Here’s a thought. A little bar-hopping in a great bar town just might do you good. After all, bars are in business for one reason: to make you happy. And if I learned one thing in the exhaustive investigative research conducted to write this story, it’s that the folks running the best bars in Raleigh are more passionate about making you happy than you could ever know.
For this outing, I decided to narrow my list to six bars, which proved to be a lot harder than I expected. With so many choices, it was painful to leave off some of my go-to favorites. After careful consideration, however, my approach was simple: Mix some nostalgia with new Raleigh cool, explore, and keep moving. Come on, I’ll take you along.
6:45 p.m. Kicking things off in Midtown at Vivace (4209 Lassiter Mill Rd.), the bar is as gorgeous as ever as the soft evening sun lightens the room. With its sleek décor and airy, comfortable interior, Vivace has sex appeal to spare. This metropolitan trattoria has developed a loyal coterie of regulars, including residents of the tony neighborhoods just across the Beltline. “It’s a hangout,” said bartender Garrett Daly. “We have a lot of patrons who are single, and they feel comfortable coming here because they usually run into friends.” Daly introduces me to Vivace’s signature selection of house-made cellos, the fruit-infused, high-proof grain spirits used to make an array of specialty cocktails such as the “Agrodolce” (orangecello) and the “Cello Punzone” (lemoncello). The “Mojito Italiano” (limecello) is truly one of the best drinks I’ve ever tasted. Bellisima.
8:10 p.m. On to the venerable saloon Player’s Retreat (105 Oberlin Rd.), which owner Gus Gusler has transformed into a hybrid sports bar/whisky emporium/gastropub. Still famous (since 1951) for the fresh-ground black angus “Bernie Burger,” named for original owner Bernie Hanula, the PR now wins awards from Wine Spectator and trots out foie gras and the occasional lobster from the kitchen of chef Jean Paul Fontaine. Behind the bar, the largest collection of single-malt scotches in North Carolina, 60 of them, is lined up in alphabetical order. Let Bert MacMillan, the 17-year veteran bartender, be your guide into a Raleigh treasure that is enjoying its second heyday. My tab: one Pabst Blue Ribbon – $1.50.
9:22 p.m. I confess, Sushi Blues (301 Glenwood Ave.) may be my favorite restaurant in Raleigh. A big reason is the bar, which does not get the credit it deserves as one of the coolest spaces in town. As luck would have it, I run into barkeep Andrew Duong, who is on the drinking side for a change. Andy has greeted folks like me (and my wife, Kristin – we had our first date here) with his movie-star smile for a full decade now, which is crazy since he looks like he’s 18. He orders a Kieran Ichiban draft for me (after 10 years, he knows), and asks about the kids. Great bar, great sushi, even better people.
10:25 p.m. I mosey across Glenwood Avenue to check out Clockwork (519 W. North St.), the groovy new bar and eatery from owner and erstwhile designer Souheil al-Awar, a graduate of the N.C. State School of Design. This little box of a place, with a garage door that opens the room completely to the outside, is Souheil’s homage to mod London, circa 1970. “A labor of love,” he says, as he describes the custom-designed interior and curated furnishings. Named in reference to the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange, the concept-forward café/bar is as close to an East Village hideaway as anything in town. Try the “Oscar Niemeyer Caipirinha,” made with cachaca and named for the iconoclastic Brazilian architect, and you’ll blend right in.
11:31 p.m. Time to go old-school, in one of the newest and best-looking bars in Raleigh. The Royal James (108 E. Hargett St.), which opened in November, is the swanky, grown-up rock ’n’ roll lounge from nightlife impresario Jason Howard, who also brought the Brooklyn Heights pub to Glenwood South. Catering to a clientele 25 and up, the Royal James (named for a pirate ship in Blackbeard’s fleet) specializes in classic cocktails – martinis, Tom Collinses, Manhattans and old fashioneds – and a diverse clientele. Bartender Dana Pritchett serves up an old fashioned with Knob Creek Rye that looks styled to fit the décor: dark, sophisticated and artfully eclectic, like Keith Richards’ basement, the perfect place for a whiskey ’round midnight.
12:25 a.m. Before we roll through Krispy Kreme, let’s look in on Spy (330 West Davie St.) in the Warehouse District. I’m not a club guy, but I like that every night at Spy is different. DJs spin everything from throwback soul and hip hop to high-energy house music. You might catch a comic at work or a cabaret review. Tonight it was drum and bass, with a young crowd showing off their hard-step shuffle moves. On another night, the atmosphere could be more suit-and-tie than glow sticks and hula hoops. General manager Stefanie Baxter says that despite being a private event space, the public is welcome every night from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. On the cocktail menu I see the “Big League Chew,” a triple-flavored vodka confection that tastes like, yep, bubble gum. Which reminds me – it’s way past my bedtime.
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