This trio became the petite downtown eatery’s recipe for success as it emerged from a two-year hiatus
By Renee Ambroso | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Elizabeth Murray was ready for a change. She led a small army of staff as the executive chef at Sierra Mar, the restaurant attached to the luxurious Post Ranch Inn on the coast of Big Sur, California, but found herself itching to “go somewhere littler – pun intended.”
Her perfect match awaited at Littler, a 36-seat hidden gem on Parrish Street. “Elizabeth just felt like the right fit from the first conversation we had,” says Gray Brooks, who co-owns the restaurant with Cara Stacy and Jay Owens. The Blowing Rock native packed her bags and left the California sunshine for her home state last December – a transition that was, she admits, shocking considering the change in scale of her role. Still, she was eager to bring her own spin to the intimate eatery, and found a “like-minded” partner in general manager Adrienne Stacy, who’s overseen Littler’s daily operations since 2016. Elizabeth dove headfirst into collaboration with Gray on a reimagined menu that would bring the restaurant’s long-standing farm-to-table philosophy into a new era.
Elizabeth wasn’t the only new face to greet diners when Littler’s long-anticipated reopening took place in March after a two-year hiatus, which was broken only by intermittent periods of takeout meals and to-go “provisions” boxes. Pastry chef Tanya Matta is a fresh talent to some, but many Durhamites recall the tempting hand pies, scones and cupcakes – not to mention the breakfast, brunch and lunch options – she crafted as the proprietor of DaisyCakes. Tanya sold the Foster Street business in 2015 and moved on to work as the executive pastry chef at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club before filling roles at restaurants across the country. She joined the LittleJackToro restaurant group in August 2021 to head the pastry program at Pizzeria Toro, Jack Tar & The Colonel’s Daughter and Littler.
“We’re really fortunate to have someone who can craft desserts that match what the team [at Littler] is doing,” Gray says. “It’s such a high bar.” And what they’re doing, evidenced by an ever-full roster of reservations, is knocking people’s socks off. Elizabeth, Tanya and Adrienne all characterize Littler the same way: an intimate space that you stumble upon and encounter a meal that’s revelatory.
The warm yellow lighting in the small space contrasts dark tabletops and a huge achromatic Harrison Haynes photograph that covers one of the walls. The murmur of an analog sound system wafts over the bar and dining room, all a backdrop for the seasonally shifting menu. Elizabeth says with every dinner service – which includes Tuesday evenings as of the end of May – she hopes that “something will surprise [guests] at some point in the meal.”
Her creative, elevated dishes, like the smoked duck breast resting on a bed of barley with orange-sorghum vinaigrette and ramp aioli, accompany Littler staples including the lamb burger on toasted house brioche with arugula and a warm kashkaval cheese-and-potato salad. Bounty from Piedmont Microgreens, among other local growers, frequently finds its way into dishes that evolve as the seasons progress. Her halibut with Parmesan broth and potato puree, Elizabeth says, began “in the spring [utilizing] ramps and green garlic in the puree with asparagus and snap peas,” and morphed into a summer-forward dish as pattypan squash and cherry tomatoes rolled in at the Durham Farmers Market, where Gray shops for produce each week. Tanya’s fruit-filled desserts – unique from what she creates for Pizzeria Toro and Jack Tar – finish off meals in a crescendo of vibrant color.
Littler is “approachable, but also pushing the envelope a bit,”Tanya says.“I’d even say it’s a little punk rock,” Elizabeth adds. They’ve only served diners together for a handful of months, but Littler’s new team already lean on one another’s talents and experiences to push past challenges like finding adequate front- and back-of-house staff, which, Elizabeth says, has been their biggest obstacle so far. There’s a sense of collective care and intentionality among the trifecta.
“Each one of us … [has] that dedication, care, talent, craft and knowledge,” Adrienne says. “I think that it’s evident.”Together, she says, they’re tackling higher traffic than the restaurant has ever seen. “Our guests have been so gracious and loyal,” Gray says. “… We’re so fortunate they stuck with us. [Reopening] felt like having someone close to you come home after a long time away.”
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