With the new American Tobacco shrine opening downtown and a flurry of young bars opening their doors around Duke's campus, there's plenty going on here, whether you're a student, a local or a curious resident of another county.
But within the Durham bar scene itself is a vacuum--I was asked to find "neighborhood" bars across town, but when the normal infrastructure of a neighborhood is now defined around a strip mall, such a venue became difficult to find outside of the Trinity Park/downtown/Ninth Street axis. Many of the new suburbs in this city have no history or character--two things that should be present in a comfortable bar. So while most of the metropolis has been busy converting old warehouses into lofts and turning woodlots into parking lots, there are a few old standbys on the outskirts of town where folks stick together, unconcerned with the need to keep up with the frenetic slash-and-burn attitude of our city planners.
There are two bars like this just off I-40 that are fairly different in aesthetics but very similar in the way they both seem like clubhouses. Ray's Elbow Room, on N.C. 55 about a mile off I-40, is full of regulars huddled around tables full of empty bottles and a bartender who'll call you "baby doll."
The night we went, most everyone at the bar was in bare feet, and they were creating huge soap bubbles with a coat hanger-turned-bubble wand, laughing and hugging. The dartboards, vacant on a Tuesday night, seemed to be resting from the weekend, with scores and hatch marks still scribbled on the various dry-erase scoreboards. Everyone seemed to know each other, and the bare feet and wood paneling made us feel as if we were at the world's coziest beach bar.
But perhaps the most telling aspect of the Elbow Room's charm lies in this anecdote: We had left the Last Chance Tavern (see below) and come straight to the Elbow Room, which is about a 25-minute drive across town. Almost 10 minutes after we arrived, we looked up to see the bartender/owner from the Last Chance strolling in, greeting everyone at the bar with hugs and smiles; when he saw us, we all gave each other the same shrug-and-smile before he sat at the bar and asked the table next to the bar if they needed any more drinks. If this is where one of Durham's coolest bartenders goes when he gets off work, then all of us downtown/Trinity Park/Ninth Street barflies are missing something in our quest for "stylish" inebriation.
If you hop back on I-40 toward Chapel Hill, get off at the U.S. 15-501 exit and make your way into the very unappealing entrance of New Hope Commons, you'll find another hidden gem down the service road and across from the Wal-Mart complex. The Tavern is located in the same spot where Boxer's (the former bar owned by Michael Penny, who now runs Ringside) once held court. Mostly surrounded by woods, the whole place feels tucked away from town; one could easily forget about the behemoth of sprawl that lies across the road after a few drinks. This two-story establishment has an incredibly long bar upstairs and an equally impressive one on their lower floor. Multiple TV screens are littered across the ceiling beams (Kill Bill was playing above the bar the night we went), but once you see the size of the darts room, televised sports pales in comparison. There are some entire bars smaller than this space, where darts leagues gather on Tuesdays and Thursdays to spar and drink. The Tavern also hosts Texas Hold 'Em poker at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, and every Friday there's live rock music. Plus, they're the only bar in town with $2 Red Stripe bottles on Sundays.
People in the suburbs gotta drink, too, though. The stretch of Hope Valley Road in front of the Woodcroft neighborhood contains adjacent strip malls, each with a fairly casual watering hole adequate for that post-RTP-commute cocktail. City Beverage serves as a coffee shop for most of the day, with wireless Internet access and plenty of outdoor and indoor tables, but at night it really peaks. With 20 beers on tap (at $3.75 a pint) and a long list of specialty martinis and umbrella drinks, this cozy, very un-stripmallesque bar is becoming a hot night spot in a section of town dominated by faux-"neighborhood" establishments like Ruby Tuesday's. Their menu doesn't slouch, either--the chef at City Beverage is set on creating an environment that slides between bar-with-great-food and eatery-with-hip-bar. Sandwiches, appetizers and salads (with locally grown veggies) are all under $10, and for the carnivorously inclined, the nightly steak special depends on the chef's whim.
Across the road, tucked away toward the right side of Woodcroft shopping center, is the West 94th St. Pub. While smaller than their neighboring bar, they're far more concerned with cozy than with hip; the booths are tight and tall, the L-shaped bar is small enough for everyone to be in the same conversation, and the bartender gave us chips for free when he saw our downtrodden faces after learning the kitchen had stopped serving. Their outside tables are sheltered so the rain won't run everyone inside, but it's probably best when most of the Woodcroft businesses are closed, as suburban commerce is not the perfect drinking partner. They've got less on tap, but their Pub Olympics (which debuted this year on Aug. 20) and their 75-cent-steamed-oyster Thursdays lend a larger sense of community to their vibe.
