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Nouveau Durham: Watts Grocery

Posted by GNR 6 Apr 2008 20 Comments

We’ve been told that we slum it too often, so today we have a very special post regarding a fancy local restaurant!

I’ve heard lots of mixed reviews regarding dinner at Watts, so I was nervous when my friends decided to dine there after learning that Piedmont was overrun by the hipsters in town for Full Frame.  I am pleased to report that my dining experience at Watts was overall positive:  the service was not bad, the food was very good, and the atmosphere was just fine.

When we walked in, we were quickly shown to a table in the bar area once the host learned that we did not have reservations.  The server was mildly overattentive, but still managed to make a mistake with my drink order.  This put me a little more on edge.  Fortunately, it was then cocktail time!

A word about cocktails

Their cocktail menu was kind of boring, but claims to use fresh fruit juices and purees.  This got me excited, so I ordered a salty dog (grapefruit and gin, salted rim), which is always a favorite drink of mine.  It was a pretty shade of pink and good tasting, but not that special for the $9 price tag.  I would have to say that for cocktails, i would always choose Piedmont, which is creative enough with its cocktails to justify paying more. 


I ordered the asparagus and mushroom hash with poached egg as a starter.  When it first came out, I was a little surprised because it gave the appearance of a stirfry, not a hash.  I always associate hashes with potatoes, and this contained none. Despite this dissonance with my expectations, I liked the dish.  The mushrooms were extremely flavorful and well-seasoned without being too salty, the asparagus was al dente, and the egg, while a touch runny, had a bright, beautiful yolk bespeaking a nice local egg.

The Main Course

Next, we split a vegetarian plate and a steak.  The vegetarian plate was well-composed compared to many I’ve had in upscale restaurants, and was very well-presented.  A few snowdrifts (this is really how they were shaped.  for those of you from warmer climates, think sandune…)  of pureed cauliflower were interspersed with little piles of quickly sauteed vegetables including some kind of greens, some red peppers, and florets of cauliflower.  The protein component was an excellent mushroom custard–that’s what the server called it, anyway; I’d call it a boudin.  The steak was very well-seasoned and cooked exactly as I had requested it.  It was accompanied by a few spears of grilled asparagus and red bell pepper, plus some kind of special chipotle seasoned pinto beans.  I was impressed by the number and quality of sides since this is one aspect of a meal that is often overlooked.

Closing Thoughts

I told my coblogger about this meal, and she expressed reservations again.  We agreed that we really want to like Watts, but we are not yet comfortable putting a full CarpeDurham seal of approval on it.  Her reasons are that she has had some spotty experiences with the food, though she loves all of the servers.  My main concern relates to the balance of flavors in general.  The plates are just not well-composed in the way that I would expect from a restaurant that charges that much in Durham, and that bills itself as a sort of nouveau/southern cuisine type of restaurant.  Rather than melding the two approaches–nouveau and southern–seamlessly, which is what I’d ideally expect, the menu jumps from one to the other.  For example, I liked the beans that were served with my steak, but they did not seem like either a natural or a (pleasantly) surprising fit.  They seemed like a southern or southwestern add-on. Similarly, the vegetarian plate was quite delicious, but very nouveau-oriented.  I did not see the south represented at all.  Additionally, it probably should have included some kind of carboydrate-based component.  If nothing else, the “southern” half would seem to connote a hearty meal.

I think that this is why we normally like to eat and and review ethnic restaurants in the area.  We know that it’s really difficult to invent a perfect menu, and it’s usually cheaper and easier to find at a Mexican or Vietnamese place where the cooks are just working to recreate a menu that has already been perfected through tradition.  That said, we will return to Watts, and definitely have an open mind about it.


  • TSQ75 said:

    I dont think you slum it…you just like food for the sake of food….not food for the sake of anything else…art, style, trend..fusion…

    Watt’s hasnt sold me yet. all i wanted from there one night were the fried gizzards and a drink. the drink was good, the gizzards, well, more than they needed to be. tis a shame. but nwho knows, i’m told they have oxtails, and that’s my favorite bit of berf, considering i really dont eat beef much anymore.


  • Gary said:

    I like that you slum it…every other Durham blog has posts about Watts Grocery, Piedmont, the Federal, blah blah blah…I like reading about the uncharted territory.


  • nick said:

    Yes, please keep slumming it.


  • carpedurham said:

    We will never stop slumming it.


  • Carpe Durham/Reasonably Prudent Person said:

    Death to hipsters.


