Standing atop a ladder balanced precariously on a banquette, Scott Howell is painting.
The orange dining room of Nana’s is becoming a deep red — “Heirloom red” Howell says — an apt color for a piece of the past still precious in the present.
Howell, and his flagship fine-dining restaurant Nana’s are back. After bidding farewell nine months ago, ostensibly for good, Howell has decided to reopen Nana’s, one of Durham’s most influential restaurants over the past two decades.
“You can tell everyone out there, I’m coming,” Howell said in an interview. “It is the old Scott Howell, it’s not the new one, and I am freaking fired up.”
Howell opened Nana’s in 1992 on University Drive in Durham’s Rockwood neighborhood. He was 29 years old and had cooked in some of country’s top restaurants, including Durham’s now-closed Magnolia Grill.
Nana’s closed after 26 years, seemingly ending a certain era of fine dining in Durham. The restaurant held a final month of service, with reservations booked up almost instantly, allowing fans to say goodbye.
The course of Nana’s and of Howell’s career shifted in 2014 when a half-ton grill fell off a truck while being unloaded, and crushed his right leg. The horrific injury took multiple surgeries to repair and years of recovery, but Howell said for the first time in a long time, his leg feels good. He went skiing this winter for the first time in years.
Howell’s other projects include the popular fast-casual Nanataco, Bar Virgile and DPAC-adjacent Nana Steak. But Nana’s, named for Howell’s late grandmother, was always the most personal.
“It’s my building, it’s my life sitting in front of people,” Howell said. “I’ve given my whole life to Durham, really. I want [Nana’s] to be what it used to be, a place where everybody knows your name and you know what you’re getting.”
The reopened Nana’s will have a slightly pared down dining room, around 60 seats, and a smaller, more seasonally focused menu based on what happens to be available, Howell said. Nana’s was famous for its risotto, and the new menu will have two — one vegetarian and one with meat — a stuffed and long noodle pasta, the popular chicken pate and all entrees paired with a vegetable. The wine list will be simple, with five reds and whites by the glass, 10 of each by the bottle, plus a Champagne and sparkling wine.
“We’ll buy things when we can, as they’re available; summertime will be a fun time to be here,” Howell said. “We won’t have a huge inventory, we’ll buy cases of stuff and when that case runs out, we’ll get another, or a case of something else.”
Howell said the butterflies have returned, that he felt them once before the first time he opened Nana’s, overwhelming him one night as he put the first coat of paint on his restaurant. Now he’s doing it again, with Heirloom Red and Poetic Purple in the back dining room.
“I’ve painted this restaurant more times than I’d care to remember,” Howell said. “It gets back to feeling realistic, that it’s going to happen. The first time we opened I was painting one night and got overwhelmed, I got butterflies, debilitating butterflies. ... I get the feeling now, but I have a lot more experience.”
At one point, Nana’s existed as one of the Triangle’s few fine dining destinations, but over the years, a nationally acclaimed food scene has built up around it. When he closed Nana’s last summer, Howell believed white tablecloth restaurants were over, but he now feels there’s a renewed relevancy in the era of more casual dining.
“What you’re going to get at Nana’s that is difficult to find now is very basic things that are done well,” Howell said. “I’m going to tell you right now, it’s going to be groovy.”