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The Federal

Posted by DID 20 Jun 2010 69 Comments

We all go there, we all love it – but for some reason there’s never been a Carpe Durham review of the Federal, aka the Fed. I’m not going to wax poetic about the beauty of the Fed. It’s a bar with incredible food at a great price. According to one of the owners, the chef doesn’t want to be known – he comes in, creates the specials and leaves.

I wanted to do a post about the Federal on the off chance that someone lives in Durham or has recently moved to town and isn’t taking advantage of their nightly special menu. I didn’t want someone who uses Carpe Durham as their Durham restaurant guide to miss out.

Each night there is a small slip of paper that lists the specials at the Fed, order from it. The burgers, nachos, salads, sandwiches on the regular menu are all top notch and some of the best in Durham – but the specials, ah the specials, are the real deal. Part of the magic of the Fed is never knowing what’s going to show up on that specials menu – I’ve seen quail, frog legs, beef liver, offal, ahi tuna, homemade ravioli, house-made sausages, crawfish – it never disappoints. And even better, these specials never cost more than $15.

Below is a sampling of  dishes from the Federal’s special menu over the past few weeks.

bahn mi

coq au vin

Quail with gorgonzola polenta

Crab/smoked mackerel cakes on a watermelon/plum salad

Cod in an apricot sauce with couscous

chorizo chili with jalapeno cornbread


skirt steak with bacon/wine pan sauce and sweet potato fries

ahi tuna salad

And yes, they all tasted as good as they look.

The Federal

914 West Main Street
Durham, NC 27701-2025

(919) 680-8611

Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-2am; Sun 8am-2am


  • Tooth said:

    Well done. As you stated, there’s not much that needs to be said about The Fed. The food, and neighborhood bar vibe, speaks for itself.


  • RPP said:

    YAR and I never posted about it because we couldn’t find the words to adequately express our love.


  • LBD said:

    If all they served was the pork sandwich and fries I’d still love it. I know there have been complaints about the service over the years but I have not seen anything along those lines in quite awhile.


  • TSQ75 said:

    I think the most quintissential thing about the Federal, is simply that it is A BAR, that happens to have badass food. its not a Gastro-pub, its not some hipster cafe that happens to have a bar. The Bar aspect of it is unmistakeable, and the food is a happy happy bonus.

    It also makes it one of the most accessible bars around. You could easily bring out of town guests and parents to relax and get great food, you can bring kids in and know that its a fine family establishment with easy kid friendly options while knowing you’re not at the Golden Corrall. the patio provides superb people watching.

    its a great fallback.


  • peanutbutter said:

    Also worth mentioning is that they have some great options for the vegetarians. I don’t think that I will ever get tired of the grilled cheese or veggie sliders or fries. And they often have a bread pudding dessert special, which is the perfect ending to a meal, especially on chilly winter nights.

    My only complaint is that I hate sitting in the backroom (formerly the non-smoking area). Get a some full tables in there, and it gets very loud very quickly to the point of where is it hard to talk to people at your table unless you are all screaming also.


    JS replies on June 21st, 2010 at 2:18 pm:

    I love meat but their veggie sliders are badass. And ditto on the back room.


  • BVal said:

    You’re right – it’s a bar. And as such, it’s not a kids place. Bars, by definition, are for adults.
    To each his own and all that, and certainly the owners can cater to whoever they want, but anyone thinking a bar is a place for kids should seriously think about what they want a bar to be.


    TSQ75 replies on June 21st, 2010 at 3:12 pm:

    I think its a great place to take kids during reasonable hours–before 9 or so. I see them there all the time and have accompanied friends there with their kids. its altogether safe and accomodating. Its not a dive or a den of depravity.

    I think its all in line with Durham’s overall feeling of inclusiveness and diversity to have places like this where it includes all of the varied households in the city. Durham’s young parents are smart and conscientious. *honestly, i’d say the same about Bull McCabes, where i’ve happily sat at picnic benches with toddlers eating grilled cheese and fries*


    BVal replies on June 21st, 2010 at 8:00 pm:

    I appreciate your opinion on the matter as I appreciate your hearing mine. While I won’t call you out in the bars, it’s great to have a forum for you to express there are adults who don’t want kids in the bars, even before 9.

