavor forward. We don’t lean on bittering agents or obscure amaros; there are bars that do that and do it really well. We have a style where we’re trying to put as much pure flavor in the drink as possible.”

Kingfisher is situated across the street from the venerable cocktail bar Alley 26 and next-door to the Durham Hotel, two spots known to mix a great drink. Umstead said the geography is more inevitable than coincidence, with Durham’s bustling downtown scene, but that he’s happy to join the party.

“There’s no better city in the country to experience so much great food and drink in seven city blocks,” Umstead said.

Kingfisher opens Wednesday, July 31 and will be open Tuesday through Saturday from 4:30 p.m. to midnight.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.
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