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Doing battle with Chapel Hill's nightlife

Or, dives and meat markets

by and

We are soldiers. Well, I am. I am an infantryman with extensive, but basic, training in the trenches of drinking. But George Hage--a college friend one year my elder and my companion for the next two nights--is a three-star general. He was trained in the back of a rock 'n' roll touring van and in the hallways of Raleigh's University Towers. The dude puts them down with a militant, unflinching glare.

First battle: A pint of Newcastle at The Library, a Franklin Street club that mixes in hip-hop weekenders with Indie Rock Tuesdays. At 11 p.m., it's boring. The bartender doesn't have his tie on yet and the DJ is opening crates. But that gives us a chance to talk about the early '80s punk scene in Los Angeles to a stranger, a former punk who lived that scene and survived it. He and George argue about Soundgarden, and George puts up a good fight for "Spoonman." But this cat was there, too, and he wins.

We start the night in earnest like it should end: burritos and Coronas at Cosmic Cantina. Cosmic is perhaps the only way to eat healthy late-night food in Chapel Hill; I've been known to eat a deluxe vegetarian burrito with fresh hot sauce for consecutive meals. This is George's first trip, and he's in love.

We head for the East End Oyster & Martini Bar door, staying long enough to drop a $3 cover, use the bathroom and hear half of a tepid cover of Radiohead's "High and Dry." This place is hot and crowded, so much so that I literally brush against the neck of the electric guitar during a rawkin' solo. How rude. Well, not me, exactly. In this expensive, stuffy, old-dudes-in-beach-shirts, young-gals-in-not-much drag, I think I'm rather polite.

We find comfort downstairs in the collegiate, relaxed division of the bar, The Deep End, drinking 25-cent Bud Light in plastic cups and talking to Kelly, a graduate student fascinated with our "Professional Reporter's Notebooks." George is convinced I should have asked for her number, but I have to split when someone dials Radiohead's "High and Dry." Soldiers don't do repeats.

Equally disappointing is Zog's, a sports bar with four small TVs and Golden Tee 2005. Jennifer, our bartender, is the best thing about this place, except perhaps for their ice cold Sambuca, a thick, licorice-like alcohol that knocks me into gear for the night.

Leaving Zog's but glancing in its dim, dull upstairs pool hall, we pace for Lucy's, a pleasant place where people dance with that ridiculous one-two, left-right, duck-awkward step, the punnily named DJ Tanner sadly spinning "Return of the MACK." John Courage is my pint of choice. The conversation is friendly enough: Elizabeth started her executive MBA program today and is out with friends. She runs marathons, so she likes liquor mixed with Red Bull. These drinks are healthy, she argues. I, a science nerd, know better than to argue back. Eventually, George and I step out of Lucy's, dropping some dap down on Joe's fist and heading toward Rosemary Street. That is, until I stop dead in my tracks, struck cold by the mellifluousness of Scandinavian accents at our back.


He turns around and--as if we had secretly contrived our strategy for meeting gorgeous European women--we simultaneously smile and approach.

"Joe, don't charge them the cover, man," I say, slapping the tired vanguard on the back. "Say, is that Swedish?"

Both return the stupid smiles George and I offer, and they admit that it is. Three seconds later, I'm professing my love for Dungen, a combustible Swedish psychedelic rock band that I recently traveled to Chicago to see. They aren't familiar, but I manage to score points with my pronunciations and fragmentary translations. Luckily, they never ask if I speak Swedish, so I never have to admit that I don't. Soldiers move on.

Too lucky to know our own good fortune, George and I manage a "Goodnight" before heading across the highway to Hell. First, though, we stop by Bub O'Malleys, a cheesy pub above Hell with cheap pitchers. We notice how quiet the bar seems, and, as we walk through the entrance, I'm greeted with what I can only hope is the night's most surreal encounter: Two older Latino men sitting in an empty college bar, speaking frantically in Spanish above the music, which--I couldn't be kidding--is Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," booming as loud as Freddie Mercury's prance. Magnifico, indeed.

We stop by the bathroom, wondering aloud who put the beer bottles in the urinals and how long they've been there. Eternity, perhaps? I spy the In-Line, above-stall advertising, hoping that this promotion infiltration is the stuff that turns a popular bar sour.

We descend to Hell, noting that the Wetlands--Chapel Hill's newest rock club--is closed for the night and hoping that no one has ever referred to Bub O'Malleys as Heaven.

Hottest gang in Hell - PHOTO BY YORK WILSON
Contrary to popular East Franklin-ian opinion, Hell is one of the coolest places in Chapel Hill, both in temperament and temperature. It carries some qualities and clientele that define the West Franklin aesthetic, but it's unabashedly friendly--if you're not scared of pierced people dressed in one shade of black. Sure, you may not reach the same conclusion if you're a fellow wearing a pink Polo shirt with a popped collar, too-small khaki shorts and a belt with nine irons and putters, but why would you do that, anyway?

