The way I see it, at Durham's Five Points intersection, a main point is whiskey. The bar that bears the name Whiskey, offers some 250 varieties of the liquor. Bull McCabes serves a dependable Irish Jameson, and Mateo Bar de Tapas proffers a bright Ferdinand: Maker's Mark with ginger-apple shrub and ginger beer. And at Pizzeria Toro, you can enjoy a neat glass of Bulleit. But there are other options to explore and, in an attempt to break habit, I often do.
The biggest challenge comes from Mateo—the lively, high-ceilinged tapas restaurant, which boasts an unusually extensive offering of sherry, in addition to an impressive array of Spanish wines. At this relatively new restaurant, where tables are still hard to come by, the easiest seat to snag without a reservation is right in the heart of it all, at the bar. There, the drinks are in sight, the bartenders are knowledgeable, and the chorizo-wrapped deviled eggs are on the ready.
Across the street, Pizzeria Toro draws an equally robust crowd most nights of the week. Tucked in one arm of the L-shaped restaurant, Pizzeria Toro's low-lit bar is separate from the communal-style dining room. Still, it's no less spirited and the dinner menu is available. Toro has a solid list of Italian wines and beers, but the best-kept secret is the $3 tallboy Tecate, which, upon request, comes caked in a layer of salt and paired with a wedge of lime.
Good beers are, in fact, a staple across town. Even Whiskey, the dark cigar bar where smoking is still permissible—although you have to be 23 to enter—rotates a bevy of North Carolina brews. Bull McCabes slings beers from 20 taps. And farther east on Main Street, The Pinhook, also hosts a range—from PBR tallboys to Bell's Two Hearted Ale on draught. During early evenings, before the bar ushers in a steady lineup of musicians, your (well-behaved) dog can join you for a drink inside or on The Pinhook's back patio, which allows a great view of Durham's American Tobacco Campus.
When it comes to Durham's front patios, The Federal, James Joyce and Alivia's Durham Bistro all have dibs on a compact stretch of West Main Street. At The Federal, choose from a good selection of microbrews. At the Joyce, grab a Guinness. And at Alivia's, get a North Carolina draft—only $4 on Wednesdays.
Several spots in the city create their own brews. Downtown, Bull City Burger and Brewery serves a British-style IPA and a barley wine ale, among other concoctions. For wine enthusiasts, there's also a self-serve Enomatic, which dispenses beverages by the glass. The bar at Bull City is generally packed, but at heart, the brewery is a restaurant. Thus, it's not a spot for late-night drinkers, closing at 10 on weeknights, 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 8 p.m. on Sundays.
Across from the downtown post office, Alley Twenty Six is a spot for those who fancy a considered beverage.
Open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, Fullsteam Brewery keeps local beers flowing in Durham's Central Park district. That's not to say that it merely caters to an evening crowd. The cavernous bar is one of the most family-friendly spots in Durham, as late afternoons find almost as many children there as adults. Old arcade games and a pingpong table provide entertainment. A slew of food trucks make for meals. And for the of-legal-drinking-age, Fullsteam's plow-to-pint drinks (think sweet potato and grit-based beers) are available.
Circling the block finds good neighbors by way of booze. The closest stop is Motorco Music Hall, a garage-turned-music-venue where Sunday brunch is key for bloody marys and a show. Around the corner, Geer Street Garden also serves Sunday drinks at its brunch buffet. Soothe a hangover from any one of Geer Street's stock of cocktails consumed the night before—say, the Ginger Rogers (gin, mint, ginger syrup and lime juice) or the Bee Sting (tequila, black pepper, honey and orange). Just watch for the morning sun at Geer Street's many outdoor picnic tables.
Surf Club has its own patio with a window for patrons to order drinks without ever stepping inside the bar. That would be a shame, however. In an understated way, it's one of the better-looking places in town. There's no hokey tiki motif as its name suggests—just subtle white tiles and a glossy black bar. Similarly simple yet pleasing are the potables: a short list of draughts, several canned beers and standard well drinks.
Next door, The Bar lures a crowd for its covered back patio, tiki bar and games. Though it has changed hands several times over the years, the building at 711 Rigsbee Ave. has been an LGBTQ go-to spot for two decades. It's also the home of the Bull City Dart League.
For more competitive gaming, visit The Green Room. The no-frills bar has roughly 10 full-sized pool tables and two APA league nights (Mondays and Wednesdays). A row of worn, wooden auditorium chairs lines each side of the building, providing ample viewing space for those who wish to sit it out with a good beer. The Green Room offers only cans and bottles, but in about 100 varieties. It's tough to decide, which could be said about the varied drink choices in Durham, and that's far from a complaint.