Food & Drink

Closed by the Durham gas explosion, St. James Seafood aims to reopen early next year

It’s been six months since downtown Durham’s gas explosion, and the block of Duke and Main streets is still asking questions about what the future might look like.

But two prominent restaurants that have been closed since the April 10 explosion say they will be part of that future. This month, Torero’s Mexican Restaurant and St. James Seafood Restaurant and Raw Bar have each vowed to reopen.

St. James chef and owner Matt Kelly said the upscale seafood restaurant is aiming for a mid-January reopening and that the steps to get there have already started.

“We’ve always said we’re going to reopen; we never said anything otherwise,” Kelly said in a phone interview. “The second week of January is the goal; it seems attainable. ... But that doesn’t mean you can just open a restaurant that’s been closed for eight months. There’s a lot of work to do, but we’re up to the task. What’s paramount is letting people know that we’re reopening.”

Durham’s gas explosion occurred on April 10 in the middle of the morning, after a gas line was accidentally struck and damaged by a contractor. According to a report released by the Durham Fire Department, gas leaked for an hour before an explosion inside the Kaffeinate coffee shop, killing cafe owner Kong Lee instantly and PSNC gas company worker Jay Rambeaut two weeks later. Twenty-five others were injured in the blast, and the buildings along Duke Street were damaged or destroyed.

The windows of St. James are covered with brown paper or blocked off with plywood. On Torero’s, there’s a yellow spray painted “X” on one of the windows. The opening of either doesn’t appear look immediate, but it’s happening.

Kelly said employees were doing prep work in St. James at the time of the explosion and counts his company lucky no one was injured.

“We feel fortunate that everyone on our team was fine,” Kelly said. “We didn’t have any injuries, when some of our neighbors weren’t so lucky.”

While Kelly always planned to reopen St. James, it took months to figure out when that might be possible. He said he navigated insurance and construction questions he never imagined as a restaurant owner. St. James was built in the former Fishmonger’s space, a bygone Durham seafood institution. Kelly said the building wasn’t structurally damaged by the explosion, but has had a new gas line installed and will need some new electrical work.

“It’s been very challenging,” Kelly said. “It’s not a fun place to be. We’re trained to cook and practice hospitality and when something like this happens, your whole business stops. Not just St. James. ... You don’t know the future.”

Last month, Torero’s hung a banner on front of the building, reading “We’re coming back soon!”, a small step toward normalcy for a broken block that’s seen an entire building removed in pieces and a parking lot still blocked off. On Facebook, restaurant owners posted that the restaurant is getting closer to reopening.

“We’d like to give a big shout out to all the people who have been involved in helping us employees and employers financially and emotionally throughout this long journey,” the message read. “We are very blessed and thank you very much for making us feel that a great group of people has always been among us!”

Fundraisers were held around the Triangle, and crowdfunding campaigns set up online to gather money for restaurant workers out of work because of the explosion. Kelly organized and participated in two events and said collectively they raised more than $70,000. The online fundraiser Durham Restaurant Workers Fund collected another $22,000.

Kelly expects the reopened St. James to be different in some ways than the one closed by an explosion, but seafood will remain at the center.

“We’re really excited to reopen,” Kelly said. “To have this in the past. We don’t want this disaster to define what St. James is or what we do. I’m personally looking forward to shucking some oysters and tossing some popcorn shrimp at people.”

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun

Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.