    These owners may welcome kids all they want, and if the rest of the patrons don’t mind – then bring them on. I’m just happy to be able to say here, w/o a confrontation in the bar, keep your kids out of the bars. It’s a bar. It’s for adults to not to have to watch their language and use our napkin after every bite.

    Any of the owners, bartenders or managers care to weigh in here? I’d be happy to hear bars welcome kids. I’d like to know what others think, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’m in the minority.


    MP replies on June 22nd, 2010 at 8:43 am:

    I’ve taken my kids to the Federal, Bull McCabes, etc… and love that my wife and I can still go to a “bar” while at the same time taking the kids to a “restaurant”. It is something we certainly didn’t have when we lived in Raleigh and we’re thrilled to have that vibe/setup available at some solid establishments in the Bull City! That said, we have early dinners and are usually done by 7PM.

    Sant replies on June 22nd, 2010 at 9:59 am:

    Actually, places like The Federal aren’t bars they are bar-restaurants. If you want to go to a bar and not see kids there then you would be best served to pay the $2-10 membership fee and join the “social clubs” that NC has set up for places that serve alcohol but not food. There are great options in Durham like The Pinhook, Wiskey, The Republic, or Sirens Lounge.

    peznin replies on June 24th, 2010 at 7:29 am:

    Sorry, I gotta agree with BVal on this one. The Federal is definitely leaning more toward the category of bar that happens to serve food, and I would be very surprised to see anyone bringing their kids there. Of course I also have a very low tolerance for such things, having moved here from Reno where I would see moms with their babies out at the bar/restaurant at midnight…and this is before Reno enacted their restaurant smoking ban.

  • shawful said:



  • Mark said:

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  • Rhys said:

    Thanks for a great post. Federal has been blessed with having some great chefs over the years. From Drew who created and started our menu with virtually no kitchen to work with, Andy and then Brian who brought a french Italian flavour to our specials and then our current Chef Robert Law aka Blue. Blue has been our chef for the last few years and I can’t speak highly enough about him or for that matter our whole kitchen staff. Blue is self taught, fantastically creative and one of the easiest going and interesting guys you ever want to meet. Our success is directly attributed to Blue and his staff.
    Rhys. Federal.


    Blue Law replies on June 22nd, 2010 at 1:52 pm:

    Thanks Ryhs, and I hope when I leave in a few months The Federal continues to thrive.


    DID replies on June 28th, 2010 at 2:08 pm:

    Blue –
    Durham will be sad to see you leave the Fed – let us know where you end up.


  • burgeoningfoodie said:

    I’ve never been to The Federal and have heard mixed reviews. Though I’m tempted to try it. I will say however that a lot of the plates look horribly sloppy though.


    9/9 replies on June 23rd, 2010 at 4:28 pm:

    You don’t deserve the Fed.


    brandon h replies on June 24th, 2010 at 1:36 pm:

    I concur with 9/9.


    Lysistrata replies on June 25th, 2010 at 1:34 am:

    I third. Burgeoning foodie is a loser/doesn’t deserve good things like the Fed.


    judas_escargot replies on June 25th, 2010 at 6:58 am:

    I’ve never been to The Federal either, but based on the amount of astroturfing and shilling going on here I’m guessing it’s probably just an upscale version of George’s Diner, am I right? It’s a pass for me.


    rkd replies on June 25th, 2010 at 8:33 am:

    no, you’re wrong. (hey, you asked). while the fed maybe hasn’t been around long enough to qualify as an institution (as defined recently over at varmint bites), they’ve been here long enough to develop a loyal following. no one has an obligation to like anything but if you’re gonna shoot your mouth off about “astroturfing” and “shilling” it might be nice if you knew something about recent history and the role the fed has had in the development of the durham food scene. i think they’ve earned their fan base. i’m just sayin’

    judas_escargot replies on June 25th, 2010 at 9:50 am:

    And here’s something that you, as a part of The Federal’s Internet Anti-Defamation League might not know, but people “deserve” to patronize the restaurant of their choosing, despite whether or not you all agree with their opinion of said restaurant. Just sayin’.

    halfbakedcake replies on June 25th, 2010 at 11:35 am:

    An upscale George’s Diner? No, the food at the Fed is actually good. They also have a concise, well executed menu that makes sense. GD was the most confused restaurant I’ve ever been in, I wasn’t surprised in the least to see it go, and I certainly don’t miss it. But if you think the Fed is just an upscale GD and that it isn’t for you, awesome…don’t come in. This regular will be happy that you aren’t taking up her seat while whining about the bad service.

