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A spirited search for the perfect hotel bar



Stengel probably drank in hotel bars out of necessity.

After all, the legendary baseball player and manager was on the road much of his life. But many of us, packing no more than the name of a local cab company, choose hotel bars for drinks.

Sometimes the allure is history. Many a would-be writer has hoped for alchemy to occur while drinking at New York's Algonquin and imagining James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and the rest of the Round Table back in the day. There's a palpable connection to history at the Round Robin Bar in Washington D.C.'s Willard Hotel as you drink where Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln whiled away the hours. (It's also where Henry Clay is credited with popularizing the mint julep among the D.C. drinking class.)

Sometimes trendiness is the draw. You can glimpse stars—Hollywood not celestial—at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge or LA's Chateau Marmont. Visit Miami Beach's The Martini Bar at The Raleigh or the Bleau Bar at the Fontainbleau to feel as if you've crashed the set of a Versace commercial, with everything luxurious and everyone impossibly beautiful.

While the Triangle may not have hotel bars that can boast of being the birthplace of the Cosmopolitan (as The Strand in Miami does, to some disagreement) or the originator of the Martini like the Knickerbocker in New York, our area does have a few hotel watering holes worth frequenting.

"The bar itself needs to be comfortable," says Mark Pudlow, a friend of mine who has traveled extensively in his role as a Florida Education Association employee. "I rarely sit at tables at a hotel bar unless I'm with a larger group, so how comfortable and relaxing the bar is becomes a major point."

That of course leads to the quality of the bartender.

"How attentive is the bartender?" Pudlow says. "This is a bigger deal in hotel bars than in regular taverns. For whatever reason, lots of hotel bartenders seem to have other tasks and they don't seem to care as much about the customer as chatting up other staff, doing work somewhere else, etc. This is less a problem in more upscale hotels."

One other critical factor, Pudlow says, is "how much does the bar separate itself from the hotel. In many hotel bars, you never forget you're in a hotel. You ought to be able to." (Pudlow's favorite hotel bar is the one that doubles as a jazz club in the Royal Sonesta in New Orleans.)

So I went seeking local hotel bars worth checking into a barstool more than once.

Residing in the land of elegant enjoyment is the bar at The Umstead Hotel & Spa (100 Woodland Pond Drive, Cary, 919-447-4000, theumstead.com). Forgetting that a hotel surrounds the bar is easy, as it is tucked deep inside the Umstead. Even midweek it bustles. A group of lawyers from out of town are at one corner of the bar having a drink and discussing whether to try "someplace called Burger-Fi" or ask the front desk for nearby barbecue suggestions (they chose barbecue).

A couple with a 20-year age difference enters and the man, the older of the two, asks for "seating with low light." Romance? Affair? Escort? It is fun to speculate while sipping one of the Umstead's signature seasonal cocktails, such as the Martinez, the Baltic Spike or the Winterlesque. The service is excellent: You'll be in superb hands with Katya, but everyone on staff knows how to treat a customer.

"I like coming here because it's like an escape from the day-to-day," said a local accountant who didn't want to give his name.

Filling the didn't-know-it-existed family bar niche is the Embassy Suites (4700 Creedmoor Road, Raleigh, 919-881-0000, embassysuites.hilton.com/Raleigh) across from Crabtree Mall. One recent night an office party was held in one section and a family reunion-style party in another. A dozen or so people sat at the bar proper. An older couple asked the bartender about a large assortment of kids passing through the lobby (which fronts more of the bar than is ideal). He explained there are often children's parties on weekends, no doubt attracted in part by the indoor pool. That same night there were two birthday pool party sleepovers that morphed into one because both groups knew one another from school.

The family appeal can lead to such conversational gems as this:

Man at bar: Where are you from?

Woman at bar: Greenville. And you?

Man: Wilmington.

Woman: Why are you here?

Man: I'm taking my baby doll to Disney on Ice.

Woman: Your baby dog?!?!?!?

Man: No, no, my baby doll, my daughter.

Woman: Ohhhhh...

Walk toward the rear of the lobby of the Renaissance in North Hills and past the restaurant on the right and you'll find the well-designed Flights (4100 Main at North Hills Street, Raleigh, 919-278-1478, flightsnorthhills.com). A corner area contains chairs and a loveseat-size sofa under a big TV. There are similar groupings in other spots, plus traditional table-and-chair options. Alert, conversational bartenders anticipate your needs. The crowd consists of travelers (businessmen discussing green cards and an upcoming trip to Jordan) and locals (couples on dates in khakis and skirts, a man alone in jeans and a polo grabbing a drink after shopping). A hotel guest at the bar lamented the loss of pork chops from the menu. The ones they once served were made from magical pigs, chewed by angels and made you feel 10 years younger, or so his half-hour elegy made it seem.

