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Toast Paninoteca

Posted by LHG 3 Oct 2009 29 Comments

Some of you might remember an unemployment-induced red velvet cake binge session I mentioned in my review of Parker and Otis.  Well, good news gentle readers!  I got a job!  Even better: I got a job in downtown Durham, which is exciting as I do not live in Durham and now have the opportunity to eat in Durham far more often.  And one of the places I was and still am most excited about frequenting is Toast, in Five Points in downtown Durham.

I really cannot fully express my love for Toast.  I first ate here last winter, when I was urged by a friend who worked there (there’s your disclaimer, but I’d love it even if she hadn’t worked there) to try the restaurant because, as she said, it was “cramazing” (her word for crazy-amazing).  Since then I haven’t returned as often as I would like, but now that I work nearby I can return all the time.


Toast is a paninoteca, which is Italian for “We do delicious things with bread and really high-quality ingredients.”  Actually it is Italian for sandwich shop, but what can you do.  The menu is divided into panini (hot pressed sandwiches), tramezzini (cold sandwiches), bruschetta (like a grilled, open-faced sandwich), and crostini (little bite-sized crunchy pieces of joy).  Every day brings new soup specials and at least one non-bread related special, and a dessert special.  Other available sides are salads and marinated olives.  Sandwiches are six dollars, and you can add a soup or salad for two more dollars.  For the quantity and especially the quality of food served at Toast, this is a real bargain.  Juice, soda, wine, and what looks like high-quality bottled beers (I, alas, am not a drinker of beer so I cannot judge) are also available.

Toast has a bright and homey interior with cheerful turquoise walls and decal stickers that define the word “toast” along one side of the wall.  The menu is above the counter, specials to the side.   You place your order at the counter, are given a number, take a seat at an available table inside or outside, and wait for the magic to commence.  If you are lucky you will place your order with the welcoming and friendly Kelli Cotter, who owns the restaurant with her husband Billy.

I took my foodie boyfriend there on a Friday night and he, too, loved Toast.  I ordered my usual crostini plate: three crostini choices and a soup or salad for eight dollars.  I alternate between soup and salad.  The salad at toast is a simple green salad, dressed lightly with herbs and a tangy, flavorful vinaigrette and slices of parmigiano reggiano.  This particular dinner I opted for soup, which you really cannot go wrong with, as every soup I have had at Toast is incredible.  The foodie boyfriend ordered a panini and another soup special.

I am a big fan of the crostini mix and match as I love trying many different flavors and foods.  My favorite crostini are the chicken liver, pancetta, and pickled fennel, the herb pesto, mozzarella, and roasted tomato, the garlicky mushrooms, thyme, and gorgonzola, and the warm goat cheese, local honey, cracked black pepper crostini.  Last night I opted for the chicken liver, the tomato and mozzarella, and the mushrooms, with a bowl of butternut squash soup mixed with gooey parmigiano reggiano.


All the food at Toast is chock full of flavor, and what I love about my favorite group of crostini is the lack of subtlety.  The chicken liver is full-bodied and flavorful, I have no idea what actually goes into it but I am sure it is full of garlic and onions and other delicious goodies.  The pancetta on top adds a nice bit of contrasting texture.  I like fennel but I feel that the chicken liver overrides the fennel taste–not that this is a bad thing, as the chicken liver is fantastic.  The garlic mushrooms are expertly cooked, incredibly garlicky (the more garlic the better in my opinion) and the gorgonzola on top adds just the right amount of funky flavor.  The roasted tomato and mozzarella is probably the most classical option but even that is full bodied and full flavored.  The tomato is warm and oozes flavor when you bite into it, and I love the afterbite of the pesto and the mellow texture of the mozzarella on top.  The soup I ordered on the side was, as always, a revelation: perfect butternut squash soup that tasted as though there was cream involved but, evidently, no cream whatsoever.  Just expert pureeing and a lovely addition of cheese to add grace notes to the natural sweetness of the butternut squash.  Also, no cinnamon-y pumpkin pie taste here!  Butternut squash all the way.

The foodie boyfriend ordered a panini with mortadella, provolone, pickled red onion, aioli and a side of lentil and spicy sausage soup.  He, too, expressed great love of his food.


High quality meat! High quality cheese!  A crunchy texture from the onions and extra flavor from the aioli!  Foodie boyfriend was extremely happy, and was equality pleased with the lentil soup.

We were too full for dessert, but the special that evening was a lovely looking pound cake dressed with blueberries and fresh whipped cream.  I watched a number of these beauties fly by my table.  You also cannot go wrong with the non-sandwich special listed on the board.  The special the night we went was a poached North Carolina mackerel, but I have tried other to-die-for specials such as short ribs over polenta cake.  Seriously folks, Toast is a gem.  Take a date or some friends there and make it a night by going next door to the fabulous Whiskey for a post-dinner drink.

Foodie boyfriend is already plotting his next return to Toast.  I am glad to have created another fan for this wonderful little establishment run by friendly people who believe in the simple preparation of high-quality ingredients.