    9/9 replies on June 25th, 2010 at 12:46 pm:

    Sounds good to me. I think we would rather not have you around.

    judas_escargot replies on June 25th, 2010 at 1:10 pm:

    I’ve heard rumblings about the kind of crowd you tend to encounter at The Federal, but you all have pretty much confirmed it.

    RPP replies on June 25th, 2010 at 1:25 pm:

    Let’s try to get along folks.

    YAR replies on June 25th, 2010 at 1:39 pm:

    Unlike with the George’s Diner post, we have no reason to suspect that any of the comments on this post are plants–and that’s not surprising given that the Fed is awesome and well-loved by many.

    burgeoningfoodie replies on June 28th, 2010 at 1:28 pm:

    Hey I don’t know why I’m being called names. I said I wasn’t against trying it. I just thought the plates in the photo looked like they were sloppy that is all. Lastly, I was just reporting that I had heard mixed reviews which is my truth. It’s not an attack on the taste of the food or the photographer so I’m not sure why the lack of manners and adult behavior is going on.


    DID replies on June 28th, 2010 at 1:54 pm:

    The sloppiness really is probably my photography verses the dishes – I’m not a pro and it’s hard to snap quick photos before friends dive into their dishes.

    Really despite what anyone says burgeoning foodie – you should go check it out for yourself. It’s a fun bar with solid, affordable food – a Durham staple that shouldn’t be missed. Get the nachos, order a special, and enjoy yourself. Don’t let it’s passionate fans deter you.


    DID replies on June 28th, 2010 at 1:56 pm:

    Make that “its” passionate fans deter you. :)

    burgeoningfoodie replies on June 28th, 2010 at 3:43 pm:

    I wouldn’t. If it had more Neighs than yeas maybe… but there is a difference in being a passionate fan of food and just plain being an ass. Passionate fans still have consideration and a bit more respect for themselves than to be total wankers. It’s not like I’m choosing between Duke and Carolina sheesh! ;-)

  • JEN said:

    The Fed is where I always go for a good burger or for a few drinks and good food. They are consistently excellent and I have never heard a single complaint from anyone I’ve taken there. I’m sad to hear the current chef is leaving, but since they have a great history, I’m confident they’ll find someone to follow in those footsteps.


  • keptsimple said:

    I have only one complaint about The Federal: too many freaking Duke undergraduates. This wasn’t a problem until a year or two ago, but now it seems like the place is crawling with the trust fund babies. I recall one time that I wound up sitting near a charming young man who, laptop in hand, loudly complained to a friend via Skype about his parents failure to rent him a nicer apartment. (And has anyone else noticed that the graffiti in the men’s room looks like it was written by the Ayn Rand fan club?)

    That said, I can’t exactly fault the Fed for this, and I still go regularly.


    fed_regular replies on June 25th, 2010 at 2:43 pm:

    keptsimple: Enjoy the summer while the undergrads are gone. It’s been much less crowded since graduation.

    What gets me are the hipsters with laptops, nursing beers and taking up entire 4 seat booths by themselves during the dinner rush. I hate them almost as much as the jerk that used to light up a pipe during the dinner rush before we got the smoking ban. He had to have been at the Federal every single night for at least 2 months before the ban went into effect. He would take up a booth by himself, nurse a beer and smile as he ruined the dinner of everyone around him. It’s hard to savor your meal when all you can taste is pipe smoke. Praise cheeses for the smoking ban!


    keptsimple replies on June 28th, 2010 at 8:54 am:

    I’ve definitely been enjoying the federal more in the summer months.


  • DID (author) said:

    For everyone who hasn’t been -really just go check it out for yourself. Don’t judge the place based on the comments here. The food stands up and the service (though ify when it first opened) is always solid these days. Sad to hear Blue is leaving but with a history of top notch chefs I doubt the quality of food will fall.


  • Tom from Raleigh said:

    I’ve been to the Fed many times, though not recently. I think their nachos are excellent and likely the best in the area.


