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Holiday lights, parade to sweep through downtown Durham this weekend

A setting Starlu

One of the oddities about Durham's dining scene is that it defies the expectations you might have if you moved here from, say, Cary or North Raleigh.

South Durham is the fast-growing residential district and RTP, in Durham's southeastern corner, is the economic engine for the entire Triangle. But you find very few notable and noteworthy Bull City local restaurants anywhere in the southern portion of the city (City Beverage stands as one of the singular exceptions.) Of course, you have the steady drumbeat of chain restaurants, but Durham's restauranteurs have shown little interest in setting roots down there.

And why should they? The traditional Durham core, near downtown and Duke -- which is far more socioeconomically diverse and which is a far 'older' set of neighborhoods than the quick-build subdivisions out near Southpoint -- has more fine dining that just about anywhere else in the Triangle. Draw a line between Magnolia Grill and Nana's, then rotate it to draw a circle -- just about all the best places to eat in the Bull City fit right inside.

Uncomfortably outside either of these two spheres of influence stands Starlu on Shannon Road, which announced on Wednesday that it would close its doors effective Dec. 22. While the restaurant's co-owner, Sam Poley, didn't go into details as to the reasons for the closure in his email announcement, his note that it was difficult to fill the space with enough customers suggests location as a critical problem that Starlu couldn't solve. (It certainly wasn't the quality of the food or wine, which drew rave reviews from local restaurant reviewers and residents.)

It also likely didn't help that the biotech company based in Starlu's building, EMD Pharmaceuticals, has essentially shut down its one-time Durham headquarters and laid off most of its employee base, doubtlessly taking a toll on foot traffic. At the same time, University Tower and other office buildings in the South Square area have posted higher-than-normal vacancy rates, with some tenants moving back towards downtown and American Tobacco over the past few years. One also has to wonder whether the final closure of South Square Mall and its reinvention as a Target's/Sam's Club has had any impact on the nature and number of visitors to the area.

Poley hints that this will not be his last foray into the Durham dining scene. Here's hoping for a successful return with a new restaurant -- perhaps in a more successful location.

Comments

statolith

"But you find very few notable and noteworthy Bull City local restaurants anywhere in the southern portion of the city"

Guglhupf, Fosters, Sitar India Palace, Twisted Noodles, Saladelia, Eastern Lights, Pao Lim, Nana's, Four Square, Tonali...all of these places are located in the general area where Starlu was. Judging from what I've read on foodie forums like Chowhound (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/436954), Starlu maybe had other issues than 'location'?

Michael Bacon

I never had any of the problems on the Chowhound list, but my opinion is that their problem was location compounded by some other factors. First of all, the space was huge -- bringing in enough foot traffic to fill it must have been very hard. Also, it had absolutely no visibility from the road, and you had to sort of randomly drive around the backside to find it.

Compounding that, the place was decorated like a trendy Manhattan restaurant, which seemed almost comically out of place at Shannon and University. The places statlith lists all have some combination of funky, homey, or classic. The decor at Starlu would have been perfect for the newest Ambacco joint, but in a small suburban office building it was a bit ridiculous.

My guess is that problems with food and problems with service recently have had to do with cuts that he must have made in order to cut costs. In some ways I'm sad to see it go, but hardly surprised. And it's not like I ever went there -- who wants to drive out to that part of Durham anyway?

DWhite

I hardly think that a few postings on a forum like Chowhound (not exactly the New York Times food review) crack the case on why Starlu is closing. I would agree that Starlu's location has probably been difficult - despite the success of other 'nearby' restaurants. It's a tough business - which anyone who has either worked in or owned a restaurant knows. You won't find a restaurant anywhere that is able to please every customer, and everyone is a critic these days (especially given the unmonitored forum and cloak of anonymity that the internet provides). I find it disappointing that anyone would find it satisfying to post nasty comments about an endeavor that was so clearly a labor of love and passion - which is plainly obvious as the case of Starlu.

I can say for sure that I will miss Starlu dearly, and I know I am not the only one. I've had some truly lovely occasions at Starlu and I think it is a shame and a loss to the community that Starlu will close its doors. I commend those who take a risk and follow their dreams and I think that Starlu should be proud. Perhaps another time and place? I hope so.

statolith

Those of us who live in that part of Durham, perhaps?

statolith

Whoops, xpost with DWhite.

I'm sad to see it go too. It didn't have a menu that fit my dietary habits (I'm a veg), but I liked seeing their sign lit up at night.

durhamfood

Guglhupf, Fosters, Sitar India Palace, Twisted Noodles, Saladelia, Eastern Lights, Pao Lim, Nana's, Four Square, Tonali...all of these places are located in the general area where Starlu was.

