Today, Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker open the highly anticipated Kingfisher in downtown Durham. At this intimate cocktail bar located next to The Durham Hotel at 321 East Chapel Hill Street, Umstead takes a chef’s approach, elevating North Carolina’s fruits and vegetables to star status, and artfully serving them in Vanderwalker’s hand-thrown ceramics. From one-of-a-kind ground-to-glass cocktails, hand-cut ice, farm-driven small plates, and a cozy interior in “America’s Foodiest Small Town,” Kingfisher is a refreshing reflection of the couple’s North Carolina home. Named after the distinctive birds who can be seen along the banks of North Carolina’s rivers, Kingfisher aims to be a unique, fascinating presence in Durham. Kingfisher is open Tuesday through Saturday from 4:30 until midnight, and will be open nightly beginning this Fall.

The cocktails

Umstead’s craft cocktails offer a rare view into each season through innovative preparations. Fresh Blacktail Watermelon mixes with Campari, vermouth, soda, and basil for a summery play on a negroni in Water World. Strawberries picked at their peak at Lil Farm have been preserved in various ways for use in cocktails throughout the year, as in the Strawberry Daiquiri with preserves on the opening menu; winter versions will incorporate Umstead’s strawberry vinegar and pickled strawberries. Also on Kingfisher’s opening menu, Bee Durham offers Durham Distillery’s Conniption Navy Strength Gin washed in bee’s wax from the Durham Farmer’s Market, finished with creamed honey and lemon for a local spin on the prohibition classic, Bee’s Knees –created in celebration of Durham’s 150th anniversary.

In an effort to collaborate with farmers on their initiatives, Umstead will be serving Queen George’s Highball in an effort to showcase the ginger syrup Lil Farm produces from their ginger, combined with his own turmeric soda, apple cider vinegar, and Wild Turkey, for a Bourbon & Ginger that is uniquely Durham-focused. Umstead’s fruit and vegetable-forward cocktails lend well to low or non-alcoholic drinks, as highlighted by Food & Wine. A spirit-free cocktail on his opening menu includes Hot Thyme in the Summertime with juniper, thyme, lemon, and soda. In addition to Kingfisher’s seasonal cocktail menu, a small wine and beer list round out the menu.

The food

Umstead tapped Chef Joel Schroeter to consult on the menu of snacks and small plates which thoughtfully adhere to the same idea, showcasing what’s in season, and grown and raised nearby. The kitchen and bar share quite a bit, from the pickled fruits and vegetables to the martini olives infused with gin botanicals like juniper and citrus. Local meats and cheeses provide hearty snacks, like “bougie” – a grilled cheese with Chapel Hill Creamery’s Hickory Grove, brisket marmalade and pickled red onions. This farm-driven fare comes naturally to Schroeter, who is formerly of Mandolin in Raleigh and opening Old North Meat & Provisions in The Durham Food Hall, where these cured meats and pickled vegetables will re-emerge. To end, a daily pie will be available from East Durham Bake Shop, as well as their breads and buns.

The decor

Michelle Vanderwalker is responsible for every interior detail of this cozy cocktail den – with relaxed lounge seating for 60, including semi-private booths, cocktail tables and a horseshoe-shaped bar for 12. Kingfisher’s design nods to the couple’s honed sensibility and Vanderwalker’s artistic background as a ceramic artist, and will feature her ceramic dishes exclusively (and these will be available for sale) as well as her skillful work in the curved, hand-tiled bar and table lamps. Photographs and paintings created by her father and grandmother decorate the walls and are among the many personal, artisan details. Vanderwalker also features the work of Durham makers, including tables made by Eric Smith and handcrafted leather menu covers by Margaret Hennessey. In the coming months, Kingfisher will also offer seating on the backyard patio, near the back alley entrance.

Creating community

Umstead has opened Kingfisher with the goal of creating community. Plans are underway to bring guest bartenders to Kingfisher, as well as “Farmtenders.” On August 15th, Umstead will welcome Joe Stinchcomb of Saint Leo Lounge in Oxford, Mississippi for an opportunity to share the meaningful cocktails he’s designed for Saint Leo, including the controversial ones he developed for Black History Month. Umstead looks forward to regularly hosting farmers behind the bar at Kingfisher this Fall, to offer yet another opportunity to meet and connect with the people and the farms whose produce is in the cocktails. And on August 16th, Kingfisher will introduce their first North Carolina artist – Leah Smith – with an installation in Kingfisher’s gallery on August 16th, in conjunction with Third Friday Durham.

Umstead’s original cocktail recipes have received national attention. Wine Enthusiast shared his oyster shell-washed Mint Julep and his Oaxacan Bell made with green peppers and mezcal was in The Wall Street JournalPUNCH celebrated Vanderwalker’s ceramics in a feature on ceramics in bars.

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Katelyn Belch
Author: Katelyn Belch

Founder of Best of the Bull and Shop Durham. It’s my chief goal to keep you in the know about all things Durham.