  • Lenore said:

    I love reading about your slumming. :) ..but I enjoyed reading this review, too.


  • Brian said:

    Go for brunch. More consistent quality and a much better value for the price range.


  • Beck said:

    Another slummy vote for the slum-inspired slumming.


  • BKBJC said:

    I’m glad you have such an open attitude for Watts Grocery and restaurants in general. Judging a restaurant on one experience, although justifiable, sometimes is to the disadvantage of the restaurant, as well as the future visits that you could have had … not being open as your blog continues to be. I love it!

    I would go again though. They have updated their menu many times since. And I can only assume that the menu has improved over time! Also, I would have to agree with the brunch comment slightly as well. They have an amazing brunch menu at great prices!

    I can’t wait to hear more about your next visit!


    YAR replies on June 26th, 2009 at 7:15 pm:

    That’s a fair point, but actually a few of us at CD have been there around a dozen times and still generally agree with this post. Personally, I’ve had one affirmatively bad meal there and the rest were unexciting or mediocre, but the place seems to be doing well so I assume others have had better experiences. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts..


    fooddude replies on June 28th, 2009 at 8:32 pm:

    I would tend to agree- I had one terrible experience that started when we entered and continued until the check, and two more meals since that were, at best, decent. I probably wouldn’t judge them so harshly without that first meal to consider, but when there are other options in town that are consistently better at the same price point, why bother?


    enwiebe replies on July 7th, 2009 at 9:45 pm:

    I’ve similar up and down experiences. After two very nice meals there, the last time out (May), two out of the three entrees were way over-salted. Sad to do that to nice, fresh ingredients.


  • Tooth said:

    I’ve only been to Watt’s for weekend brunch, but I can say it’s pretty stellar. As good as it is, I still say Piedmont has the best brunch in Durham.


  • kfrancis said:

    DO NOT GOT TO WATT’S GROCERY…unless you want a side of rodents, douchebag self-tanning managers, and absolutely no apologies or discounts when a room full of diners witness said manager catch said rodent in said water pitcher…


    Iwasthere replies on April 27th, 2010 at 1:32 pm:

    KFRANCIS, YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED. As an witness to the event and rodent/mouse…yes, many restaurants have rodents and some are better contained then others…the group I was with that day was amazed that your party was so JUVENILE and IMMATURE. We couldn’t believe that each of your approx. ten friends, after enjoying a nice meal with pleasant service, felt STIFFING YOUR SERVER was appropriate. Perhaps the incident was not handled well by management, however, under no circumstances should seemingly educated people have taken it out on their servers. The servers income is dependent on serving you not containing rodents…and they did that well. What further amazes me personally is that not one from your large group had the conscience to realize this and be reasonable. Surely some day you or your short sighted friends may find yourself in a relative situation and understand my point. (former WG server)


  • agrohm said:

    I think you neglected a couple important points of the restaurant in your review:

    For one thing, they are open until midnight on many nights, catering towards college students(though the prices are higher than normal college fare) and their desserts, which can be simple or exquisite, are one of their specialties.

    Also, Amy Tornquist, the chef, makes a special effort to serve sustainable, organic, and/or local food at all times, leading to a large degree of seasonal variation in the menu.

    I personally enjoyed both the food and atmosphere.


  • beth1 said:

    I went to Watts for lunch today – the place was packed. I love the grilled pimento cheese sandwich. I did not see one self-tanning manager – LOL! Everyone who works there has always been very nice. Emily is one of my favorite waitresses, but really, they’ve all been good.


  • Jill said:

    The food has been good (though not great) when I’ve been there, but I will admitlast time I was there, we had a really annoying waiter. Best adjective to describe him was a “tool”. Every time something came out of his mouth, we rolled our eyes as soon as he walked away. And there were about 8 different women at the table- we all felt uncomfortable and puzzled by his remarks.


  • Outdoor Dining Spots | Carpe Durham said:

    [...] Grocery, 1116 Broad Street, Carpe Durham Review. Note: Only two [...]

  • B. Snorfles said:

    The food was fantastic but the service was AWFUL. My water never got refilled once and I had an empty glass for about 40 minutes. Waitress was surly and kept looking at my empty glass but never refilling it. She even said once that she’d bring back water but she didn’t, and neither did the hostess when she came by or the guy delivering dinner or dessert. The table never got wiped off and we never got asked if we wanted another beer after finishing a flight.

    I won’t be going back anytime soon due to the service, which is really a shame because the food was incredible. We had the duck and the trout and they were both amazing.


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