345 W. Main Street

Durham, NC 27701


Monday-Friday 11:00-8:00

Saturday 11:00-3:00

Closed Sundays


  • rossgrady said:

    Yay Toast!

    It’s worth pointing out, just as a tiny clarification, that the non-sandwich specials (such as the mackerel or short-ribs you mention) are only available at dinnertime (most often Tuesday – Friday), and not at lunch.

    Billy Cotter has worked in the kitchen at some of the best restaurants in the Triangle (hello, Lantern & Magnolia Grill!), and so for the Cotters’ first restaurant of their own, the deal they struck with themselves was to balance higher-volume (but still delicious) rent-paying lunchtime fare with the opportunity for Billy to get creative with nighttime specials.

    Folks who eat there only at lunchtime probably think that Toast is just the best lunch place in Durham . . . they don’t even realize that after 5:30 or so, with the addition of Billy’s nightly specials, it’s also one of the best restaurants in Durham, period.


  • Ralph Haygood said:

    Toast is indeed utterly wonderful. I’m delighted to see that they’re thriving – it’s almost always crowded when I’m there, which is pretty often.


  • Suzanne said:

    I love, love, love the food and warm hospitality at Toast. My only quibble with the place is the exhaust/fan system, or lack thereof. I always leave there with my clothes smelling strongly of kitchen. That’s ok for the days I work at home, but I wouldn’t want to go back to the office immediately after lunch there.


  • Sean Lilly Wilson said:

    Totally agreed on the hospitality favor, flavor, and value. The owners have nailed the concept and Durham is all the richer for it! Cheers to Toast!


  • Beth1 said:

    Kelli Cotter is just about the sweetest person I’ve ever known. She and her husband are doing a great job making great food in downtown Durham.


  • MEZ said:

    Yum yum, Toast. I’ve only managed to make it there once since I reviewed it a year ago but it’s definitely been great both times. The prices seem a little bit steep and you can’t always pick out the flavors well (I’m thinking of the tuna panini where the fennel and lemon kind of hide) but for the lively colors and the amazingly friendly staff, those are very small complaints indeed. The bell pepper medley has been phenomenal both times.


    LHG replies on October 7th, 2009 at 11:25 pm:

    I’m surprised you say the prices are steep. I think that for the quality of food one can get for eight dollars the price is perfect. Panera costs pretty much equivalent and is of far far lower quality. You are right though, sometimes the flavors hide. I can never taste the fennel in the chicken liver crostini, but I don’t mind because the chicken live is so so so good. I’ll have to keep my eye peeled for the bell pepper medley, sounds fabulous.


    MEZ replies on October 8th, 2009 at 4:20 pm:

    Well, I think Panera’s is too expensive also. =) And Saladelia and a good number of sandwich shops these days. I may just be refusing to inflate my wallet expectations with the times.


    TSQ75 replies on October 8th, 2009 at 5:42 pm:

    Yeah, I’m a big ole cheap skate too, but in the case of toast, I really have to weigh quality with price, and in that instance–with the amazingly fresh and flavorful ingredients, delicious soups, good portions-I have to say it’s a bargain

  • flipflopper said:

    Just wanted to pop in and say: What a great review! I loved the humor with which it was written. Keep it up and thanks!
    Also—Billy’s specials are my very favorite thing about Toast, well, right after Kelli’s sparkling personality.


    LHG replies on October 7th, 2009 at 11:09 pm:

    Thanks so much! I strive to put as much of my personality into these reviews as possible because, after all, they are subjective reviews, and one person’s perfect meal could be another person’s cold oatmeal. So glad to hear, however, that Toast is highly considered by the readers of Carpe Durham!


  • CV said:


    That butternut squash soup recipe was published in the N&O last year. It’s delicious.


  • enwiebe said:

    I first visited Toast shortly after they opened. I noted to my wife as we were leaving that everyone in the place wearing glasses had cool frames. I’ve been back every few months since and the ‘cool’ vibe continues…along with the great food.


  • Eleanor Herr said:

    congratulations to Billy and Kelli Cotter! Their hard work and talent are benefitting all of us in Durham who have discovered the wonderful gem that is Toast!


  • Walters said:

    I’d like to echo the review and comments here:
    I’ve eaten at Toast around a dozen times since they opened, always for lunch. In addition to serving interesting and creative sandwiches, the food has been excellent each time, a feat that most restaurants rarely achieve.
    There are a number of places we like to go with regularity but only a couple of them are superb each time – taste, service, atmosphere – and Toast is one of them!


  • Caro said:

    Toast is absolutely one of my all time favorite lunch spots. From the sounds of it I really need to try it for dinner.


  • Beyu Caffe | Carpe Durham said:

    [...] better, though not outstanding and certainly not in the same class as its delightful neighbor, Toast. Beyu was packed on MLK day when we stopped in for lunch.  They offer some standard appetizers [...]

  • Outdoor Dining Spots | Carpe Durham said:

    [...] Paninoteca, 345 West Main Street, Carpe Durham Review. Note: Only a few outside [...]

