Among a string of historic storefronts on Durham's East Main Street—torn down and rebuilt during the Prohibition era—the new Bar Lusconi is luring modern drinkers into a new era of beer and wine.
Narrowly tucked into 117B E. Main St., Bar Lusconi presented a thriving and casual soft opening last night.
It is the second bar by Timothy Neill and Jesse Gerstl, owners of the slick, unmarked speakeasy, Peccadillo, in Carrboro, which opened less than two years ago.
With a well-curated repertoire of international beer and wine, Neill aims to "get the best beer and wine possible," paying close attention to the more obscure.
"Basically, some of our smaller distributors say, 'we have only 10 cases of this,' and we'll just snap them up."
Modest simplicity determines both bar concepts. Just as Peccadillo has become the coy neighborhood bar in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Durham residents can expect to be charmed by Bar Lusconi's hospitality and cozy, candle-lit ambiance.
"Tim does a really great job at making you feel like you've been invited over to someone's home," says Lewis Norton, a longtime bartender in downtown Raleigh who came to the opening. "Except it's more comfortable than that, because it's less of a ceremony. There's an art to making your customer feel that way."
Bartender Dean James noted that the short bar at the back of the narrow, 600-square-foot space is tight, encouraging that personal connection to each customer.
Last night, he and Neill poured wine tableside for service industry friends and curious new customers lounging along the wooden drink rail and at the few, high four-top tables.
Glasses included a 2007 Bender Pinot Noir from Germany ("It's the last of it, so drink up," Neill commented to customers) and an Italian Lini Lambrusco, a full, tangy, sparkling red.
Neill says wine prices start at $42 a bottle, finishing at $86, with beer at $7 a glass and closing out at $27.
Tall, bare walls reveal rustic splotches of white and pale blue, their original red finish still intact as a wide border at the top, leading to a tin ceiling.
"You find the space before the concept is in place," Neill says. "We fell in love with the ceilings, it was all just super beautiful."
The original wood floors contained water damage. What remained of the salvaged wood were tawny, weathered slabs to build the bar, drink rail and all tables. Underneath, a speckled, burgundy red floor was polished and left intact.
As for the name, it is not a deliberate pun alluding to Italy's scandalous former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
"I named the bar after Jesse's cat [the late Lusconi]," Neill jokes. "He wasn't even very fond of him, and I find it hilarious."
Bar Lusconi is open Wednesday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
The best barbecue joints often boast piles: a cord of wood, visible by the side of the restaurant; a heap of slaw, ready to cool pepper-spiked pork; a mess of banana pudding, to finish things off.
At yesterday's private viewing of The Pit, a barbecue restaurant scheduled to open this July at Durham's former 7UP bottling plant, the piles were different. Old sinks, toilets and pipes filled one side of the warehouse in the Central Park district. Computer monitors were stacked in another, and a 7UP vending machine peeked from behind an oversized board. But among all the mess was barbecue, which steamed on a table in the center of the space.
The event was part of Preservation Durham's quarterly "Hidden Durham" series, which gives members a look at various spots under renovation. "We're the cool kids that get you behind the scenes," says Executive Director Wendy Hillis. Approximately 80 members toured the facility yesterday with representatives from Alliance Architecture, Empire Hardhat Construction and Empire Properties, which owns The Pit in Raleigh that cooks whole hogs.
"There were 10,000 water bottles everywhere," Alliance's John Warasila said, describing the building when they first acquired it. He stood in front of a plan for the new space, which depicted a rooftop deck in addition to a patio on the Rigsbee Avenue side of the building.
"We want to be part of the street scene," he explained, referring to the mass of folks who regularly spill onto Rigsbee from Fullsteam brewery and Motorco Music Hall for the food trucks that gather nearby.
With that in mind, several attendees voiced concerns about parking in the area. According to Warasila, The Pit will offer valet service, as it does in Raleigh.
Compared with its Raleigh counterpart, Durham's location will boast a bigger kitchen to take on regional catering orders. Additional plans include a private dining area and a bar near the entrance on Rigsbee.
As the tour revealed, there's still a great deal of work to be done, including leveling a concrete floor that currently has an 18-inch slope. Several beams overhead will also be raised and replaced.
"When will you open?" one man asked the renovation team while eyeing the space. "July," Warasila confidently answered.
"What year?" the man quipped back. But soon after, he joined others for a bite of a barbecue sandwich.
If you work in tourism or the food business in Durham, the phones may have already started ringing.
Durham was named the Tastiest Town in the South by Southern Living , which announced the winner of the contest this morning.
Now, if the Bull City could only make a decent bagel.
Good timing: Three days before Top of the Hill’s TOPO Piedmont Gin debuts on Sunday, the company has announced its brewery and distillery won a total of four medals in beer and spirits competitions this week.
The Chapel Hill brewery won two platinum medals for its Rams Head IPA and Singleton Ale at the World Beer Championships in Chicago. The distillery’s vodka and Carolina whiskey earned silver medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Sixty-three countries and 1,407 spirits competed for honors.
TOPO beers are available only at the brewery. The spirits are available in ABC stores and bars in North Carolina. The gin will be available Sunday at Top of the Hill Restaurant.