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Bar Lusconi: downtown Durham's new hotspot


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There is no flashy neon sign glowing over Bar Lusconi. There is barely any light.

Instead, blank sheets of butcher paper obscure its storefront windows, top to bottom. Tucked in the alcove is an unmarked door.

Bar Lusconi is on a quiet stretch of East Main Street in downtown Durham. Its sister bar, Peccadillo, opened almost two years ago in Carrboro on Brewer Lane, a short street that dead-ends to the railroad tracks.

Owners Timothy Neill and Jesse Gerstl rely solely on word of mouth to attract customers to their hidden speakeasies. Neither bar has a sign or logo, just a barebones website offering nothing more than old-school typeface, an address and a phone number.

But since Bar Lusconi opened three months ago, the crowds are pouring in—attracted to the big personalities serving the drinks—much to the dismay of the regulars.

"People will sometimes lean over the bar and say, 'I'm not going to tell anyone,'" Neill says. "I mean, fanatically. There was this sense of betrayal. We appreciate the fact that you feel unbelievably possessive about our bar, but we need money!"

Bare walls reveal rustic splotches of white and pale blue paint, the original red finish still visible. A wide border at the top leads to a high tin ceiling.

Tawny, weathered slabs were salvaged from the original wood floors to build the bar, drink rail and tables. The speckled burgundy floor was polished and left intact.

Chemistry beakers as a décor focal point can be easy to miss in the dark, until you spot a meandering white lab coat behind the bar. This is standard uniform for all four bartenders at the two bars: Neill, Heather Shores, Michael Cochran and head bartender Dean James.

Maybe it's a nod to madness, but these eccentric "scientists" will tell you what concoction to imbibe, and you have no choice but to try it.

"Tim does a really great job at making you feel like you've been invited over to someone's home," says Lewis Norton, a longtime bartender in downtown Raleigh. "There's an art to making your customer feel that way."

It's what both Neill and James bank on to bring people in the door. In any other city, an unmarked bar would be deemed exclusive and unattainable. Not so around these parts. As the two experienced bartenders have learned the nuances of spirit, wine and beer styles, they hope their offerings are training inexperienced palates while catering their knowledge to veteran drinkers.

Some of the best art emerges through constraints. For Bar Lusconi, the narrow corridor and tight space behind the bar made it impossible for an ice machine to fit. So Neill and James played off their interests in obscure non-cocktails (Lebanese reds, 2007 German Pinot Noirs, a family-owned natural sparkling water brand from Spain) to create a diverse and unexpected menu.

At Bar Lusconi, wine prices start at $42 a bottle, finishing at $86. Beer begins at $7 a glass, closing out at $27. The rare opportunity to try these options at your neighborhood bar is worth the expense.

"I love a lot of N.C. beers and American beers, but it's also really cool to be able to drink a beer that has a two- to five-hundred-year history," says Ben Berry, bartender at Alley Twenty Six and Crook's Corner. "They have a complexity and a [distinct] flavor. It's nice to have a beer that has that legacy.

"What Tim and Dean are doing with their menu is really interesting," Berry continues. "They're not offering people a lot of options that they had before, but are giving them the opportunity to try something that they really like, something that they never had before they walked through the door."

Neill, from Australia, and James, from California, have traipsed the world from New York to San Francisco to Europe to gain their bartending experience. They found not only a mutual interest in spirits but also their spirited demeanors.

James identifies them both as "tall, crusty, sarcastic bartenders."

But there's no room for a cantankerous attitude at the bar. The two have used their charm to develop a rapport with nearly every customer. That's their brand.

For Shores, her first night as a customer at Peccadillo turned into an obsessive barfly tactic to win over the owners and land her dream job.

"I found that place maybe within the first week they opened. I told them very clearly, after many Manhattans, that I was going to work there," she says. "They said no. And I showed up every single day that they were open for four months. I had to work here. The attention to detail. That care, concern and really wanting to enjoy everything you're serving."

Even with their attentiveness to service, Neill emphasizes that the vibe in both bars will always be casual. "We're definitely not fine dining. We're too cheeky for that."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Hiding in plain sight."


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