Cobbled streets, an imposing castle and romantic bridges make Durham a worthy UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with can't-miss things to do—but it is the best Durham restaurants that will truly impress you. Go high-end with views of the River Wear or dig into a dirty burger in the studenty Viaduct area. Durham has a compact centre because of how the river hairpins through the city, which means many of the best places to eat sit along Saddler Street and around the castle.
Best Durham restaurants
Why go? To impress a loved one with some of Durham’s best French-inspired food in a cosy location.
Now based in Aykley Heads House, Finbarr’s is in a former farmhouse that’s just five minutes from the station, but its pretty little courtyard makes it feel more secluded. The three-course fixed-price menu is good value. Ingredients are local wherever possible, like the Ribblesdale goats curd and Yorkshire asparagus tart, Northumbrian steak and Lintz Hall Farm eggs. High-end.
Why go? For international fine dining in a thirteenth-century cellar conversion with stunning views of the river Wear and Elvet Bridge.
Find your way through an inconspicuous door on Saddler Street and down a narrow flight of stairs and you’ll be rewarded with a seasonal, locally sourced menu that touches cuisines from around the world, including Northumberland smoked gnocchi, tandoori chicken thighs, and crispy mung bean fritters. High-end.
Why go? It’s worth the 30-minute drive south of Durham for this two-Michelin-star tasting menu.
Self-taught chef James Close cooks theatrical, yet seasonal and simple food. The only options on offer for lunch or dinner are a 12- or 15-course tasting menu where each course transforms a single ingredient into a dazzling dish. If you can, book the kitchen table to see the chef at work. Look out for the signature skull and Buddha dessert too. Blow-out.
Why go? For a special dinner with views, candlelight and a modern European menu.
With riverside views of the historic Elvet bridge, this restaurant has the perfect picture-postcard Durham location. Food, including roasted duck breast with duck leg ‘sausage’ roll, Thai Penang chicken curry and chargrilled steaks, is seasonal and artfully arranged. Mid-range/high-end.
Why go? To treat the family to a pub lunch with a difference.
With ramshackle country furniture and cosy nooks, Garden House Inn feels like a real pub – but the head chef is Ruari MacKay, who was behind Durham’s much-lauded (but now closed) Bistro 21. So what you'll find is pub food (lobster sandwich, cheeseburgers, or beef with dumplings) executed with a touch of fine-dining finesse. Especially the haggis scotch egg. Mid-range.
Why go? To meet friends for a generous slice of cake or a doorstop sandwich.
Vennel’s does a proper lunch, including corned beef and potato pie, quiche of the day and crispy jacket potatoes. Enter from a narrow alleyway (or vennel) off Saddler Street to find hops hanging from the ceiling, with crooked wooden beams, converted treadle tables and original fireplaces creating a ramshackle feel. Mid-range.
Why go? For excellent small plates and even better coffee.
During the day, Flat White is famous for its coffee and killer brunches. But it also does after-hours small plates from 6.30- 9.30pm Thursday to Saturdays featuring Thai-style crispy pork belly and watermelon salad, Korean quail, or buttermilk panna cotta with brioche. Visit its sister coffee shop, Flat White Café on Elvet Bridge too. Mid-range.
Why go? To celebrate a special occasion in a beautifully restored red-brick building.
Old Shire Hall has been converted into Hotel Indigo, featuring Marco Pierre White’s Steakhouse. The intimate round booths that comprise the multi-level seating echo the circular room and domed roof. This upmarket restaurant brings MPW’s attention to detail to classics like fish pie, roast pork belly, baked Camembert and its signature 35-day aged steaks. Mid-range/high-end.
Why go? To forgo the diet and sink your teeth into Durham’s dirtiest burgers.
With cool hanging light bulbs and an exposed brick interior, this has to be Durham’s hippest place to get burger juice all over your face. Mile-high beef, chicken or vegan burgers come on metal trays, complete with wedge-cut chips and trimmings. Drinks are just as epic, with alcohol-laden slushies and shakes. Mid-range.
Why go? To treat yourself to breakfast or lunch in the shadow of the castle.
With a terrace overlooking the river and the cathedral bells ringing next door, you couldn’t get a more central location for a traditional afternoon tea. Thoughtful touches include picnic packed lunches and a free pork sausage for every dog who pops in with its owner. Mid-range.
