Business

Motto, the adventurous and ambitious Durham restaurant, has closed

Motto in Durham is the latest venture of Urban Food Group, whose other local properties include Coquette and Vivace in Raleigh.
Motto in Durham is the latest venture of Urban Food Group, whose other local properties include Coquette and Vivace in Raleigh. jleonard@newsobserver.com

The acclaimed Motto restaurant closed its doors in Durham Saturday night after being open less than a year.

The restaurant in Durham’s West Village, which was rebranded from Lucia to Motto last year, had been underperforming for a while, said Kevin Jennings of Urban Food Group, Motto’s owner.

Motto started with Chef James Huff at the helm, offering his take on Italian cuisine. , But after two months Huff left and former “Top Chef” contestant Garret Fleming took charge of the kitchen, introducing a charcuterie program, smoking meats and offering photogenic items like a build-your-own gyro platter.

The News & Observer restaurant critic Greg Cox gave the restaurant four stars in a February review, lauding an ambitious but well-executed menu of dishes rarely seen in the Triangle.

Jennings said another restaurant owner expressed an interest in taking over the lease at Motto, so he took that offer and decided to close.

“The food was great, the service was great,” Jennings said. “It got a good amount of press... Another restaurant owner showed up out of the blue and said, ‘I love that space. If you want to sell I’d be interested.’ 

He did not reveal the new owner’s name nor his or her restaurant plans.

Jennings said some of the restaurant’s staff knew Saturday would be the final service, but not all. A few diners wondered publicly Sunday on social media what happened to Motto, with one showing up for his reservation.

With offerings such as veal brain tacos, Motto’s menu didn’t play it safe. That can be exciting, Jennings said, but sometimes makes it hard to run a business.

“Motto’s menu really pushed the envelope; it was aggressive and interesting, hip and super local,” Jennings said. “Still, a place where you’re having a good, solid, more straightforward menu is generally going to do you better.”

With two concepts in two years for the 605 Main St. location, the space never worked for Urban Food Group, Jennings said, but he added that doesn’t mean it’s a bad spot. Lucia did better than Motto, he said, but that all that’s required for a restaurant to come together never did.

“Lucia did the best, Motto did lesser sales,” Jennings said. “It’s not the end of the world, we were just not all that busy.

“Not to get too philosophical, but I don’t believe in it being the space’s fault. I don’t believe in that,” he said. “Spaces, they have a want to be a certain thing.”

Fleming, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, came to Durham from Washington. He could not be reached for comment Monday. Jennings said he doesn’t have an opening for an executive chef, but that he hopes Fleming stays in the area.

“Garret is very talented,” Jennings said. “He made the charcuterie program and smoked meats and really made that his specialty. He’s a free agent.”

In all of the buzz and excitement of Durham’s bustling dining scene, Jennings said he believes something gets lost: it’s still a small town.

“The market is tough,” Jennings said. “(Durham) doesn’t really have the population; everyone wants to talk about how cool and hip it is, and I think it is cool and hip. But they just don’t have the population. It’s growing but the population isn’t increasing to match. You can’t throw 600 more seats in a town that small every month.”

Kevin and his wife, Stacey Jennings, run Urban Food Group, which also owns Coquette, Vivace and Chow in North Raleigh.

Jennings said the company is working on two other projects. The closest one to viability will be in North Raleigh, he said, but no lease has been signed and he didn’t reveal other details about the project.

Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson

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