Across town, in North Durham, the pickin's are a bit slimmer but worth digging for. The first evening's loss regarding the closed status of the Last Chance drove us back towards town to the West End Tavern, or "The Wet," to use the vernacular. Their karaoke on Thursday nights is the stuff of legend to a growing number of Durham residents and Duke grad students alike (unfortunately, we were a night too early to see one of the infamous performances from the enthusiastic midget woman). A membership costs $1 and you might have to wait three days to come back after paying that fee, but when we went everyone at the bar signed us in immediately. They've got a small selection of liquor (hence the membership fee), but The Wet is mainly a bottled beer establishment, full of pool tables, darts and a few video games.
With Durham's rapidly increasing Latino population has come several lively bars and dance clubs where you won't hear any of the usual American jukebox standards. Just ask Sabor Latino, at the union of Roxboro Road and Duke Street. After a few minutes of being collectively searched by the man with the tight black "SECURITY" T-shirt, we were in and were understandably being stared at ... then everyone went back to their pool games. The whole vibe of the place was pretty enthusiastic--there was a DJ playing contemporary Latin hits, one of which really sounded like Lil Jon, if Lil Jon were from the Dominican Republic (Lil Juan?). This brought people into the back room, which was full of couches and had luminescent paint splattered all over the walls (which were lit up by two huge black lights on the ceiling), to dance. Almost everyone in the place was moving, whether on the dance floor or sitting in their seats. The only thing that drove us out was the volume of the music, which was louder than most rock clubs. The bar serves mostly bottles or cans, which averaged about $3 each. If you want to dress up and dance with abandon, a Friday or Saturday night here would be, as they say, "off the chain."
Durham's downtown has an increasing number of drinking spots, but there are some hidden gems that can provide respite from smoky rooms and shouted conversations over loud music. The Bullpen, located inside the Marriott Hotel on the corner of Foster and Main, has a small bar with lots of tables, and after 10 p.m. things get fairly quiet. They try to wrap things up by 1 a.m., and it is a bit more expensive than your normal bar (hotel prices, you know), but every once in a while it's good to have a place to go where nobody knows your name. If you need to grab a beer while studying, the booths here have ample room to spread tons of notes and books around.
On the other side of the block from the Marriott, next to the Durham Arts Council, is the newly opened Blayloc. This massive bar has two floors: on the bottom is a beautiful granite bar, several pool tables, a cozy couch nook with tons of pillows and, in striking contrast to the sports bars a few blocks away on Main Street, multiple TV screens showing Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming (which spawned the cult shows Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab and The Brak Show). The top floor is almost finished, and when it opens the owners plan to have DJs, private parties and plenty of live bands, local and national. Overall, the space is gorgeous, and big enough to allow for a group of people to never feel cramped. The kitchen serves food until 2 a.m. every night and the menu is full of salads, sandwiches and 8-inch pizzas for $5. Since they do serve food with their liquor, they don't have to be a membership club, but you might have to pay a dollar or two cover when they have live music downstairs on weekends.
About 100 yards to the right of Blayloc on Main Street is Ringside, a gorgeous four-story building that hosts loads of weekly events--drag queen nights, fetish nights and dance parties. Each floor has its own atmosphere, from the carnivalesque mirrored ballroom on the first level to the lavish library bar of the top floor. This is a membership club, though, and the mixed drinks are a bit more expensive than some of their neighbors, but that's the price one pays for glamour (and a winding staircase).
In comparison to its sister taverns downtown, Joe & Jo's, also on Main Street, is tiny, but their menu, their outside seating and their free rock shows have made them one of downtown's most consistently packed bars. They serve alcohol and have a good selection of beers on tap and in bottles, and on Wednesday nights house wine is $2 a glass.
On the other side of downtown is Talk of the Town, another of Durham's great secrets--if you're Caucasian. But Talk is one of the most rockin' bars in the city, with a main room that often features great R&B (watch for Johnny White and his Elite Band) right in the middle of the floor, catering to an older, dressed-up African-American audience. And in the side room is the younger crowd, with a dance floor and a DJ playing dance music and hip hop.
The Brightleaf Square block of Main Street is home to eight different drinkin' spots, running from the sports-and-pizza blend of Satisfaction to the Friday $2.50 wine specials found at Fowler's. Popular spots such as Devine's, Federal, the James Joyce and the Down Under Pub offer late-night eats, tons of draft beers, trivia nights and foosball tables, respectively, but there are a couple of smaller bars tucked into two of downtown's more classy dining establishments.
The bar at Another Thyme doesn't stay open too long past midnight on weekdays (and 1:30 a.m. on weekends), but it's a great escape from the clamor of their neighboring nightspots. The deep booths and window seating, combined with the sharply dressed, overly friendly bartenders, are all begging for some tinkly piano music to complete the plush hotel bar atmosphere.
