Called the “The Foodie Capital of the South,” by the New York Post, Durham is a bona fide culinary destination, and luckily, it’s just a short drive away. On your next trip to the Bull City, consider ducking into Alley Twenty Six, an upscale food-and-spirits haunt that’s become a go-to hotspot.
Alley Twenty Six is a posh-yet-comfortable hangout that pairs exquisitely crafted mixed drinks with artfully composed cuisine.
“We’re a cocktail bar and restaurant for guests aged 21 and up,” said founder and proprietor Shannon Healy. “Our primary demographic is people 35 to 65.”
Following a decade as general manager and head bartender at Chapel Hill mainstay Crook’s Corner, Healy opened Alley Twenty Six as a drinking establishment in 2012. Five years later he expanded to the adjoining space, adding a dining room, an open kitchen and seasoned chef Carrie Schleiffer.
“I knew Carrie from her previous gigs in Chapel Hill and Durham, and her food has always been fantastic,” Healy said.
Everything happens in a former furniture store building constructed in 1923. Vintage wooden flooring serves as the foundation for cozily arranged tables and chairs and two easily accessible bar areas.
When it comes to the cocktails, more than a dozen selections are offered on the ever-changing menu. While he doesn’t necessarily call himself a purist, Healy’s mixology combines a dignified respect for tradition with a fresh retelling of the tried and true.
“I’m a believer in never making a drink that is more than two degrees of separation away from a classic,” he said. “There are already enough other historical reenactments here in the South. We don’t need that with our cocktails, too. Technique and attention to detail are as important as the recipes.”
With thoughtful presentation, timing and care, each distinctive libation is more than a sum of its parts when crafted by skilled and knowledgeable bartenders. The eponymous signature cocktail contains Wild Turkey 101, dry vermouth, Cynar, Luxardo, celery bitters and flamed lemon coin.
Order from the featured cocktail menu or try a new twist on a classic. Either way you’ll taste and appreciate quality spirits enhanced by choice, hand-selected ingredients. Their myriad syrups are all housemade, and even non-alcoholic drinks like ginger ale are also concocted from scratch.
“Our bartenders can make drinks according to your whim,” Healey said. “If we have the products on the premises and it’s a real drink, we can make it.”
As for the food, Schleiffer’s constantly evolving bill of fare includes shareable snacks like pimento cheese, marinated olives and the jar of pickles, which features seasonal pickled fruits and vegetables. Small plates run the gamut from cornmeal-crusted fried oysters to lime-tinged scallop crudo with jalapeno, ginger, watermelon gazpacho and microgreens. If you’re in the mood for artisan cheese and cured meats, charcuterie plates are consistently on point.
Entrees such as braised pork and a spicy lobster roll are noteworthy, but the star of the show is the namesake burger. It features black truffle cheddar, bourbon bacon jam, chipotle aioli and arugula (add foie gras torchon if you wish). Each burger comes accompanied with hand-cut, garlic-inflected fries.
And yes, it’s as epic as it sounds.
“We grind our own beef in house with a mixture of chuck and brisket,” said Schleiffer, who received formal training at New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education. “By far, the burger is our biggest selling menu item. We serve it from rare all the way to well done.”
A small open kitchen at the back of the dining room offers patrons a glimpse into the preparation and cooking.
“It’s important for people to see where their food comes from, and I also enjoy interacting with the guests,” Schleiffer said, adding that she procures most ingredients locally. “We don’t claim to be farm to fork, but do practice responsible sourcing.”
She and Healy collaborate often on food and drink pairings.
“We want people to have a superb experience when they come in, so it’s important for us to be purposeful about the pairings,” said Schleiffer.
Alley’s bar side is open seven days a week from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., while the main dining room serves food from 5:30 to 11 p.m. daily. Late-night food specials are available until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Alley Twenty Six accepts reservations online or by phone, and the most current menus are available on the website.
Alley Twenty Six
320 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham