Think about it for a moment. When was the last time you were in a dining room with carpet on the floors?
When was the last time you didn’t hear the polished wood creaking with your footsteps or your heels clacking on the tile? Where the journey through the front door to your table was just the soft, padded murmur of your shoes?
It’s possible it was at grandma’s house.
It will soon be possible again at the newly reopened and resurrected Nanas in Durham — a kind of culinary time machine with carpeted floors, banquettes of velvet and leather and a menu that taps into a current of timelessness through the canon of restaurant classics.
Nanas is the latest restaurant from Durham chef and James Beard nominee Matt Kelly, who purchased the restaurant and building last year from longtime owner and chef Scott Howell. Kelly and chef de cuisine Nate Garyantes will reopen the new Nanas on Dec. 12.
“This is a legacy restaurant,” Garyantes said. “The torch has been handed over, we’re continuing and honoring this place and how special it is.”
For a quarter century, Nana’s was founder and chef Scott Howell’s destination restaurant in the sleepy Rockwood neighborhood of Durham. Howell collected eight James Beard semifinalists mentions in that time, while Nana’s was one of the Triangle’s most adored dining rooms
Kelly struck the apostrophe from Nana’s, making it the universal Nanas, an ode not just to Howell’s grandmother, but to all the grandmothers out there, and to the meals of warmth and meaning — even if it was just Kraft mac and cheese at the kitchen table.
In the weeks leading up reopening Nanas, plastic still wrapped the chairs and carpet as the pieces of the restaurant were still being stitched together. As Kelly looked for a place to sit for an interview, someone offered to pull back the plastic and unveil a bright blue velvet seat.
“No man, my grandma had plastic on her (stuff),” Kelly said. “It’s cool, Grandma had plastic on her (stuff).”
From Nana’s to Nanas
The old Nana’s was one of North Carolina’s most important restaurants, certainly of its time, with Howell shouting into the the national dining conversation from his small and bustling Durham dining room. Together with its crosstown peer Magnolia Grill, from married couple and James Beard winners Ben and the late Karen Barker, Durham had a pair of restaurants as fine as any city in America.
And then after 25-year runs, each closed, Magnolia Grill in 2012 and Nana’s in 2020. To Kelly, the absence left Durham without a culinary anchor.
“Two monsters of that arena are no longer here,” Kelly said, referencing the closings of Durham’s flagship restaurants Magnolia Grill and Nana’s. “We didn’t see Durham having that restaurant. I thought it was important and it’s a conversation I could continue.”
In a way, Kelly’s career is built on continuing that conversation. His rise to prominence in Durham’s food scene started at Vin Rouge, the classic French brasserie owned by Giorgios Bakatsias, where Kelly was eventually made a partner. Today it remains one of Durham’s most popular restaurants, serving spot-on steak frites and chocolate mousse dipped tableside from a large terrine.
For his first restaurant, Kelly opened Mateo in 2012, serving a menu of Spanish tapas, where diners found the thrill of crushed tomato served on toasted bread and topped with olive oil and salt, bite-sized chicken croquettes dotted with fiery honey, and shallow pans of paella studded with shrimp and mussels on a bed of golden rice.
He then opened the Italian trattoria Mothers & Sons, built on fresh, handmade pasta and a dining room warmed by a live fire. And then the ill-fated Saint James Seafood, which put crispy Calabash-style platters of fried flounder and scallops on the same footing as shellfish towers of oysters and crab legs.
In each, Kelly’s interest is food that stands the test of time, that has side-stepped the arc of taste and trend and endured simply because it’s been cherished forever.
“The foundations were started a long time ago, whether a grandmother in the kitchen feeding their grandchild, or Escoffier and so forth,” Kelly said. “It’s just old world cooking. We’re going to carry that on.”
When wrestling with what a restaurant should and shouldn’t be, Kelly seems most at odds, most annoyed, with the social media age of dining — of Instagram Stories and phone flashes going off in the dining room, of a digital dance that often has very little to do with a meal.
A chef to build on a restaurant’s legacy
In Nanas, he’s inherited and built on to a restaurant legacy that seems to reach back in time.
“What we do is not Windows, where it’s going to be obsolete at a certain time,” Kelly said. “This is about continuing to practice things that have been done for a very long time. We’re not just constantly bowing down to trends, we’re keeping up with tradition.”
With Garyantes at the nightly helm at Nanas, the restaurant has a chef whose career includes the heights of trend and tradition.
“Scott Howell and the Barkers put Durham on the map, culinarily speaking,” Garyantes said. “Matt and I came up in the same time period as cooks. Those people that paved the way mean a lot to us, they allow us to do what we do for a living....I mean, it would have really sucked for this place to turn into a Starbucks. There’s too much of that happening.”
Garyantes moved to North Carolina a decade ago, after working for years in several high profile restaurants in Washington, DC, including as chef de cuisine at José Andrés’ minibar, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant considered one of the world’s top temples of molecular gastronomy. At minibar, Garyantes cooked for only a dozen diners a night, serving a 30 course meal of avant garde dishes famous for foams and gels and wondrous flavor combinations.
Since 2015 Garyantes has been the chef de cuisine at Mateo, Kelly’s Spanish tapas restaurant in downtown Durham, which helped kick off the city’s dining resurgence of the last decade.
Nanas menu: Old favorites, new twists
In Nanas, Garyantes will steer a menu and experience that could not be more different than a restaurant like minibar, where the dishes could rarely resemble familiar versions of the same food.
“Simple is not easy,” Garyantes said. “There’s nothing harder in the world than simple.”
Garyantes believes the new Nanas will be know for the way diners feel within its walls as much as the food on the plate.
“You can build the biggest Instagrammable restaurant, but if you don’t have great service and you don’t feel like you’re taken care of, you’ll never go back there again,” Garyantes said. “We’re excited about bringing back some of the items that were really popular here, but using our own skill and knowledge and executing them through our eyes.”
That includes two of the old Nana’s signatures: the chicken liver terrine, now served with onion marmalade; and pickled vegetables and grilled toast points from Boulted Bread. There will be roast chicken and whole roasted fish, and a dry-aged duck ragu with tagliatelle pasta made with rye and malt flours.
Sweets are snagged from the dessert canon: tiramasu served in a Champagne coupe, chocolate souffle with hot fudge and boozy caramel ice cream, and a soft serve machine expected to churn 400 or so different flavors, Kelly and Garyantes said.
Yes, there will be risotto
Risotto was one of Scott Howell’s most popular dishes at his Nana’s. It never left the menu — and it never will.
As cooks and chefs, Garyantes and Kelly said there were times in their careers where they hoped their risotto days were behind them.
“We’ve cooked a lot of risotto in our lives, and you get to a point where you don’t want to ever cook risotto again,” Garyantes said. “But now I’m excited to cook risotto again.”
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to keep the wheel going.”