The doorman is liberal with the membership policy, and guests are gracious enough to sign us in just for asking. With "Baba O'Riley" blaring in the background (followed by some House of Pain--"Everlast is the greatest white rapper ever," I kid), it takes the bartender three tries to tell me that Duck Rabbit Milk Stout only comes in a bottle here. For the uninitiated, The Duck Rabbit Brewery is the finest secret of Farmville, N.C., and their Milk Stout is rich and creamy, an aftertaste like an alcoholic latte. It's my favorite thing to drink, and the brewery's trademark porter is near the top five of that list, too.

But bottles are for people without drinking budgets and with car keys, and--tonight--I'm the inverse. I go with a pint of Duck Rabbit Amber Ale, which is decent but certainly not one of my beloved stouts. George thinks it goes down much easier than the stout, and I mentally note that this boy may need more hair on his chest.

Sitting near a pool table, I notice that Che Guevara hangs above several tables in the adjacent portion of the block-U club, and George W. Bush is planted on the exit end of the door, horns intact.

Wait, doesn't that mean he's Satan, who would surely be Lord down here? I can't escape him, even in Hell ... but maybe I can in Sweden. Wait, Sweden ... Ahh, Sweden!

"George, George, why did we leave those Swedish girls?"

Without a word, the synchronized sipping turns into no-choice chugging, both of us taking to the pints one second and sliding them across the bar top in the next. One more, and we're up the stairs.

Joe assures us that the trans-oceanics we seek are inside. We wander through the bar and then step up to the patio doors. George, with those dreaded four words, spots them first: "Damn, they're with dudes."

He mentions that he may go ask them out, regardless. After all, he assures me, they'll be here only four months. What's to lose? The pesky, half-afraid soldier I am, I urge Gen. George to advance the lines. He does just that, as I watch from behind the safety of the door. These dudes, dressed in American frat undergrad garb, look petrified; the moment George launches in, they look down like whipped puppies. Alas, they intend to make no plans tonight.

Soldiers, we advance to Players. One floor above Franklin Street, Players is a dance club with those whirligig lights on the floor and very little illumination in the corners. George and I stand there, probably looking like stalkers, me with my after-commencement scruff and George with no expression at all. Yes, we're still taking notes, staring at everybody. We simply need some of those chaperone balloons, and we'd essentially be high-school administrators.

"It's a fantasy land for grinders, bumpers and humpers, all noble occupations in which I am not trained and/or skilled."

"Club Dryhump," George says, then scribbles.

I ask for a High Life, and the bartender obliges--with a High Life Light. Hmm, a fat joke or a misunderstanding? Well, I guess nothing gets more explicit than no tip. War.

Out the door, we get subterranean in Goodfellas, a normally crowded bar that hits peaks and valleys in this undergraduate off-season. At the friendly bartender's encouragement, I order a bottle of Blue Star, the less fruity cousin of Blue Moon, she says. George sucks down a Stoli Star, making us celestially proficient, I muse. After he chats up some annoying lasses just in from a Kenny Chesney show (fair warning, y'all?), I tell him we've got to hit The Library for last call.

The Library is hopping now, the dance floor teeming with more grinders and hook-up finders. But the bar area is still palatable. We meet a group of friends that met here from Raleigh and Durham and discuss Raleigh hangouts, music journalism and how much last calls suck. When the place clears out, we high-five cops and jayrun to Hector's, an upstairs, late-night dive with delicious cheeseburger pitas smothered in fresh vegetables. Before we slur the laughing pack a goodnight, one of the friends, Courtney, gives us her number and tells us she's up for tomorrow's West Franklin campaign.

This end of Franklin Street at 3 a.m. teems with taxis, and it takes about 20 seconds to get one. The $14 fare is high, but it's much better than walking to the woods of Orange that is our home for the night.

We sneak in. I take a cot. George decides he will sleep on the "dog couch" with Bob and Gracie. For some reason, he complains about dog hair and seems to be sneazing regularly the next morning. Goodnight.

* * *

Tonight, we start at our last true East Franklin spot, and it's the famed Top of the Hill. It's nice on top, of course, with a comfortable, not-too-bright dining area, six vats behind glass walls and an outdoor dining patio that overlooks Chapel Hill. I go with Bruschetta Caprese and George has a salad. It's more than a little humid outside, but my Davie Poplar IPA--smooth and sweet--makes it tolerable or forgettable, at best. If you're sensitive to being slightly uncomfortable, Top of the Hill may throw you for a bit, though the big, flush-faced blonde magpie who screams "I'm not drunk!" with a glass of wine in her hand doesn't seem to agree. Proof that most people in this town, at least, are good-timin' college kids at heart: The waiter drops the silverware and innately stammers "Shit!" before looking at us for some high-brow reprimand. I'm laughing too much to even look at him.

