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Durham’s Farm-Inspired Cocktail Bar Is Finally Open

Kingfisher opens doors with a cocktail called, Are You Open Yet?

Scott Myers

Anticipated bar Kingfisher opened this past Wednesday, July 31, at 321 E. Chapel Hill Street in Durham, North Carolina. Husband-and-wife team Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker turned a former vacant basement into the city’s latest cocktail lounge.

A neon-lit sign of a kingfisher bird — inspiration behind the bar’s name — is perched on the exterior brick wall to signal its entrance. What feels like doors at a at a doctor’s office entryway lead guests downstairs to a final doorway, opening into Kingfisher — a dimly lit room that feels much like a cozy den.

The concept is a result of the duo’s bartender and industry experience, coupled with Vanderwalker’s artist background. “It’s a collection of two people’s passions combined into one unified space,” says Umstead. Everything is intentional, but without trying too hard.

The 12-seat horseshoe-shaped bar was thoughtfully designed with community interaction in mind. Vanderwalker bursts out laughing when asked how many hours were clocked in creation of the hand-tiled bar. “Months and months of agony,” she jokes.

Vanderwalker is also responsible for the interior design and design elements throughout the space, such as the bar’s ceramic plates and drinking vessels. The slip-cast tiki mugs are adorned with her great-grandfather’s stencils. Works of local Durham artists and makers are part of the overall aesthetic, too, including handcrafted leather menu covers by Margaret Hennessey and tables designed by Eric Smith.

The lounge area is equipped to seat up to 60 people and includes several booths — with textured, turquoise curtains to add in an element of privacy — that can be reserved for larger groups. As for the remainder of the space, Vanderwalker’s intent was to spark curiosity and encourage people to explore and wander throughout the space, and to “touch everything.”

Umstead, who launched the bar program at Counting House, inside the 21c Museum Hotel in Durham, and most previously served as the general manager at St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar in Raleigh, strives to bring a new approach drinking in the triangle by way of farm-driven cocktails. Produce is sourced from local area farmers, highlighted in the menu, in effort to use seasonal ingredients in cocktails, just as chefs do in food recipes.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about soda water,” Umstead says “There will be a lot of soda water in cocktails.” For example, Are You Open Yet? is composed of vermouth, Jeddah’s dallo tea, and soda — a nod to the frequent questioning from locals and neighborhood friends on an opening date for both Kingfisher and Jeddah’s Tea (opening fall 2019)

Jars of preserved and pickled fruits and vegetables double as both cocktail ingredients and bar back decor. The Tomato Gibson, a mysterious, clear liquid with a pickled red onion in the middle, is like summer in a glass. Tomato water (not to be confused with tomato juice), basil and gin make up this drink, which Umstead notes is perhaps the most intriguing cocktail on the menu right now. Preserved strawberries translate into enjoying the hyped Strawberry Daiquiri all year long, while the duo is already brainstorming on warm weather cocktails that involve fruit butter.

Umstead turned to chef Joel Schroeter (previously at Mandolin in Raleigh and opening Old North Meat & Provisions in the Durham Food Hall in 2019) for snack menu development. “Grilled cheese is our MO,” says Umstead, of the melty Ashe Co. Cheddar sandwiched between Ninth Street Bakery white bread. On the lighter side, perfectly textured field pea hummus and Martini spiced olives, that “taste like an actual Martini” await.

In the coming months, Umstead and Vanderwalker will highlight guest bartenders and “farm tenders” on rotation. On August 14, Joe Stinchcomb of Saint Leo Lounge in Oxford, Mississippi, will showcase a series of cocktails he designed for Saint Leo. Artist Leah Smith will also kick off Kingfisher’s rotating art installment on August 16, in conjunction with Third Friday Durham.

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