Gather at Gussie’s: Upscale Cocktails without the Pretense

Vance Daniels and partners Katie and Clayton O’Kane opened this neighborhood bar on W. Morgan Street to offer a well-crafted drink and elevated bar food.
by Catherine Currin | photography by Mehment Demirci

If you walk into Gussie’s and immediately feel at home, that’s the point. The brainchild of Raleigh native Vance Daniels and his partners Katie and Clayton O’Kane, it’s upscale but unfussy, a place where you can get a great drink without an attitude to match. “There’s a lot of pretense that can come with delivering a cocktail,” says Daniels. “That was the thing we wanted to remove. The stuffiness of getting a great drink.”

Daniels was born and raised in Raleigh, then spent two decades in Los Angeles working in the hospitality industry — bartending, serving and co-owning at places from dive bars to fine dining. He met the O’Kanes while working in the bar below their apartment in Los Angeles. The couple also were industry folks and have each worked in bars and restaurants across the country. “I was sort of their front porch in L.A.,” says Daniels. “We had a big patio and Katie and Clayton would come down with their dogs. We all became friends.”

As they got to know each other, they traded philosophies on the hospitality industry. “We just realized that we had a lot of the same core values,” says Katie. “We aligned on things like work-life balance and the physical, mental and financial health of our team and ourselves.” 

The trio dreamed of opening their own concept, and were ready to make a change from Los Angeles. They floated a few cities around the country — like Austin, Denver or Philadelphia — then Daniels suggested Raleigh. Once the O’Kanes visited for a weekend, they were sold. “It’s like the quote from When Harry Met Sally,” says Katie.

“You want the rest of your life to start right away.” The three moved to Raleigh in 2023 with a rough vision. When they found the space on W. Morgan Street, which was most recently the home of Soul Taco, they landed on the bar-with-food concept. “We saw the potential and what was nearby, and we landed on the idea of a neighborhood bar,” says Katie.

The name Gussie’s comes from Clayton’s great grandfather, August — it was his nickname. “When we were trying to come up with a name for a spot, we talked about all the things we wanted it to be,” says Katie. “Not too masculine and not too feminine. Not too light, not too dark. Something that could have been here for a long time. That name just kept coming back.”

The team worked with Cincinnati-based designer Julia Petiprin (a longtime friend of Daniels’) to make the space their own. The look and feel of the bar was crucial; the three wanted it to be approachable and welcoming. The ivy green and cognac palette, rich leather upholstery and eclectic art makes for a homey feel. The bar opened in December.

The drinks are well-crafted, but the names hint that they’re not taking themselves too seriously. The Biggest Pickle, for example, is a savory yet refreshing combo of gin, dill vermouth, cucumber and lime. The popular Fat Lip is served up with tequila, apple, ginger and lemon.

Everything is made in-house and seasonal when possible, from the cocktail syrups to the fresh orange cream soda. “We try to have fun with it,” says Katie. “With the drinks, we try to be appropriate for the weather that we have, but then also try to do some things that maybe people haven’t tried before.”

And while they’re a bar first, Daniels is proud of the food menu they’ve developed with the help of Michael Bean, the former chef at the NC State University Club. “First we wanted to be approachable and affordable in pricing,” says Daniels.

“Then from there, it went to elevated bar food, which is a term you hear a lot, but it does cover a lot: food that’s easy to share, food that you can snack on while standing along the drink rail.” 

Menu highlights include the Animal Style fries (meant for sharing) and the Double-Double smashburger, both nods to West Coast burger joint In-N-Out. There’s also chile con queso served with pork rinds, poke tuna bites and crispy Brussels sprouts. For those in need of a quick meal or something to take away, there’s also a bottle shop in the corner of the space, with grab-and-go beer, wine, sandwiches and snacks. 

Taken together, Gussie’s feels special, but not over the top — a place that feels familiar, but that can always offer something new. “It goes back to the bartender not being pretentious, right?” says Daniels. “If you don’t know something but you feel welcome there, you’re much more likely to ask.” 

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.