Why go? To eat straightforward award-winning fish and chips for Friday night supper.
With three locations around town, Bell’s is the best place to get your chip butty or battered cod. Portions are massive and fried in beef dripping – so not for the faint-hearted. There are great views of Durham’s historic marketplace from the main branch so you can watch the world go by over mushy peas. Mid-range.
Why go? For Indian fine dining in a spectacular converted pumphouse.
Just ten minutes out of town down a farm lane, this friendly Indian restaurant serves tandoori grill platters of juicy lamb tikka, sheek kebabs and king prawns, as well as south Indian thali, Goan lamb and Bhuna-style mushori chicken. The mezzanine feels glamorous (maybe it’s the chandeliers and mirrors). Mid-range/high-end.
Why go? For family-style Turkish feasting just minutes from the castle.
If you can forgive the slightly kitsch decor and Turkish lights, Akarsu is a hidden gem. Its hot and cold meze include Muska boregi crisp feta cheese triangles, sucuk spicy Turkish sausage and clay-cooked prawn guvec. It doesn’t matter how big your table is, there will never be enough space for everything you order. Mid-range.
Why go? To take a tea break from sightseeing in a cute little café.
With 24 blends of loose-leaf tea served in elegant fine bone china teacups, this is the place to have a cuppa in Durham. You can’t miss its distinctive pastel blue exterior, and you definitely shouldn’t miss its homemade scones, toasted teacakes and sandwiches made to order. It also does a cracking high tea. Mid-range.
Why go? For a romantic date with a difference.
If you like kitsch you’ll love the decor at the Town House – it has leopard-print carpet, heavy draped curtains and tassel-trimmed chairs. This place specialises in steaks and old-school classics like Chateaubriand, scallop, beef carpaccio and prawn cocktail. And it’s part of a plush hotel with private hot tubs. High-end.
Why go? Vegan food with attitude.
This vegan and vegetarian street food stall travels all over the northeast, but on Saturdays you can find The Green Guerrilla at Durham’s Victorian indoor market hall. As well as a variety of impeccably iced vegan cakes and sweets, they offer pizza pies, seitan kebabs, heaped salads, veggie sausage rolls and much more. Budget.
Why go? Italian cuisine on a budget.
While the restaurant is only open until 10.30pm, there's a bar upstairs that keeps going until 2am, which makes Spags a pretty handy first date venue. Especially if you're looking for fun, as this place has quite the relaxed atmosphere. The servings are large, if not the best presented, and you can order a pizza with spaghetti as one of the toppings. Budget.
Why go? To get rowdy with your enchiladas and Texas two-step rack of ribs.
Locals and students don their sombreros at Tia’s family-run Mexican restaurant, which has been feeding Durham fajitas for more than 20 years. Famous for its frozen margaritas and speciality tequilas, it has a Tex-Mex vibe with chimichangas, nachos, Acapulco chicken and gamberoni dishes. There’s a vegan and gluten-free menu too. Mid-range.
Why go? Contemporary Thai dining in a historic city.
If you're with all the family or a big group of mates with a hankering for Thai food, then Zen is the perfect place to head. They have large, inviting curved booths, sharing plates called 'Thaipas' and even a fully-grown cherry blossom tree indoors, which is something to marvel at if nothing else. You'll find all your typical Thai dishes here, plus some modern Pan-Asian bites. Mid-range.
Why go? How often can you say you've dined in a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
The finger sandwiches at Durham Cathedral's restaurant are so good they've won awards. If that isn't reason enough to go, then consider the fact that no trip to the cathedral would be complete without a stop-off at the west cloister. Sat beneath the stunning vaulted ceiling, you can enjoy County Durham toasted teacakes or Cumberland sausage sarnies. They also serve afternoon tea in the Monk's Garden. Mid-range.
Why go? To forget the tourist trail and lose yourself in Durham’s only comics and gaming café.
Stop medieval sightseeing, and play a game of Dungeons and Dragons at Dark Matter café instead. Food is straightforward and good value, including burgers, cheese and pickle or meatball and gravy sandwiches (among others) and snacks. But people really come for the 8,500 video and board games at this inclusive, friendly café. Budget.