  • BeanTheDodger said:

    The Fed is always good and the specials are always interesting and delicious. Their standard plates (nachos, grilled cheese, pork sandwich) are to die for. The only problem I have is that their specials are so good I often don’t get to eat of the menu. I try to go more often to make up for that fact, but they keep having new specials that I can’t pass by. How often can you get an affordable plate of frog legs, venison shank, low country boil, etc? It’s a good problem to have, though. ;^)


  • Todd Morman said:

    Anyone else see that new piece at The New Republic about John Edwards’ bar-hopping ways? http://is.gd/daFuM Apparently he’s been sighted at Federal. Also apparently, Federal is “a dimly lit Durham dive bar.”


    DID replies on July 1st, 2010 at 8:47 am:

    my favorite part of that article is how shady they make the nickel in hillsborough sound.


    keptsimple replies on July 1st, 2010 at 9:37 am:

    If you go to the Fed regularly (or even semi-regularly), you will eventually see John Edwards. When I saw him, he was sitting at a booth with a bunch of college-age hangers-on. He’s clearly trying to recapture his youth. He even gave one of the kids dap during their conversation (not that I was spying or anything).


  • Joe said:

    I love the Fed, but one big drawback doesn’t have anything to do with the food: it’s very noisy. Were it not for that, I’d be there more often.


  • Dave said:

    I’ve been to the Fed a couple of times in the past year and I don’t really care for it. The food on my first visit was okay, but the second time around it was plain and not prepared well. I think they had good ideas for the food, but I could have done better myself at home. One major drawback was that a lot of the food felt overly greasy, both on my hands and on my tongue. The service was also sub-par and I felt our waitress was borderline rude. I may go back to try again at some point, but it won’t be anytime soon.


    apathy replies on July 10th, 2010 at 11:44 pm:

    I agree. I don’t really understand why people get excited over it. The food is standard bar food, nothing more. I wouldn’t normally see a problem with that, but the way people talk about the Federal make it seem like this place is beyond awesome, which is certainly is not.

    Its a good place to drink and to occasionally order nachos. I’ve heard the arguments for only ordering off of the specials menu, and I have, but seriously if the regular menu isn’t that good, why would I go somewhere for the specials? I’m still going to go, because lets face it, there aren’t that many places to go for a drink near downtown.


    Sant replies on July 12th, 2010 at 2:40 pm:

    Really? Since when has items like quail, duck breast, ox tails, or ahi tuna become “standard bar food?” Aren’t that many places to drink near downtown? Let’s see:

    James Joyce, Alivia’s, Downunder Pub, Tyler’s Taproom, Bull McCabe’s, The Republic, Whiskey, The Pinhook, Siren’s Lounge, The Federal, and that place that used to be Bread & Kabobs that’s now a bar– that’s 11 places! Plus all the restaurants that have bars. How many places do you need?


    BullCity 50 replies on July 18th, 2010 at 12:16 am:

    …lest we not forget: Revolution, The Piedmont, Rue Cler, Tobacco Road, Cuban Revolution, Mellow Mushroom, Devines, Charlie’s, Cinellis, The Tavern, and Dain’s Place :)

  • Rob said:

    You’re my boy Blue! (Can’t believe nobody beat me to it).


  • ChapFromTheHill said:

    My fav by far in Durham, good bar food, reasonable prices.
    Plus the chef has a great big cock.


    Gary replies on July 10th, 2010 at 5:38 pm:

    Never mind his cock. He needs a food truck to matter in this town.

    (My fav comment by far in Carpe Durham, btw)


    judas_escargot replies on July 11th, 2010 at 9:15 am:

    Food trucks are out. Everyone and their brother knows about them now and they’re totally uncool.

    So what’s the next big hipster foodie craze, you ask? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… the “FOOD BUS”. It’s like a food truck but WITH SEATING. Oh and forget the old-fashioned parking lot location roulette–this mobile restaurant takes a regular route around town, picking up hungry passengers and conveniently dropping them off at their desired stop (minus 20 dollars for the overrated food + bus fare, of course).


    MEZ replies on July 13th, 2010 at 1:33 am:

    judas_escargot, you just made my comment-reading evening. Honestly, you should probably patent that idea, now.

    apathy replies on July 13th, 2010 at 10:42 pm:

    Like the coffee shop in the bus in Asheville that serves coffee and baked goods? Its overpriced but kind of neat. I’m sure the taco/indian truck is working on it as we speak.

