Durham's bar scene is a bit like its breakfast scene: sporadic and hidden, when it's there at all. But the blood is finally pumping in downtown Durham, and progressive initiatives in the area are breathing some much-needed life into the Bull City as old businesses clean up and new businesses start up.
My friend, Michael, has Ray-Bans on, and I'm wearing a black skirt. Some might even say we look hip. He's been living in New York City for the last four years, and I ask him how he thinks Durham's bars will compare. He laughs. As for me, I've been living in Boone, a dry county, so just about anything will be more hullabaloo than what I'm used to.
We start at The Federal (914 W. Main St., 680-8611, www.thefederal.net)where we find a great beer selection, including my summer favorite, Hennepin. Great bar food, great service and a great scene.
"I'm happily surprised," Michael says.
Personally, I had already heard good things about The Federal, so I'm not all that shocked. The indoor area itself is small, but it's encircled by a great wrap-around bar, which lends the space a provocative and unique atmosphere. The Federal also enjoys a prime location in Brightleaf Square, next to such nighttime hotspots as Satisfaction, Down Under Pub and James Joyce.
Mt. Fuji (905 W. Main St., Suite 21B, 680-4968), also in Brightleaf Square, has an array of Sake variations as well as half-priced bottles of wine on Tuesdays. If you're looking to chew as well as gulp, Fuji specializes in Thai food and sushi, my two favorites.
Brightleaf Square is the party pulse of Durham. You can safely walk from one bar to the next, immersing yourself in a scene vibrant with free live music and fellow bar-hoppers whose relaxed, cheerful demeanors are contagious. Brightleaf is simply a great place to be, day or night.
But we must move on. A short trek from The Federal lie several other hidden gems, including a treasure near Duke East Campus called Café Verde (2200 W. Main St., 286-9755, ghgrestaurants.com).
Verde is green-themed (imagine that) and boasts "hot waitresses," according to Michael. In his defense, they are pretty hot, though not very good; it takes about 20 minutes to get our waters. The beverage highlight here is the "hefty" Blue Martini, a generous refresher of Bombay gin and Curacao with a lemon twist.
The sunset from Verde is truly spectacular, and the venue transforms from a sleek and urban Mediterranean Café into a full-on European house party around midnight. You can dance inside a few tables clear away to open up a spacious dance floor or you can hang out along the outside breezeway and relax, preferring the DJs spins in the form of soft background noise.
A previously George-owned spot near Verde has recently come under new ownership and opened officially in mid-July. Blu Seafood and Bar (2002 Hillsborough Road, 286-9777, www.bluseafoodandbar.com) is now owned by Tim Lyons, his wife and his brother. Lyons hails from Key West, where he was head chef at Louie's Backyard, a well-known seafood restaurant.
His family's home in Florida was damaged severely by Hurricane Wilma, and after the loss they decided to "bring the beach up to Durham."
Blu is a delightful bar and a great seafood restaurant, and its extensive selection of martinis includes the restaurant's namesake, the Blutini, made with real blueberries.
The bar, open nightly until 2 a.m., doubles as a stage for head bartender "V." Hailing from Manhattan, V makes the most of his evenings at Blu and really "puts on a show."
General manager Eryk Pruitt says he can't wait to see how the Duke students respond when they return from summer vacation.
"I think it's gonna be great," he says.
Our next stop is the The Tavern at New Hope Commons (5504 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., 493-5957), where membership is required but will only set you back ten bucks for a three-year pass.
"Oh, this is a Cheers bar," Michael says as we stroll in. We order Sam Adams Summer Ales. There's plenty of room to relax; couches and tables are scattered everywhere.
Tavern bartender Jack Wallace spends most of his time bartending at Carrboro's Speakeasy, making his way to Durham just once a week. He informs us that this bar has a very consistent crowd of regulars and guesses that 90 percent of the crowd knows one other. Despite his cliquish cautions, however, we don't feel awkward or out of place at all.
"It's such an easygoing, friendly place," Wallace says.
Frederick Rock, the gentleman next to me, says he loves coming here for a beer after work. "I'm in med school at UNC right now, and I don't have much time to go out. It's not a 'scene' bar here," he says. "There are no rowdy college kids. They try and have live music every Friday, too."
Brittany, another Tavern bartender, hands Rock a ramekin full of cherries. "She knows I like them," he says.
"That's a really cool bar," Michael says as we leave. "I'd definitely go back."
We peek into Doyle's Sports Bar (3219 Old Chapel Hill Road, Suite A, 419-9791) without ordering beers. Michael sums it up: "Doyle's is your typical sports bar. Neon signs and big-screen TVs adorn the walls. It's busy on Friday nights, and there are moderately-priced drinks and daily specials. Typical sports bar fare."
I watch Michael slump into the car. We're ready for something different, and Durham has to have it hidden in its folds somewhere.
It takes a hell of a lot to get me out of my pajamas and pumped up at night. It takes even more to get me to listen to rap music.
Tonight, however, I'm pumped up and listening to rap music.
My destination? Durham's Ringside (308 W. Main St., 680-2100, www.ringsideclub.com). A friend and I had traveled to a few Durham bars the night before and had spotted red lights and candlelit tables outside a mysterious dark hole in the crisply renovated downtown Durham: Ringside.
"Ringside? Sounds dangerous," the friend said. "Let's do it." After trying out several relatively safe Durham bars, we're ready for some action.
The doorgirl's name is Rabbit. Attractive, thin and slow-spoken, Rabbit appears almost startled to see us. I ask her how she likes Ringside.
"Oh, it's just fa-bulous!" she says. "It's pretty 'Durham.' It's a 1920s theme, kind of like a speakeasy. There are four floors." We are also informed that there is a roof, but people are rarely invited up.
The scene is big-city, underground and ultra-hip: not your typical downtown Durham bar. The music is crisp and loud, and a classic house beat remix of Sade reverberates through the club. A gentleman named Greg buys my friend a Gin and Tonic—"good"—meaning a little weak. I have a Negra Modelo.
The first floor of Ringside is a dance floor with black and white tiles, an ultra-chic mannequin sauntering above and a disco ball. The second floor is a balcony bar overlooking the checkerboard below.
Up the creaky staircase lies the third floor. Ascending the steps is like crawling through Alice's rabbit hole: hip ... and a bit peculiar. This level is for performing, with a small, vintage stage the color of over-crisped breakfast toast.
The fourth floor is Michael Penny's home; Penny owns Ringside.
He welcomes us to his exclusive rooftop, where we chat for over an hour. Penny is a Durham native who bought this building in 1998 and opened it for business in 2000.
I ask him why there aren't more people here.
"I don't advertise," he says. "It's mostly cool people telling their cool friends." He says that, because of the flamboyant and tolerant nature of the bar, people often try to categorize it.
"We are not a gay bar! The bar is whatever you want it to be," he laughs, looking up at the stars.
It's a beautiful night. We talk about lesbians, heterophobia, New York, Nietzsche and Heidegger. And the bar, of course.
"There are nights here that are just magical: skinheads next to drag queens. It's like standing at the corner of Bourbon Street and St. Peter's," he says. Despite its diverse clientele, however, Ringside has never needed a bouncer and has never had to call 911.
"Every night is different," Penny says.
He only opens the club on Fridays and Saturdays, when he can count on "a really diverse crowd."
"Tell those people in Chapel Hill that Durham is happening!" Rabbit shouts as pass by her post on our way out of the club.
I assure her I will.
Other places to quench your thirst:
Chapel Hill/ Carrboro