Huh? Guglhupf, Fosters, Pao Lim, Nana's and Four Square are all in or near Lakewood, which is within the area Kevin mentioned, which is pretty far away from the Tonali/Twisted Noodle/Saladelia/Starlu area.

Of those, I wouldn't put Guglhupf, Fosters, Sitar, or Saladelia amongst the best food in Durham. Especially not Saladelia. I'm sure the veggies on here will want to shoot me, but I've never liked the place at all. The hummus is downright awful. As for Guglhupf, I've found them disappointing recently. Sitar is ok, but having lived in England, Indian food around here just doesn't compare to the stuff found in the Birmingham (England, not Alabama) area. Fosters just annoys me. I'm well-aware I'm in the minority there.

Tonali and Twisted Noodle are wonderful, but their location sucks. I must admit I haven't been to Eastern Lights.

My (overly-opinionated, as usual) 2 cents...

statolith

Not the same neighborhood, but the same general area. Of course, since I live sort of between Lakewood and South Square, it feels more like the same neighborhood than it would to someone who lived, say, in a more northern part of town.

Michael Bacon

DWhite: There's an odd attitude starting to float around the Durham food blogs recently -- that somehow talking about the goods and bads of local restaurants is disrespectful of the people who run them.

You say it's a very difficult labor of love, and a hard business to make it in. I won't argue with any of that. Still, that also applies to an awful lot of us who put a lot of heart and effort into doing our jobs, and we sometimes get criticized or critiqued.

I'm not trying to dance on Starlu's grave anyway -- it was a good restaurant, and I enjoyed my meals there. But what's wrong with discussing why it failed?

As far as my "who wants to drive out there?" comment, that was tongue-in-cheek. I find it funny that this area, seen as the new economic hub of Durham just 15 years ago, is now the passe neighborhood. But also, hardly anyone can get to Starlu without driving, and I don't like that.

durhamfood

Michael: Huh? I hope you weren't referring to CED with the disrespect comment. I do my best to put up straight opinions about restaurants, regardless of the people who run them. If you feel otherwise, please let me know, as it's very important to me to be as honest as possible in reviewing restaurants.

Celeste

I only got to go to Starlu once, and that was very recently (this month). I had heard really good things about the place and I was hoping that I could write a rave blogpost about it. But the food was really not good and way overpriced. Plus the place was almost empty, and this was a Saturday night.

I wish I had eaten there during its heyday, because many of my friends enjoyed the place. I can only assume that I got the end of things when it was falling apart. I hope that Sam Poley goes on to do other things in a more prominent location, and I'll be sure to try that one sooner.

B.C.Visitor

QUOTE, "As far as my "who wants to drive out there?" comment, that was tongue-in-cheek. I find it funny that this area, seen as the new economic hub of Durham just 15 years ago, is now the passe neighborhood. But also, hardly anyone can get to Starlu without driving, and I don't like that."

........

I don't always look who authors a post, so when I read your comment, Michael, about "who wants...", I actually thought you were serious, too. Had I read it was you who authored it, I would have gotten the jest since your posts are generally well thought out (and I have not found you resistant to contstructive criticism). Thanks for following up.

I had not heard of Starlu's before, so it's a shame to hear that others enjoyed it so and I'm gonna miss it (on the other hand, I'll avoid being sad as I won't know what I'm missing either). Who knows, maybe they would have done well downtown? Could they? Are there any business incentives for existing for potential restauranteurs in the downtown area? I'd love to see more setup down there. It's a great walking area, downtown.

barry

"Are there any business incentives for existing for potential restauranteurs in the downtown area? I'd love to see more setup down there."

Are you sure you want to go there? (discussing incentives for moving downtown, that is, not downtown itself)

B.C.Visitor

It sounds like my question is one that potentially could open of a can of worms. Didn't mean to do that, Barry, but would love to go there in a separate installment so as not to hijack the response here. Didn't mean to do it by asking the question. I just like the downtown area and have enjoyed walking it. Although I would love even more to stop walking and start sitting around in some nice, cool, casual or upbeat eating and drinking venues while admiring the Durham downtown area.

I apologize, Barry, but I am not entirely understanding the comment you noted in parentheses. But it sounds like a good subject matter to blog about if it hasn't been done already. :)

durhamfood

"Although I would love even more to stop walking and start sitting around in some nice, cool, casual or upbeat eating and drinking venues while admiring the Durham downtown area."

Are you joking? There are tons of really great places to eat and drink downtown.

JB

Shame. I think the comment about maybe it only going downhill recently was probably correct, and maybe a result of the lack of business. I ate there maybe a half dozen times. The first experiences were fantastic. Sam is a terrifically nice guy and was always happy to make us something vegan (I'm not sure why a vegetarian wouldn't eat there). Our waitress would actually remember us and our drink orders after only a couple visits and if you stayed around long enough you'd notice that Sam came out of the kitchen a lot to talk to customers. The last time we went though was not nearly as good. We weren't inclined to hurry back after that. I'll try another restaurant of Sam's if one opens up. ...and hey...who doesn't want just a little bit of Manhattan in Durham anyway? ;)

--Lisa S.

