When you ask people to share the story of Sadlack's—the 39-year-old Raleigh restaurant, bar and music venue that will close next week to make way for the construction of a boutique hotel—they might tell a few tales about bands they've seen on the back patio or lawfully wedded couples that met around the bar. But eventually, most of them will simply recommend that you talk to Brent Wilson, who began going to Sadlack's in 1974 and will stop going there next week, after its grand New Year's Eve finale.
For 51 years, Wilson, who turned 53 last week, has lived within a two-mile radius of Sadlack's. He worked the bar for more than a decade, sparring with his brother whenever they shared a shift. He knows the sandwich combinations by memory and remembers Whiskeytown's first show there. He recalls the names and interests of N.C. State professors who ate there every day for years and reels off the unflattering nicknames of regulars. Looking around the bar on a Wednesday night, he reckons he's known almost everyone around it for at least 20 years. One man was even his babysitter. And in a sense, he was a babysitter to a few others now chatting by the bar, holding bottles of domestic beer and waiting for the inevitable demolition to come. Our conversation was edited for content and clarity. —Grayson Haver Currin
There was a two-year period where I didn't come to Sadlack's. That was 2005, maybe 2006. I started coming back for the same reason I started going back to the gay bars: I truly believe they're better when I'm there.
There was a lot of fighting. Fights—that's a constant leitmotif, a recurring theme here, easily one a month, the whole time. Busts—all of the sudden, the whole bar is arrested. I've seen that twice. It's the archetypal story: Who told you? Who got busted? Who told who? It's like a pop-up book.
Before the renovation a few years ago, you had to really want to drink to come here in the wintertime. It wasn't warm. Everybody smoked inside. But I missed it. I missed the place that made the community that I cared about. A lot of weddings happened here. A lot of funerals happened here. I feel very paternal to some of these people.
I've always thought this was a really special corner in the whole universe. It wasn't just a sandwich place, ever. People's minds got changed here. We'd argue about stuff we cared about, for hours. People's minds were open. This place taught me a lot about love, unconditional love. It's easy to love someone who is nice to you all the time.
The first time I came to Sadlack's was the first week it was open, in 1974. Right before that, this has been a Mediterranean place, the first Mediterranean restaurant in Raleigh, before Neomonde. This guy made his own cucumber yogurt. It was the first pita in Raleigh. It didn't work. He was open for almost a year.
I was doing a show at Theatre in the Park. Some of my friends—the cast and some of my neighbors—had already staked it out. In the beginning, Sadlack's was a destination eatery. I've always been partial to the Super Sprout. A part of me still believes that the combination of Branola bread, mayonnaise, Swiss cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and a big handful of sprouts is Proustian. It's my madeleine.
When Frank Sadlack and then Louis Antonucci owned it, they really did have world-class meats and fresh bread. Those two guys would rather jump in front of a bus than serve a day-old piece of bread. That's how strongly they felt about it. When Louis owned it, too, there was always cheesecake and carrot cake. The cheesecake was from New York, because that was the best. His hard salami was shipped from Italy. He was a foodie before that was a term. My foodie tendencies started here. Before that, I had no idea what the difference was.
Nothing was written down, nothing. It was on the menu, but how to assemble them—what steps to do the steamer and the vegetables go here and the meat goes here—that was all oral history passed down from people who had learned from Frank in 1974.
The cycles were really interesting to watch, too. At the tail end of the people who worked for Louis, there was the heroin crisis. Two or three people went down. One person died, and the other person was too scared to call the cops. And that recycled. Every seven or nine years, those same groups of people would start showing up and working again: "Oh, well, that's going to happen to these guys." It's the same story, just being told over and over again.
During those days, there wasn't any performance here. To Frank, it would be a distraction from the food, the beer and the atmosphere he was trying to create. The music started as jams on the porch—five or six people passing around one guitar, just trading songs and singing. And in the '80s, there was drum circle stuff that ended up at the N.C. State Belltower.
But the first organized music that I remember was a series of benefits with Greenpeace, in '87 or '88. The Greenpeace people came to Raleigh for the first time from D.C., and they were from all over the world. The first benefit for Greenpeace was out in the parking lot. Pretty soon after that first concert for Greenpeace, it became a quarterly thing. Then people said, "Well, what about InterAct, [the domestic violence nonprofit]? What about this? What about that?" At the time, Sadlack's was very much a community center—almost a church for hippies.
The punk scene really happened here, too. They played at The Brewery, but they were being exploited. An all-ages show that costs, what, $10? Here, they could play, and nobody charged them. The punks were not just here to punk out, though. They had benefits. They played benefits for InterAct. They were just looking out for each other.
Sadlack's has always been a bastion of everything liberal. If people had a problem with that, they just didn't come. I was very protected when I first started working here. If anybody started talking bad about fags or whatever, I would say, "Well, I'm a fag. You got a problem with that?" Pretty much every single time, they would go, "No, no, you cool, man."
From the mid-'80s up until 2000, I could come here anytime, night or day, and there would be someone here who I really wanted to talk to and hang out with. A lot of professors hung out here. A lot of grad students came here. And for a long time, I would say until the late '90, there was a healthy student population. We would talk about philosophy, pop culture, music, movies. It was like a salon. People came here not just for food. It was a community.
You could almost say that you learned something new every day. During the late '80s and early '90s, there was always a word of the day. Whoever was working would take a white paper bag—a white Wonder bag is what we'd call them, because that's the name of the company—and write the word out, the pronunciation out and the definition out. If you worked in the word of the day in an ordinary conversation, you got points. It wasn't something that people were keeping track of, but it was very much kept track of in our minds.
I got to watch people want to be the best people they can be. Simone, the bartender, was so different when she came here. She came from The Farmhouse. That's like Wild West Hell, a frontier of underage melee the whole time. All she did there was like, "This is my money." But she's recognized that there is a community here, and she wants to be part of that. She's grown so much, into such an amazing person.
It's like a kiln that way: Stuff gets burned away. Sometimes it cracks.
By 2000, it got to the point where that guarantee wasn't in place—that any time, day or night, somebody would be here that I wanted to hang out with. Some rougher people started hanging out here during the day, hanging out in the back. They didn't have jobs, and they didn't have homes. But they had enough to come for four or five beers. They became a separate community. People would walk by and say, "Wow, that looks like a creepy place. I don't want to go there."
It's hard for me to think about the people who have just discovered Sadlack's, to the people who have just been here 40 times. It's getting ready to go away.
I'm probably spending more time here than I normally would because of that. I don't love trivia here. It's the I'm-smarter-than-you-are kind of trivia, which is fine if you are in middle school. But I just found out today that this is the last one. Next week, who knows what's going to happen?
The Hillsborough Hike, on the last day of N.C. State's classes, used to start at Players' Retreat. The third place was here. During every hike, a certain amount of students just stayed here. They felt like they'd found something they'd been missing. If there was music, all the better. Who wants to walk from bar to bar when it's raining? I'll just stay here and listen to the music. There was a recognition of a feeling of community that they never had before. That's what it is, and I think it's strong. It's revelatory. It's always been here.
When the Mormon church moved in next door, I thought, "Wow, another church on the same street! What's going to happen?" Some people snuck away from there and came here, just to figure it out: "What's it all about? You guys all look so happy. Is there another possible way to live other than the way I'm living?"
When you get anybody to question something that they'd always believed, that's power. It's not personal power. It's place power.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The life and death of Sadlack's."