On one occasion a couple of younger gentlemen came in and requested two cups of ice. They then went to the aforementioned corner to watch the game that was airing and, producing a bottle of their own, poured themselves drinks. Within 10 minutes a manager arrived and discreetly informed them this was impermissible. It was deftly handled and was impressive as there was never any disrespect shown toward the two young men.

The Skybox Grill & Bar at the North Raleigh Hilton (3415 Wake Forest Road, 919-878-4917, theskyboxgrillandbar.com) is a sports bar's sports bar with 40-plus 50-inch flat-screen TVs and two large projection screens. Locals turn out for big games, and with good reason. The sheer number of TVs means you can watch your game while keeping tabs on several others. And, to paraphrase the old Jerry Lee Lewis song, you "can still see the game in the restroom."

A variety of North Carolina brewed beers are available. Servers are good about having your next one ready when you are. Back and forth cheering and good-natured ribbing fill the room during busy times.

There is no sign of the hotel within the bar, which has its own entrance from the parking lot. Sit and sip for hours and never see a luggage cart roll by. No one will blame you for forgetting you're at a hotel and thinking you've wandered into a neighborhood hangout.

Jimmy V's Osteria & Bar (420 Fayetteville St., 919-256-1451, jimmyvsraleigh.com) at the Sheraton in downtown Raleigh, has excellent food. That also holds it back. It feels much more like a restaurant with a bar "area" than a hotel bar. A crowd often gathers around the bar, but many patrons are glancing at the hostess to see if their table is ready. The folks driven by thirst rather than hunger tend to be lively, fueled in part by a selection of N.C.-brewed beers and a house-made limoncello that packs as much potency as it does taste.

Several women are dressed in cute skirts, sparkly tops and strappy heels of dizzying heights. They are either overdressed or heading for dance floors elsewhere after drinks.

One evening the bar was a wide-ranging portrait of a group of six waiting on a table for dinner on one side, another group of four 30-something women having some wine before heading to a nearby '80s club and, sandwiched between the boisterous groups, a lone hotel guest eating a burger and drinking a beer while watching basketball.

The Top of the Tower restaurant/Lounge at the Clarion(320 Hillsborough St., 919-832-0501, ihg.com/holidayinn), now a Holiday Inn, greets you with a wall of windows with a view of Raleigh 20 floors below. It's a view that makes a first-time guest say "Wow, I didn't know this was here," as she walked in.

Grab a table next to the windows and soak it all in. You will likely have plenty of time to pick out various landmarks. A recent weeknight saw five people (one duo, one trio) sitting at the bar and another 10 in two groups of five sitting at tables. A lone bartender was taking care of everyone. Between pouring drinks, checking on tables and ferrying food from the kitchen the resulting pace of service was not exactly efficient. At times it veered closer to nonexistent. A plate of nachos arrived lukewarm, either the victim of poor execution by the kitchen or the result of sitting too long before being delivered to the table.

The room feels like any you've ever been in for a hotel's complimentary breakfast. In fact, part of the buffet station sat against the far wall. Seven TVs—three behind the bar, four above the table area—were showing a wide range of programming from the Olympics to The Bachelor. But you're not there for the décor or the televisions. That "wow" view is what catches your eye and is a legitimate reason to return. Just make sure you're not in a hurry.

The Roberts Lounge at the Franklin Hotel (311 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 919-442-9000, franklinhotelnc.com) has much to commend it. A fireplace sits at one end of the room. Glasses never sit empty for long. Large stuffed chairs and sofas envelop you, making it easy to while away a few hours.

However, it is tiny, with a capacity of 75 people, but far fewer can cause the narrow, rectangular space to shift from cozy to cramped. During one visit a couple snuggled on a sofa near the fireplace checking their iPad while other folks sat at the bar and a foursome enjoyed cocktails in a corner, resting their drinks on the small side tables and coffee tables. A separate visit found twice the people but half the pleasure. Conversations tumbled on top of one another, creating a volume level higher than the old money look of the place predicts.

However, if you want to enjoy a cocktail on a sunny Sunday afternoon you will need to skip the Roberts. It's closed, maybe because of antiquated blue laws, as one desk clerk suggested, which is beyond the Roberts' control. Yet when you're looking for a bar to enjoy, you care whether it is open, not why it isn't.

On that same Sunday, mere blocks away, the Crossroads Bar at the Carolina Inn (211 Pittsboro St., Chapel Hill, 919-918-2777, carolinainn.com) was serving. A spring-summoning sun streamed through the windows even though it was midwinter. Moulding and chair rails lend a light touch of formality. Thoughts of visiting an aunt, the one near Savannah who married money not the one in a trailer in Kennesaw, come to mind.