  • JohnforAmerica said:

    Just chiming in with another GREAT review for Toast! Been there probably a dozen times and never had a single item I didn’t like.

    LOVE the rapini, sweet Italian sausage, roasted garlic,
    and asiago fresca panini. Also a huge fan of the crostini with goat cheese, honey, and cracked pepper!


  • John said:

    What’s going on in the storefront next to Toast? I saw something about it being condemned, but I’m hoping that the Cotters will buy it and open up the Japanese concept from the pop up next door. Anyone else have their fingers crossed for an authentic Japanese downtown?


  • ernesto said:

    See story at

    An apparently intoxicated driver went the wrong way on Morris St. and crashed into the Hairizon Beauty Oasis storefront (just to the left of Toast).

    I hope HBO will be able to reopen. They had a banner hanging in front of the plywood covering the storefront when I drove by last Friday. It was windy and the wind was lifting the lower half of the banner. I could see the top was thanking everyone for their support. I could not tell what it said under that – I hope it said that they would be reopening.

    By the way – many years ago there was what may have been Durham’s first Japanese restaurant very close to where Hairizon and Toast are today. I recall the owners were very friendly and the food was very good. Anyone recall the name?


  • ernesto said:

    My wife and I just did a little historic downtown Durham brainstorming. We think the name of the downtown Japanese restaurant may have been Yoko’s and it was there in the early to mid 1980′s.


    Dan G replies on May 25th, 2014 at 9:59 am:

    I believe it was Yoko’s Grill. It was open from the late 1980s through 1993 or so. The owner of the restaurant, Yoko, had a similar restaurant in NJ, but opened up in Durham so she could be near her daughter who moved to Durham during that time frame. Yoko was from Japan and her food was excellent. I loved sitting at the sushi bar and letting her make whatever she thought I would enjoy.


    Ernesto replies on May 26th, 2014 at 6:38 am:

    Yes, Yoko’s. Very good restaurant. Very friendly owner. Excellent food.

    May not have been the first Japanese restaurant in Durham. There is a building at 634 Foster Street, just north of the Durham Farmer’s Market, this was originally the used car business of Uzzle Motors and at one time I think was an Asian (perhaps Japanese) restaurant. Anyone remember?

    From page 8 of document at http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/feature/places/pdfs/13000204.pdf

    “Uzzle Motor Company Used Cars. 634 Foster St. early 1960s, 1970s. The Uzzle Motor Company, located across
    Foster Street, constructed this frame used car
    dealership in the early 1960s. The sales office was located in the upper story of the building known locally as the ”pagoda” because of its curious construction: a small wooden office with a steep hipped roof set one story in the air on steel supports. The roof flares outward on all four sides to shelter a wide concrete balcony with a metal and wooden balustrade.
    Also, anyone remember Shogun in Chapel Hill. This may have been the first place with sushi in Chapel Hill and Durham. It was just off of Hwy. 54 diagonally across from Glen Lennox shopping center.”

    By 1977 Uzzle had moved to Chapel Hill Blvd. near south square and soon after that there was a restaurant at 634 Foster St. I am not sure but I would guess that the owners of the restaurant gave the building it’s pagoda like appearance.


    Ernesto replies on May 30th, 2014 at 6:37 am:

    I did a little research at the Durham County Library yesterday. I looked through a whole bunch of City Directories from the mid-70′s to near present. I could find no evidence that there was ever a restaurant at 634 Foster Street, in fact 634 Foster Street did not get its own listing until just a few years ago. Maybe I was just thinking that the building looked like it could have been a Chinese or Japanese restaurant.

    I did find that Yamazushi in Woodcroft Shopping Center preceeded Yoko’s downtown.

    My wife reminded me that sushi at Shogun in Chapel Hill only had sushi on certain nights. We would go with our neighbor at the time who was a professor of Asian history at Duke. This was 1978 or 1979.

    Dan G replies on May 28th, 2014 at 7:46 am:

    As an update after visiting Durham over the weekend, I think Yoko’s was in the left side if the current Beyu’s restaurant. Yoko was married to the building owner. Together they had the daughter Yoko had come to Durham to be with. He wanted Yoko to stay, so he helped her by leasing her the space for her restaurant.


  • John said:

    Oh my gosh, no that’s awful. I hope they get back on their feet there. And if the Cotters can’t open there they should still open their Japanese restaurant somewhere downtown. I’m thinking a petition is in order…


  • Sant said:

    A yakitori bar downtown would kill! I’d also like to see salad, hot food bar and ready made soups joint where you can get grab-and-go lunches, like Whole Foods or Weaver Street market has or George’s Garage used to offer. Would be a hit among busy lunch goers and people who don’t want to cook dinner. All the places downtown are pretty much sit down eateries.


  • John said:

    Sant, I definitely agree. I have lived here my whole life and I have so many ideas for downtown. I’m a chef right now, but I’m still a few years away from opening anything. All I can say is that the progress needs to keep up!


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