Martin and Erin Wheeler have reopened the underground bar, and will keep the craft cocktails, live music and good vibes flowing.
by Catherine Currin | photography by Eamon Queeney
Cue the moody red lights as lanterns and plants hang from above. Friends, old and new, are tucked into cozy booths among funky murals sipping on cocktails, mocktails and Modelos. An eclectic mix of Raleighites dance under twinkle lights on stage, with local DJs dictating the vibe.
Chances are, if you’ve lived in Raleigh long enough, you’ve danced into the night at Neptunes Parlour — even if not in this latest incarnation. The beloved underground bar on Martin Street was originally opened by husband-and-wife duo Cheetie Kumar and Paul Siler.
It was a favorite venue that secured national and even international touring acts from jazz to local punk bands and even comedy acts. Today, it’s helmed by another husband-and-wife duo, Martin and Erin Wheeler, who reopened Neptunes late last year to much excitement from locals who’d been missing its subterranean scene.
Kumar and Siler secured the lease for Neptunes in 2010, along with the spaces for live music venue Kings and Kumar’s acclaimed Garland restaurant, which closed last year.
Kumar took the lead to perfect the space at Neptunes, from the dim lighting on the dance floor to the creative cocktail menu using local products, produce and ingredients (she jokes that her extensive cocktail menu was the product of a frustrated chef).
“We envisioned this place as your parent’s basement when they’re out of town,” says Kumar, noting that initially, they had a DJ in-house every night to play vinyl.
And it was the most coveted party in town. Lines wrapped Martin Street to get into Neptunes on a Friday or Saturday night. The mentality “dance like nobody’s watching” was manifested under the lights. It was — and still is —an anytime place for just about anyone, just as Kumar and Siler had hoped it would be.
When COVID-19 hit, Neptunes closed its doors and Kumar and Siler struggled to find the right timing and circumstances to reopen. “As an indoor, underground bar, we were particularly cautious,” says Siler.
Post-pandemic, as Kumar and Siler were moving on to new ventures (the two are planning to open a new restaurant concept on Bickett Boulevard soon), they wanted the right person to transfer management. Enter the Wheelers. “Since the day we met, this is something we’d wanted to do,” says Erin, who works as a real estate agent. “With Martin’s background in hospitality, it was a no-brainer.”
Martin has managed bars for more than a decade across town, including Locals Oyster Bar and Standard Beer + Food. The couple had heard rumblings that Neptunes was for sale and felt it could be the perfect fit. Siler and Kumar agreed. “Erin and Martin are perfect,” Siler says. “They’re about the same age we were when we started this.
They’re mature and experienced, but also still young and have the excitement and enthusiasm needed to run a bar like Neptunes.
“Erin was eating at Garland during its last week in operation,” says Siler. “I had heard she might be interested and asked her in passing — she lit up. We set a meeting for the following week.” Erin and Martin got to work in August and soft-opened Neptunes by December.
The two say it was obvious to them that almost everything would stay the same conceptually. “This place was such a gem,” says Erin. “It needed to be reopened.”
Martin says cocktails will stay balanced and delicious, but he’s curated a smaller menu and he’s batching ingredients to cut down on the time it takes to make them so people can get back onto the dance floor. “The goal is speed and efficiency but flavors that work well together,” he says. “Nothing is too sweet or too tart, plus everyone is using the same recipes.
Consistency is our thing.” While drinks may take less time, there’s no cutting corners when it comes to quality and taste. Try a tequila-grenadine-lime Mexican Firing Squad or the Mambo Sun, made with homemade grenadine and mezcal. There are also delicious craft mocktails with just as much depth of flavor.
Today, there’s still music every night, even if it’s more likely to be a DJ than someone sharing their favorite vinyl. But the sentiment is the same: a judgment-free space to have a drink, dance if you’re feeling it and listen to good music.
Kumar and Siler believe the concept has held up. “I love Neptunes,” Kumar says. “It’s a really fun, welcoming space. And it’s dark in all the right ways.”
The Wheelers say it’s an honor to take this cherished watering hole into its next phase, which might include karaoke and more comedy nights in the coming months. “It means the world that they trusted us to take this over,” says Erin. And that safe, welcoming place remains as Siler and Kumar intended.
The Wheelers hope you’ll come for an after-work happy hour, a pre-dinner drink, or to dance well into the morning. “It has been amazing to see the community be so supportive through all of this,” says Martin. “Neptunes is such an interesting space that’s so many different things for different people throughout the day.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.