Slim’s: The best worst bar

Van Alston, Slim's Downtown Distillery, Cheerwine Shot

by Tracy Davis

photographs by Jason Dail

The grittiest rock & rollers ain’t in it for their health, which they tend to prove by looking their best when it’s very dark and very late. That’s true for the clubs and bars they play in, too, which is why I’m a little surprised that on a recent sunny afternoon, Slim’s – which opened its doors in 1999 and ranks as Raleigh’s oldest living rock & roll bar – looks downright … pretty.

Turns out, today’s mysterious loveliness is coming from a massive stock of Fireball whiskey installed three-deep and nine-wide on a single shelf. The bottles catch the light slanting over Wilmington Street and cast an amber glow that makes everyone in here look vaguely angelic, though I’m guessing they’re not. This is Raleigh’s best dive bar, after all, and “We’re the best worst bar!” is a Slim’s rallying cry.

The tipoff is the floor and the bathrooms, which are a fright. But who cares? Aren’t we all shiny in some ways, a little scruffy in others?  That’s how it is with Slim’s, and that’s why it’s Raleigh’s Everyman bar.

True Grit

Ask owner Van Alston where Slim’s shines brightest, and he’ll explain that it’s a value thing. “Our drinks are cheaper, plus we pour them strong. Can you double the inexpensiveness?”  He ponders, decides. “Yes, that’s what we do.”

Alston moved to Raleigh from Greensboro in 1981 to attend N.C. State, where he studied for seven years before conferring upon himself a degree in beer. The decision has served him well. He’s good at bars, having owned a slew of them over the past 20 years; now he’s holding steady at a comfortable three, including Mojoe’s Burger Joint and The Cave, over in Chapel Hill. He’s still a loyal Wolfpacker: the Cave’s location vexes him kind of a lot.

Of them all, he loves Slim’s best. “I’d rather make a little and stay here forever than do something different elsewhere.”

When Alston talks about why that is, the fact that Slim’s is a brick and mortar business doesn’t factor in much. He’ll tell you about the people who work there, the musicians who come to play, and the diverse crowd that claims Slim’s as its own.

Check out the affectionate snark of the staff biographies on the Slim’s website, penned by either Alston or his nephew Matt Alston (a former Slim’s barkeep himself). Obviously, Alston not only has full confidence in his people, he thinks they’re fun to hang with. Otherwise, why all the holiday parties, to which we’re all invited?

There’s Slimsmas (usually in July, “right about the time the world needs a really good Christmas party”), Slimsversary (on April 15, celebrating Slim’s opening) and Slimspocalypse, the rationale for which Alston no longer recalls. “We sort of make them up on the fly,” he explains.

And, there’s music, almost nightly, which covers all bases: acoustic Americana one night, death metal potent enough to make your ears bleed the next. Since the venue’s capacity is 100, you can be as close to the action as you like, whether that’s for an up-and-coming band or for bona fide rock stars like Shovels & Rope who sell out a show in minutes and play this tiniest of venues just because they like it. Alston offers generous booking terms to bands but still keeps the cover charge low, so Slim’s offers a win-win for both musician and fan. Bands that go from little to big – like American Aquarium –  tend to remember things like that.

In his self-deprecating way, Alston sums it up by saying that what makes Slim’s tick is “the absence of things that suck.”  This may be true, but that’s not all.

This is Van’s place

Alston’s longtime friend Ashley Christensen knows her way around a bar. In addition to her flagship restaurant Poole’s, she owns four venues within a few steps of Slim’s front door, each providing the finest of libations. Ask Christensen to name her favorite bar, not only on this street, but the planet? Slim’s, she’ll say, which also serves as “the office” in the AC-Restaurants world.

“Slim’s has it all,” Christensen says. It’s “a proper watering hole, not pretentious, where you can get a quality drink.”  From a seat at the bar, early on a Friday evening, she gestures to the dark stretches of quieter space; there’s a pool table upstairs, and out back is the most smoker-friendly, anti-fern-bar patio in the history of man.“You can choose to disappear and digest your day, or hang with friends,” whatever it is that you’re after. What Christensen’s after, and what she and others find here, is more than a drink. “This is Van’s place.”

She emphasizes each word, making the point that Slim’s is what it is because Alston wants it to be this. “When you share what you do best, with those you appreciate most?  That’s special,” she says. “Slim’s belongs to me more than anything I could ever own.”

That’s because what Slim’s also serves up, free of charge, is community. Local musicians gather when their peers take to the stage, the kitchen and wait staff from downtown restaurants come by after work, and there’s still room for banker and lawyer types.

People who spend next to no time in their own hometowns, like the roadies working big shows at Walnut Creek and PNC Arena, treat it like their hometown bar. Christensen brings her visiting chef friends; the roadies bring their colleagues, too. Do I regret not stopping by Slim’s after the Boss played PNC? I do. As one of Raleigh’s smallest and skinniest bars, Slim’s occupies a pretty big space.

Slims: 227 S. Wilmington St.; 919-833-6557;

Van Alston, Slim's Downtown Distillery, Cheerwine Shot

Slim’s Cheerwine shot
As told by Van Alston

I really wanted a cocktail that tasted like Cheerwine. It’s my favorite beverage in the world. So I tasked Matt Alston and Mark Connor with coming up with this drink. I estimate that they spent $3 million in the development of this drink. I would come in to the bar, and one would be working, the other drunk. I’d look for a tab; there wouldn’t be one. Just a bunch of scratch marks under “Cheerwine Project.” With straight faces, they would tell me they were working hard on the project. Well, finally one night about midnight I get a call. Mark and Matt are excited. “We’ve got it. Get down here, NOW.” “Got what?” “Cheerwine. Dude. It’s perfect.” I rolled out of bed and damned if they didn’t have it nailed. Tastes exactly like Cheerwine. And, I might add, worth every penny of the “development” costs.

1 ounce Sailor Jerry Rum
(or any spiced rum, but we use Sailor)
1 ounce Amaretto
A dash of Grenadine
Shake over ice, strain into a rocks glass.
Add: Equal parts Coca-Cola and Sprite until the glass is 3/4 full.

That’s it. Now you drink it.