  • PackPeach said:

    Thanks for the review here! I decided to try it out last night based on the reviews from here and I throughly enjoyed it! I had the risotto of the week which had lavender, parsnips, leeks, and gouda in it and it was absolutely fantastic! My dinning buddy had the pork sandwich with fries and it too was amazing! I’m glad I stumbled onto this site, I’ve been finding so many new places to eat here in Durham!


  • Snapjack said:

    I go to the Fed whenever I get the chance, is it perfect-nah, but it’s better than any other place for great beer and excellent food. I’ve never had a bad meal, maybe a few just OK’s but Rhys and his gang are great. I don’t thinks its for everyone but thank god for that, it’s hard enough getting a spot at the bar as it is.

    The Fed is even better since the smoke cleared, now if they could only get the beer colder…


    Tooth replies on July 15th, 2010 at 10:14 pm:

    Snapjack —-> A-freakin’-men. Every word. Its hard enough getting a seat as it is.


  • DID (author) said:

    FYI all – I got word last night that Blue is out of there in two months time and he’s moving to Seattle. :(


    RPP replies on July 20th, 2010 at 1:12 pm:

    Any idea which restaurant he is going to?


    DID replies on July 20th, 2010 at 1:21 pm:

    nope – he’s not sure what he’s going to do yet. Will let you know if I find out.


    blue law replies on July 22nd, 2010 at 10:41 pm:

    Hey everyone, glad you like the food!

    It’s kitchen staff as a whole that is responsible, not just “the chef the doesn’t want to be known” (haha… who said that anyway?).

    Also the servers and bartenders, who sample/critique the specials to ensure quality (well, except the vegan) and even throw ideas around for new ones.

    Plus, they serve you beer. Much more important then anything I do.

    As for leaving, not until January. I might spend a few months in Seattle, but no permanent plans.


    DID replies on July 26th, 2010 at 9:11 am:

    Josh! :)


  • Katy said:

    There is obviously a passionate fan base for The Federal and I don’t doubt there is good reason for that. However, I wanted to share my experience today which was less than fantastic. I have my favorite local spots for a burger, but I thought I would branch out to see what else is out there. I saw a lot of positive reviews for The Federal with burgers mentioned in several, so my co-worker and I decided to check it out. When we got there I was very tempted by the specials and I wish I had gone with my gut – the burger is on the menu but is obviously not a main feature. I added guacamole and provolone to mine to add interest. We then proceeded to wait at least 30 minutes for our food (we both ordered burgers) with no update from the waiter. I ordered the burger medium but it was closer to well-done and even a little dry. There wasn’t much flavor except for random hints of pepper and what tasted like wasabi. The guacamole was plentiful but didn’t add much besides needed moisture. It definitely didn’t trump my regular burger spot (Bull McCabe’s), and combined with the service left me pretty disappointed. I will say that I noticed plates going by that caught my eye that may be enough to bring me back on a non-workday to give it another try.


  • mmmyummay said:

    had the specials on friday evening (veg risotto, veal liver, oyster po’ boy) and the fed burger. specials were delicious, burger ok, service slow, and the place was packed.


  • BBQthatguy said:

    Offal?!? REALLY?


    BlueLaw replies on October 20th, 2010 at 8:54 pm:

    Those sweetbreads were awesome…Rhys and I fried some up with eggs…so damn good will be on the Sunday menu first week in Nov


  • Maria NIcolas said:

    …went there for the first time. My husband and daughter love this place. Yes food was good. Service? terrible, for the First time in my life I had to ask for the manager desesperataly, the waitress was very rude, and they skipped the hamburguer for my son, who at 6pm was really hungry. I know that they don’t care about our business ( we eat out from 3 to 5 times a week) they have enough customers, but I don’t have any need to go back either!


  • WIN TIX: Everyone’s a little Irish at The Casbah this Thursday | TVD Chapel Hill said:

    [...] corned beef and cabbage ain’t your thing, run across the street to The Federal for a little pre-show grub at the gastropub, which has an anti-party, appropriately called [...]

  • J_Ronn said:

    The pork sandwich is one of my lunch “go to’s”.. but don’t bother getting it at dinner, it’s too dry; get one of the specials instead!


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