These restaurants remain popular spots to start the day, 20-plus years later
By Matthew Lardie | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Rise and shine, it’s breakfast time! The Bull City has no shortage of options when it comes to grabbing your morning cup of joe or omelet, but there are three iconic and beloved spots that have remained a steady, and delicious, presence in our restaurant scene for more than two decades. South Durham mainstay Bean Traders has kept folks caffeinated going on 23 years now. Guglhupf Bakery, Cafe & Biergarten brought a touch of Europe to Durham when it opened 25 years ago. And on Ninth Street, Elmo’s Diner has been a favorite of bleary-eyed N.C. School of Science and Math and Duke University students and early risers for more than 26 years.
Ask anyone in Durham where you should go for breakfast, and there’s a good chance that answer will be “Elmo’s.” The Ninth Street anchor has fed hungry Durhamites for more than a quarter century and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Owners Cammie Brantley and her husband, Wayne Hodges, are still involved in the diner but passed the reins of day-to-day operations to their co-owners, Amy Testa and Mark Schueler. What made Elmo’s successful back in 1997, they say, continues to help it thrive today.
“We have always tried to be an upbeat restaurant where both regulars and new customers are given the same warm, friendly service,” Mark says. “We have many longtime staff members, and their talents and dedication have helped Elmo’s be the success that it is today,” Amy adds.
Speaking of familiar waitstaff, Elmo’s has been around so long that young customers have grown up to be employees. “We have some folks on staff now who first came to Elmo’s as babies,” Mark says. The owners have also witnessed entire families growing and changing. “We have so many multigenerational customers who we celebrate life events with; it is both joyous and sometimes painful,” Amy says. “Just recently one of our customers was picking up takeout and shared a picture of her new grandson, who is the child of one of our former servers.
“I suspect that we are Durham’s version of the six degrees of separation, but with fewer degrees,” Cammie laughs. “I think at the most you only need three degrees of separation to find someone locally who has either worked at Elmo’s or eats with us regularly.
“We have a quilt that a regular customer made for us many years ago that says ‘All Roads Lead to Elmo’s,’ and it is signed by our employees,” she adds. “It is still very true today.”
Elmo’s continues to make nearly everything fresh daily while still managing to offer one of the most affordable breakfasts in town. From pancakes to omelets, biscuits and gravy to the quiche of the day, Elmo’s menu offers a comforting sense of normalcy and continuity in a rapidly changing Durham. The food comes out fast and hot, the line for a table (if there is one) moves quickly, and from the moment the doors open at 7 a.m. sharp, the diner is filled with the sounds of neighbors catching up with one another and their regular server while the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafts through the space.
As year 27 approaches, Elmo’s owners plan to lean hard into the diner’s strengths and reputation as a community touchstone. Diners who voted Elmo’s one of Durham Magazine’s best breakfasts and kid-friendly restaurants can expect the same big smiles from servers, the same classic varied diner menu and the same neighborhood atmosphere. “During COVID-19, we had to learn to constantly adapt and have become quite skilled at it,” Cammie says. “We made some major changes during that period. So, for the future, we are happy not to make any big changes.”
“We have tried really hard to keep up with the times without losing sight of our core values as a restaurant, so what we plan for and hope is in store for Elmo’s is many more years of friendly, fast service, comfort food to help ease someone’s day, coffee cups kept full and our great community continuing to share their lives, their stories and their friendships with us,” Mark says.
“[We] plan to continue offering Durham a warm, consistent local diner that our customers can count on,” Cammie adds. “It has been a recipe for success, and we don’t change good recipes.”
Guglhupf Bakery, Cafe & Biergarten
Generations of Durhamites have flocked to Guglhupf to start their workdays or weekends over the years, and it shows, as they continuously vote it one of the best dessert, coffee and breakfast/brunch spots in the annual Best of Durham poll. The secret to its longevity, owner Claudia Cooper says, can be summed up in one word: quality. Quality products, quality staff, quality setting. “You kind of can’t go wrong with that [mentality],” Claudia laughs. “I can’t compromise; it’s gotta be good.”
You can find the “good” each morning in a pastry case stocked with almond “schneckes,” cheese Danishes and fresh, hot croissants. There’s also plenty of egg dishes, breakfast sandwiches and an Alsatian potato leek tart for a more hearty breakfast. You can even get pork schnitzel, if the mood strikes you!
This commitment to high standards, not to mention one of the most unique dining settings in Durham, helped Guglhupf weather the many changes and challenges that faced the Bull City restaurant scene over the years. “You have to morph, because clearly the market now is very different,” Claudia says. One thing that hasn’t changed is the dedication of her staff and customers. Several employees have been with her for 20, 23, even 24 years. And on the flip side, “we’ve had [guests who’ve visited] from birth to 1687445393 getting them married,” Claudia says. Yes, that’s right – Guglhupf hosted a wedding for a customer whose parents first brought them to the restaurant as an infant. “It’s a community place, and you become part of their life,” she says.
Twenty-five years is a long time for any restaurant to be in business, and Claudia says the slow, incremental way Guglhupf grew helped it stay afloat. They’ve always had the bakery and breakfast fare, but switched to counter service and did away with the finer aspects of dinner service, a change that Claudia and her staff aren’t necessarily mad about. “We miss fine dining, but I think it’s better and more fun than what it was before,” she says. “We’re having more fun!”
Looking ahead to the next five, 10 or 25 years, Claudia and her team plan on doing more of the same. There’s a good chance that a whole new generation of Durhamites will grow up beginning their mornings at Guglhupf. “There’s always room for improvement,” Claudia says, but, “I’m really super happy with where we’re at.”
“Slinging Beans. Making Pie. Embracing Community.” It’s a simple and straightforward ethos, one that Bean Traders has upheld for more than two decades, creating space off Highway 54 in south Durham for neighbors and strangers alike to gather over piping hot coffee and freshly baked pies, pastries and more. Owners Christy Chapman and David Chapman methodically created a space that is more akin to a community center than a coffee shop, and it’s fitting that the pair would pour so much of their hearts into making Bean Traders a home; coffee has been a part of their own love story from the very beginning.
As the tale goes, David first saw Christy when she was a barista, and he was a high school student stopping by his local coffee shop before class. Twenty-three years later, both the couple and the business have grown, and they now roast and sell their own beans with wide-ranging options, from single varietals like Ethiopian Yirgacheffe to flavored offerings like chocolate truffle and Southern pecan. An extensive gourmet tea selection rivals that of their coffees.
Then there are bagels and quiches and smoothies and scones. The vanilla buttermilk pie is popular (who says you can’t have pie for breakfast?), as are its gluten-free waffles. You can even buy iced coffee by the gallon! It’s no wonder Bean Traders remains one of the most popular coffee shops in Durham, winning over Durham Magazine readers year after year. We’ll raise a latte to that!
Want more food and drink stories delivered to your inbox monthly? Sign up for our Eat & Drink newsletter!
Read the full article here