Just up the road and around the corner is the bar at Pop's Trattoria, which can sometimes be stuffed with the overflow of customers waiting for a table. If you can find a seat at the bar, a couple glasses of wine or beer with the $9 antipasto plate is a great under-$20 way to start an evening of barhopping downtown.
There's quite a few choices within the Ninth Street/Broad Street axis, most of which cater to the Duke community. Sirens Lounge, on the corner of Markham and Broad, has nightly drink specials ($7 martinis on Mondays and $1 Bud draft on Thursdays, to name a few) and weekly DJ events, including a great '80s night on Wednesdays--just don't order any top-shelf liquor, because specials or not, this is the most overpriced bar in town. They host plenty of private parties as well, if you need a place to be collectively debaucherous.
Just up Markham are two more popular Duke hangouts, Charlie's and George's Garage. The latter's bar is an extension of their upscale restaurant and is definitely a white-collar-crowd spot, but across the street at Charlie's are plenty of TV screens and bar food to accentuate Duke game nights. A few blocks away on Broad is The Green Room, where locals and students alike have gathered for years to shoot pool, drain longnecks and engage in the occasional heated intellectual discussion. The shuffleboard table usually has a long line, though, so get your name on the board soon after you arrive if you want to challenge your friends to a showdown.
Thanks to Matt Burchette, Sarah Corbitt, David Nahm and Rob Chapman for accompanying and designated driving.
Trying to extract an open bar from Northern Durham at 11 p.m. on a Thursday is surprisingly difficult. So much of that area is homes and stripmalls, and if you get beyond the ring of suburbs it's very rural.
If you want something untainted by cell phone culture, head up Duke Street, move over to Guess Road, and go about 10 minutes beyond the last grocery store cluster (it'll feel like longer once it's dark). The Last Chance Tavern will pop up seemingly out of nowhere, on a harshly lit, gravel-strewn hill with one small building in the middle. The first two nights we made the trek, at midnight and 10:30 p.m. respectively, it was closed. After calling the place directly, I learned that they don't stay open that much past 11, depending on how many people are there.
"But come on out," the man on the other end said in an inviting voice. On the third visit, we finally found the door open and a James Bond marathon on the TV screens. After a few $2 beers and some discussion with the sole patron on the finer points of the various Bond girls, we were told "Welcome to the country club" with a pair of solid handshakes.
The Last Chance's undeserved shady reputation has prevented more people from going there in the past few years, but the people we met were friendlier than anyone at any other bar we visited. It's a therapeutic room, as our friend at the bar explained: "Many a day I'll come in here having had a shitty day and in 10 minutes I'm dyin' laughin', and then there's someone following right behind me havin' a shitty day too."
The bartender/owner then shushed him, saying "Hey, catch your breath a minute," and pointing to the TV, where Jill St. John was trying to seduce Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever. At this point, it was hard not to feel like we were hanging out with two brothers in their living room, and that's a good mood for a bar to exude.
The only drawback is the drive, but if the place closes at 10:30 p.m., then you're probably not going to be three sheets to the wind unless you're the Tasmanian Devil when it comes to $2 cans of Bud. Either way, the Last Chance is the first place in Durham I've been told "Come on back, now" and it was more than just a plea for business.
Ray's Elbow Room, 4206 N.C. 55, 544-0014
Last Chance Tavern, 5830 Guess Road, 620-9764
The Tavern, 5504 Chapel Hill Blvd, 493-5957
City Beverage, 4810 Hope Valley Road, 401-6500
West 94th St. Pub, 4711 Hope Valley Road, 403-0025
West End Tavern, 1647 Cole Mill Road, 383-9392
Sabor Latino, 4528 N. Roxboro Road, 479-1718
The Bullpen (in the Marriott), 201 Foster St., 683-6664
Blayloc, 108 Morris St., 682-4624
Ringside, 308 W. Main St., 680-2100
Joe & Jo's, 427 W. Main St., 688-3322
Talk of the Town, 108 E. Main St., 682-7747
Satisfaction, 905 W. Main St., 682-7397
Fowler's, 112 S. Duke St., 683-2555
Devine's, 904 W. Main St., 682-0228
Federal, 914 W. Main St., 680-8611
James Joyce, 912 W. Main St., 683-3022
Down Under Pub, 802 W. Main St., 682-0039.
Another Thyme, 109 N. Gregson St., 682-5225
Pop's Trattoria, 810 W. Peabody St., 956-7677
Sirens Lounge, 1803 W. Markham Ave., 416-6684
Charlie's, 758 Ninth St., 286-4446
George's Garage, 737 Ninth St., 286-4131
The Green Room, 1008 Broad St., 286-2359