When did Durham get a happy hour scene?" said the guy next to me, marveling to himself more than seeking an actual answer.
"That'll last a minute," responded his drinking companion.
The panoply of people crowded around the bar at Bar Virgile, a new Durham watering hole, is what prompted the question. Business suits, polos, T-shirts all squeezed in for one of the "classic cocktails" featured on the wall or a sample from the menu that is several cuts above bar food.
The bar opened at 4 p.m. At 5, every stool was taken. At 6, the tables in the back were nearly full.
"You need to have another cocktail," said an avuncular businessman who hadn't stopped smiling since entering the bar.
"I need to send another text is what I need to do," replied the woman next to him, thumbs tapping, eyes fixed on her phone.
Later the smiling gent conversed with a middle-aged fellow wearing a plain white T. Some people could pull off that look during its zenith a few years back. On this guy it just appeared he had left the house in too big of a hurry.
Considering Bar Virgil's offerings, you couldn't blame a person for rushing. A small rectangular menu is given to you and, as the bartender explains to a first-timer, "you order kind of like at a sushi place, checking off what you want." There is a temptation to put one big check mark and hand it back. Doing so would spare you from wrestling with competing desires as you peruse the lists of cheese, charcuterie, sausages, brioche sandwiches and "snacks & bites."
Cheese options, ranging from $4 to $8, include Brillat Savarin, Dante, Colston Bassett Stilton and Paski Sir. The charcuterie list offers such nibbles as Fra'mani Sopressata (dry cured salami), Olli Artisan Guanciale (cured pork jowl), Lardo Iberico de Bellaota Real (cured pork fat back) and Curemaster Reserve (American Mangalista prosciutto). Those meaty dishes also run from $4 to $8.
The "snacks & bites" category is wide-ranging. Clearly a popular choice is the Bowl of Ribs—it seemed as if half the people at the bar had one in front of them. The Bibb Salad with Smoked Duck doesn't skimp on the duck. If you order it, you should wait to see how full you become before ordering anything else. The Spicy Pecans & Dried Cherries is a fine bar snack. An ample bowl of the mixture provides a nosh that's enjoyably salty and sweet. The House Pretzel is heavenly when it arrives piping hot. You can tear off a chunk for dipping in the accompanying Dijon or just savor the bready goodness plain.
The bar's name is a nod to owner Scott Howell's grandfather, Virgil, but with a French spelling. Beyond the sign, you'll find French flavor on the menu with Frog Legs Provençal and other selections.
Such a bounty of choices for sustenance means you can settle in for the long haul and savor Bar Virgile's drinks and calvacade of conversations. Sip on a Martinez, a throwback made with Beefeater, vermouth, maraschino liquor, orange bitters and a citrus peel while enjoying such bon mots as "The Roman emperors had only the vaguest notion of economics" or the exchange between two guys about a woman not present: "She apologizes whenever there's a delay in her texts." "That's so awesome!" "It's annoying!" (He went on to surmise it indicated low self-esteem.)
The bar touts other classic cocktails such as the Manhattan, but if you prefer a less fussy glass it has a commendable selection of single malt Scotches and bourbons. A Corner Creek bourbon was unremarkable but smooth sipping while listening to coworkers commiserate about their company's golden child: "She's part of the inner circle now. I'm sorry. I don't mean to sound bitter. But she's done something right and I don't even know what it is."
Meanwhile, a dude in white-framed glasses recognizes a server as a former Jujube employee, asks about Scotch drinks and gets excited about a cocktail ("I've heard of that. I may have even had one. Did the Alley serve one for a while? Do you know?" It may have been a Blood and Sand, which the bartender had suggested earlier, but I'm not certain).
A couple of seats farther down the bar, a gentleman, clearly happy with his visit, was pitching the idea of adding the place to a walking tour of bars. The bartender said he would pass the info along to higher-ups.
Other conversations rise and fall. Two young women grab a drink. Their talk turns to Scotch. One, who clearly knows her subject, offers smart suggestions on good entry Scotches to the other, who says she wants to learn more about it.
Their chatting sparks me to order my favorite, a Glenlivet. As I relish its delightful warmth, I ponder the question from earlier—"When did Durham get a happy hour scene?" The answer may well be mid-December, when Bar Virgile opened, and I'm confident it will last more than a minute.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cocktails and convo"