Our host drops us off at the West End Wine Bar for our West Franklin end of the trek, but--upon noticing the quiet throughout the bar and the big letters reading "THE CELLAR"--we head straight through to the Wine Bar's underground cousin. The Cellar may be the perfect hybrid between East and West Franklin, a neighborhood bar sans the usually cheeky trimmings--no pennants, theme songs or Golden Tee 2005. George chats with bartenders Gary and Greg about growing up in Charlotte, but I sit this convocation of G's out to nurse a Sierra Nevada and watch baseball. Dropping the notion to stay for a few hours in obsequy to our soldier status, we head out past The Cave--Chapel Hill's oldest tavern--which, tonight, is pulsating with the people and volume of Sleazefest. We pass on the chance to go in, in part for the sheer volume, the big crowd and the Sleazy cover.

But we venture to Carolina Brewery, an award-winning bastion of N.C. beer-making. It's a fine restaurant, too, with juicy hamburgers and perfect shrimp and grits. I enjoy my usual, their Gold Medal-winning Copperline Amber Ale. George sucks down their IPA. A man at the bar tells us he's had IPAs all across America, and this is the best. He looks like Tenacious D's Kyle "KG" Gass, which is appropriate, as "Tribute" ("You gotta believe") follows a Spoon song on the stereo. It's a bit bright in here, but the conversation is good. Just don't ask the bartender for an import. Hopefully, you'll get slapped.

It's back to the east from Carolina Brewery, saying hey to local rock stars Jon Wurster, Nick Whitley and Angie Carlson on the way. We arrive at Avalon, but decide to head to Fuse when the doorman announces the Avalon cover is $10. But, wait, they've already given us armbands!

"Go, George, go!"

The drinks appear to be pretty strong at Fuse. - PHOTO BY YORK WILSON
We hatch out our plan on the way to Fuse, deciding to hit a few more bars before returning to Avalon to pay the $4 re-entry fee. Fuse, like The Cellar, is another East/West hybrid, sporting low lights and a good tap selection. I go for a pint of Warsteiner Premium Dunkel, and George drops the cash for some vodka. Laird Dixon--whose art hangs from the walls and ceilings--sits in the corner with country bard John Howie Jr. just as college kids sit in convivial cliques and the DJ scribbles over The Beastie Boys. As expected, it's an interesting scene in this red-walled Asian tapas restaurant and bar.

Stops at the Reservoir and Local 506 are layovers until Avalon, but--tonight--the Reservoir is the place to be in town. We walk in as local heroes The Ghost of Rock launch into their last set. It's packed in here, sticky and tight. A vodka tonic cures the swelter, and we let our ears get bent for a moment. But we cut out early to staunch the sweating and to see a bit of Sleazefest. After a Friday boom, Sleazefest--a massive annual party now in its 11th year--is suffering, but everyone still in the house seems to be loving the rocked debauchery.

The Avalon entrance is easily executed, and I drop my saved $6 on a vodka tonic and a tip. But this place isn't for us: The hip hop is good and thumping, and this is one of the best DJs we've heard yet. But I keep looking for a butcher in this meat market, signified by one grinding blonde who gets passed between eight groping guys. It makes me a bit queasy, and that's not the vodka talking. March.

We hustle along the mile between Avalon and Orange County Social Club, the town's scenester epicenter, to make last call. George is double-fisting liquor drinks at this point, but I settle in for a High Life (not Light) and a Red Stripe. Two people we meet, Ian and Melanie, give us directions to a pool party, and we tell them we'll be there. Tonight is the friendliest I've ever seen OCSC, most of the bar still high off of The Ghost of Rock's energy. Just before closing time, bar owner Tricia Mesigian emerges from the bathroom and takes a fall; a woman with a cameraphone follows her out, standing above her, gloating, taking pictures. Meh, that pretty much says it all about the Carrboro bar annex, and there are several places (like The Speakeasy) we just can't make it to tonight.

George and I wander down Jones Ferry Road, looking for the pool and taking a break in WCOM 103.5's thoughtfully placed rocking chairs. We get frustrated and decided to turn back, and are passing the Reservoir when a car pulls past us and slams on breaks.

"Grayson! George! Get in."