Durham has some really good eats, but they are all rather centrally located, to my SOUTH Durham view. (I live near Southpoint Mall and, hey, I was here for years before it was.)

I really DO have to drive to get to the tasty places--in Durham, Chapel Hill, or Raleigh. Got a Target down here; now I'm ready for Whole Foods and a decent restaurant! Not that I don't appreciate our Hairy Teeter....

Barry

Visitor - if you ever run into John Schelp while walking around town, try to casually ask whether or not there are incentives available for businesses moving downtown. i guarantee a lively discussion will follow.

Michael Bacon

John will probably be along soon around these parts anyway... ;)

DF: No, not referring to CED, at least, not in the sense that you're asking. I'm talking about the people who whine about blogs like yours.

durhamfood

Michael: Ah, good. I was getting worried there!

James

JB et al-
As mentioned in the piece, definitely try City Beverage if you haven't already. Probably the best place in the Southern Durham/Southpoint/Woodcroft area.

Another one to try is Bocci Trattoria and Pizzeria: http://www.bocciitalian.com
Not gourmet, but definitely better than the chain italian places you'll find down our way. Try the Nonna's Pizza with meatballs... excellent. My biggest complaint with Bocci is that they have no draft beer.

James

last comment should have been addressed to Lisa S. et al.

I was looking at the posted by: info from above, not below...

John Schelp

I've enjoyed more than 15 Starlu meals at Preservation Durham's popular lunch series and am very sorry to see it close. The Starlu folks were always kind and considerate. And the food was delicious.

We should absolutely not use our taxpayer dollars for incentives to move Guglhupf, Fosters, Sitar India Palace, Twisted Noodles, Saladelia, Eastern Lights, Pao Lim, Four Square, Tonali, City Beverage, Bocci Trattoria or Nana's to a downtown location like American Tobacco.

Our neighborhood exposed that foolishness when people benefiting from a boatload of taxpayer subsidies tried to recruit Magnolia Grill to move to AmTob. (To move, not to expand.)

If a shopping strip in southern Durham recruits Pao Lim, that's life. But, our taxpayer dollars shouldn't be used to recruit businesses from one part of Durham to another -- especially when the signed agreement specifically states that the public funding is for "economic development and job creation."

Think of the small business person who finds a vacant space next door -- and then learns that his/her taxes were used to actively encourage that restaurant to pick up and move down the road.

Even the most blind supporters of DDI and Capitol Broadcasting have to see how this un-neighborly act has created needless ill will in the community.

In the end, we were able to stop this nonsense and celebrate a victory for common sense. :)

Jack

C'mon, there's some really good eats in SoDu, they just aren't necessarily "fine dining" places. Bocci (mentioned above) is a fave, I've heard Nantucket Grille is nice (they're at least good enough to have opened a second location), Pulcinella's holds it's own, Orient Garden is respectable, the Korean place at 55 & 54 is good (mmm.... Baby Goat Soup), Dillards has wonderful bbq, Baba Ghannouj is great when you're feeling falafel-y, Sarah's Empanadas is fun and some people swear by Spice & Curry, while I prefer Tandoor.

And, six of those places are easily bikeable from my humble Woodcroft abode (gods bless the ATT).

Elizabeth T.

Thank you, Mr. Schelp! Wonderful comments.

anon

Shiki Sushi has the best sushi in Durham (54 & Fayetteville). They recently expanded and went for more of a PF Changs' decor, which in my opinion took away from the restaurant's neighborhood feel, but the sushi is still excellent. I think they are somehow related to the owners of Mt. Fuji downtown, but I think Shiki's food is a little better. Kirin on draft.

durhamfood

"Pulcinella's holds it's own, ..., the Korean place at 55 & 54 is good (mmm.... Baby Goat Soup)"

Yes, those two are both good. There are actually two Korean places on 54/55 intersection: Chosun Ok and Vit Goal Tofu. Both lovely.

I'm not a fan of Baba Ghannouj, nor it is in South Durham - it's next to Duke (unless there are two?). Being from the Middle East, I have crazy-high standards for ME food, and neither International Delights nor BG are up to scratch.

keith

For good hummus and great BG, check out Venus in the home depot shopping center on 15-501 by 40. It's not an ideal location, but it is a friendly, family-owned restaurant.

On another note, no one here has brought up the planned redevelopment of the shopping center that now houses little more than Sitar. Does the closing of starlu's have any implications? Or is this just the case of a restaurant closing?

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