Sit at the bar, at a table or, make the most relaxing choice, commandeer an accommodating leather chair positioned near the fireplace for a view of the television—assuming the wall cabinet above the fireplace that hides it is open. It was showing football this day. A TV behind the bar aired futbol, as much for the staff as the patrons; it was only half angled toward the front of the bar. If you have time, peruse the dozens of cartoons from The Daily Tar Heel blanketing the walls.

Service approaches over-the-top in its deference, lots of half-whispered "Is there anything else I can get you, sir" and "Allow me, madam" utterances delivered with little nods hinting at a bow. The only time it sounded more downtown diner than Downton Abbey was when an employee had to shout "LADIES, TEA IS NOW SERVED!" to a group of two dozen women whose "Hey, how are youuuuus?" and "I haven't seen you in forevAHs" had risen to a dull roar in the bar where they waited for tea service to be set up in a neighboring room. Eavesdrop on murmured conversations about children in college, a business issue or Roy Williams's coaching style. It's a genteel good time.

Walk into the lobby at the Siena Hotel (1505 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 919-929-4000, sienahotel.com) and you're essentially in the bar, sitting at one end of the large open space. Settle onto a stool and try in vain for an interesting vista. Look back to watch check-ins at the front desk? Yawn. Look to the right onto the outdoor seating area? It no doubt is livelier in warmer months, but even so the backdrop is the hotel parking lot and the traffic of East Franklin Street. A television perches above the bar's tables, but considering professional bowling filled the screen at a time when every other public TV in town was tuned to the NFL playoffs, it's not much of a focal point either.

I'm not sure which part of the equation was challenging but a simple order of "a Glenlivet and a splash" sent a bartender scurrying for help from an older colleague in the restaurant down the hall. A short-haired staff member stood behind the bar toweling glasses with a coworker while complaining about his lack of time off. Frankly, forgetting about such things is often why we go to bars: involuntarily hearing about his day-to-day problems defeats the purpose.

Lone bright spot Alannah juggled some non-bar-related duties but diligently checked on customers, both at the bar and scattered at tables. Though a lively sound emanates through the hallway from the restaurant Il Palio the bar is quiet. No one stays long. There is no reason to do so.

The bar at the downtown Durham Marriott (201 Foster St., 919-768-6000, marriott.com) also shares the lobby. There's no escaping the hotel feeling there, but, unlike the Siena, a maze of greenery, varying floor levels and an indoor fountain provides a bit of lobby insulation. The water provides a relaxing aural backdrop, though it sounds more spa than bar. Bar stools with comfortable backs welcome you to stay a while. James, tending bar, does the same, chatting amiably. You wouldn't raise an eyebrow if he called you "dude" but you know his bosses would.

A group of men in business suits talk nearby. Not being fluent in Japanese, eavesdropping (a fave hotel bar pastime) is out of the question. A woman in a tailored navy pantsuit meets a similarly attired friend for drinks at another table. Work, movies and wine dominate their discussion.

James says locals regularly stop by, especially when there are shows at the Carolina Theatre or events at the Convention Center. They also turn out on holidays, he says, "because they know the Marriott has to stay open even when everything else is closed." It isn't a holiday, but more than a few locals drift in for a midweek after work drink.

With its golf course proximity you may expect the Bull Durham Bar at the Washington Duke Inn (3001 Cameron Blvd., Durham, 919-490-0999, washingtondukeinn.com) to be teeming with Judge Elihu Smalls types from Caddyshack. Toss those preconceptions. The buzz of conversation fills the room even on a chilly midweek night. When you grab the last empty stool the bartender's "Hey buddy, what can I get you?" is delivered with such enthusiasm and sincerity you feel as if he had been saving the seat for you.

A group of nine college-age women sit at tables pushed together. Preppy-looking couples on dates dot the room (OK, no Judge Smalls but maybe a Ty Webb or two is present). A couple of tables appear to be Duke students dining with their parents. Waiters dart back and forth.

An older couple sits at the bar, having dinner and drinks. They chat with the younger man who sits next to them for a Torch pilsner on draft. Within 10 minutes they've gone from strangers to friendly conversation about college affiliations, work and an upcoming Duke basketball game.

ESPN, ESPN2, Golf Channel and CNN can be seen on the televisions behind the bar. Two men huddle over printouts and discuss "needing a communications team, a number cruncher and a solution team" for a project. Then the one leading the conversation declares "I'm really a morning idea person. I'll wake up tomorrow with at least six on this." He then ordered a Fullsteam. Work was clearly done. He was in a good spot. So too were the rest of us.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Good libations."

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