It's Melanie, leaning out of her window with the fellows from OCSC in the passenger and rear seats. We climb in just as she whizzes us around, driving to some apartment complex behind The Reservoir, Sharon Jones & The DAP Kings blaring in my left ear. After wading through kudzu and jumping fences, skinny dipping and underwater underwearing ensues. A dozen people swim, chugging hot cans of Bud Light all the while. I stand to the side part of the time, throwing a safety float at some folks. Melanie drops us off up Franklin Street at Time Out, the 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year premier Chapel Hill late-night dive. And, as if there was ever question, I request a Carolina Classic, a chicken breast covered in cheese on a perfect square biscuit, as George speaks in Spanish to humble cooks, asking how long they've been in America. Some guy orders 20 bacon, egg and cheese biscuits and gives us one, allowing us to sober up a bit more. Rations.

Finally, we walk all the way to 506, before I--normally not such an arbiter of good sense--decide we should stop waiting for a taxi and call one. We sit down, call, and wait. Five minutes more, and we're back in the woods of Orange.

The war is over. My pockets are empty. I guess Chapel Hill won.--Grayson Currin

Born to host

Orange County Social Club: So you're in an indie rock band, too? - PHOTO BY YORK WILSON
Tricia Mesigian and the Orange County Social Club Few business owners have had things gel the way Tricia Mesigian has in the four years since she opened the Orange County Social Club, aka the OCSC, the club, the social club. The story goes like this: showed up in Chapel Hill in June of '95 with a business degree from Virginia Tech; worked at the Skylight, worked at the Cradle, interned for Mammoth (Records), interned for Merge (Records), got a job at Merge, decided to open a bar in Carrboro; managed a Lambchop tour (17-piece band, two buses), went through a new-business training course, went on tour with David Byrne, opened a bar in Carrboro.

She will tell you she's born to host and only opened a bar because it was the "only logical option." But the success of the Social Club--a rolling conversation 4 p.m.-2 a.m. with liquor and music and smokes and beer--started a long time before she developed a business plan based on the idea that Carrboro needed a neighborhood bar that wasn't connected to a music hall or a restaurant.

Her years on tour with Merge bands, she said, taught her the importance of the rocker hangout near the music club, a place to chill and have a conversation. And visiting England as a child (her mother is English) gave her an appreciation of a bar as a place for conversation as much as for cocktails and brews.

"The idea came from my memories of going to England in my childhood--getting chips and hanging out outside the pub, while the grown-ups got together," says Mesigian. "Everyone would meet at the pub."

Mesigian says she wanted to create a true social club--a place to meet up before or after a meal and before or after a show. Her hunch paid off, and the club cycles through several distinct crowds over the course of an evening. There're the afternooners--a mix of folks getting off work from the university along with painters, contractors, artists and rockers. The early evening crowd--people meeting up for a drink before or after a dinner out--takes over after that. They're followed in the later evening by people meeting up before heading to rock clubs down the street.

The OCSC is also peppered with a healthy portion of old school regulars from late, lamented spots like the Hardback Café, Tijuana Fats and Pyewacket. And even though it's not a sports bar, there's a television stowed away behind of a portrait of Dean Smith and a projector that fills half a wall with the Tar Heels during basketball season.

Though the touches like the cubbyholes above the bar for the regulars make the place feel welcoming, Mesigian says it takes a lot of elbow grease and long hours to keep people coming back.

She recalls complaints she heard when she set the price for lifetime membership at $10, when some other clubs were charging half that.

"I'd just tell 'em 'Hey, just think of it as paying five dollars to have a clean bathroom for life.'"--Kirk Ross

Chapel Hill/Carrboro bars
The Library, 120 E. Franklin St., 968-6004
East End Oyster & Martini Bar, The Deep End, 201 E. Franklin St., 929-0024
Zog's, 108 Henderson St., 933-8252
Lucy's, 114 Henderson St., 933-2260
Hell, 157 E. Rosemary St., 929-9666
Bub O'Malleys, 157 E. Rosemary St., 942-6903
Wetlands, 157 E. Rosemary St., 968-0828
Players, 159 1/2 E. Franklin St., 929-0101
Goodfellas, 149 1/2 E. Franklin St., 960-8688
Top of the Hill, 100 E. Franklin St., 929-8676
West End Wine Bar, The Cellar, 450 W. Franklin St., 967-7599
The Cave, 452 1/2 W. Franklin St., 968-9308
Carolina Brewery, 460 W. Franklin St., 942-1800
Avalon, 306 W. Franklin St., 929-9900
fuse, 403 W. Rosemary St., 942-9242
Reservoir, 100-A Brewer Lane, 933-3204
Local 506, 506 W. Franklin St., 942-5506
Orange County Social Club, 108 E. Main St., 933-0669

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