Two weeks ago Monday, I had three precious hours to myself and a crucial choice to make. Should I go train for an upcoming triathlon (my first) or meet some friends for a bite and a beer? My training buddy, Lena, always a pragmatic woman, solved the dilemma by inaugurating our first bi-weekly Five Points Bikes and Brews.
Had you been driving late that evening on Raleigh's Morgan Street or Glenwood Avenue, you would have seen five women of a certain age—former athletes, all of us, now weary mothers of multiple toddlers—gliding down the road, bike lights blinking, helmets bobbing in time with the potholes. (It was cooler than it sounds.) We were carefree, loose-limbed, heading home from the bars.
Realtor Ann-Cabell Baum Andersen, owner of The Glenwood Agency, is something of a downtown diva, having sold approximately 500 individual condominiums there in the past five years. She tells me a decade or two ago, our Bikes and Brews wouldn't have been a option, at least not there, and certainly not for women on their own.
"When I started my career in 1989," remembers Andersen, "it was nothing like it is today. You really didn't want to walk around downtown. That change has not happened overnight; it's taken years and years and years.
"If you looked at [downtown Raleigh] in 1990, you said, 'OK, what's going on? Not much.' In 1993, the Cotton Mill sales started. In 1995, people moved in. That '93-'95 time frame, not only locally here for Raleigh, but that metropolitan push [happened] around the country. You know, Friends was on television, all the other shows that said it was cool and trendy to live downtown, Sex and the City. I don't know if that really started it or not, but truly the private development in the restaurants on Glenwood Avenue was the backbone of what started the downtown revitalization. It was cheap to buy, or cheap to rent, and as a restaurateur, you kind of follow that."
It's not that Raleigh didn't have plenty of favorite hang-outs 25 years ago. Any 40-something State grad can surely rattle off a list of them. But the density of downtown bars and restaurants is a new thing, as is the hour their kitchens close. Want steak frites at midnight? A couple of panini at 1 a.m.? You got it.
"Ever seen those push-carts on Glenwood South late at night?" asks Andersen. "There's a kebab vendor that sets up late-night at the corner of Hargett and Dawson streets, and there's a line. They're chicken kebabs, and they're like five bucks, and they totally rock. It just kind of goes to show you that Raleigh as a city has really grown into this ... we're almost ... we are a city."
City-dweller John Shuck is another expert on Raleigh's night life. Though you may not know it, you can blame him for your hangover last Friday. Because Shuck makes beer—really good beer. Thirteen years ago, he, his brother, Greg, and their friend, Joe Zonin, founded the area's first microbrewery, the Carolina Brewing Company in Holly Springs, which now produces as many as 10 brews available on tap and in bottles throughout the Triangle.
Back then, he says, Raleigh's Five Points offered the only real concentration of activities. "I used to go eat pizza at Lilly's and watch a movie at the Rialto and then go to the Sting-Ray Room after. I remember really enjoying that area because it was better about being able to do a handful of things on foot than anyplace in Raleigh. [Then] Glenwood South kind of became the place to be, and downtown seems like more so now."
When Carolina Brewing Company opened, microbreweries were more of a West Coast phenomenon, explains Shuck. In North Carolina, it was uncommon for a bar or restaurant to have much beyond Miller or Bud, maybe occasionally a Guinness or Newcastle. So the three young brewers went on an "educational" campaign, which basically means they spent a lot of time in bars.
"Early on, we did this thing ... We would go on tap somewhere, and nobody would know what it was or had heard of it. Every week you had a list of three places that you had to go out to that carried our beer. Talk to the bartender, buy a few beers, shake a few hands, get the word-of-mouth going. Forty-Second Street Oyster Bar was the very first place to carry our beer. I think they had six draft handles at the time, and that was one of the biggest draft selections in town. And that's funny now, because it's hard to find any place that doesn't have at least six."
It's also hard to find any place these days that can't sate the wild-eyed hunger of a late-night Raleigh reveler. Special abbreviated menus are popping up everywhere for midnight-snackers. The Indy has assembled a choice selection:
THE BOROUGH, on the ground floor of the Dawson on Morgan (www.theboroughraleigh.com), wins the award for most exhausted kitchen staff. Open seven days a week from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m., they turn out fantastic gourmet sandwiches, salads and just the $4-$7 appetizer you need to wash down your fifth PBR, whether it's beef-tenderloin tortillas, homemade hushpuppies or matzo-ball soup you crave.
THE DUCK & DUMPLING on Moore Square (www.theduckanddumpling.com) serves until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The small-plates menu is a tipsy diner's dream: Share David's Dumpling Platter for $8.50; hoard the green papaya salad with lemongrass flank steak for $9.50; slurp mandarin hot and sour soup for $4.50; or splurge on the yellowfin tuna tartare for $11. Then head over to Tir Na Nog for some music.
Heath Holloman's newest venture, GLOBE at 510 S. Glenwood Ave. (www.globeraleigh.com), serves its late-night menu Thursdays-Saturdays until 2 a.m. You can grab a tasty burger-on-yeast-roll, Thai chicken lettuce wraps, or one of three different panini. Best late-night bets: the $1 pulled-pork tacos on Saturday, and $5 wine by the glass on Thursday after 10 p.m.
THE RALEIGH TIMES BAR, 14 E. Hargett St. (www.raleightimesbar.com), serves its full menu seven days a week until 2 a.m. Best bets in the $5-7 range are the loaded fries (blissful, smothered with cheddar, bacon and scallions), BBQ pork nachos and chicken fried pickles. Its lively sidewalk seating is the closest thing you'll find in this town to a neighborhood Parisian cafe. (If you can't score an outdoor table at Raleigh Times, stroll up Hargett and try the new Landmark Tavern's back patio. Their only food is nuts and Chex Mix, but you can order a glass of La Rocca Prosecco or 10-year Porto Kopke tawny for $6. Even better, all of their white wines are $22/bottle and red wines are $26/bottle.)
If you're properly attired and don't mind paying $10-$20 for your late-night snack, try sparkling SOLAS (www.solasraleigh.com) at 419 S. Glenwood, open less than a month. Their small plates menu is served until 2 a.m. seven nights a week, with such fashion-forward dishes as fried lobster with smoked tomato aioli, lamb lollipops with polenta cake, and elk carpaccio with Himalayan red sea salt (reportedly mined by hand, then packed out by yaks ... exotic, but not very locavore!).
The VILLAGE DRAFT HOUSE, 428 Daniels St. in Cameron Village (village.mydrafthouse.com), can't begin to compete with Glenwood South's glitz, but it easily wins a beer-lover's heart for its prodigious tap offerings and daily specials. (Wednesday is $3 pint night.) Boasting 80 beers on tap, it also has a more-than-serviceable half-pound burger, blackened chicken quesadillas and about a hundred other options up till midnight Sunday-Monday and till 2 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Finally, on the other side of the late-night spectrum from Globe and Solas is brewer John Shuck's favorite hang-out. If you prefer to drink your calories, The PLAYERS' RETREAT (www.playersretreat.net), founded in 1951 on Oberlin at Hillsborough and fondly known as "the PR," has 13 tequilas, 24 vodkas, 12 bourbons and a Single Malt Scotch Club, where for $225 you can be knighted a "True Scotsman," with the privilege to taste 48 scotches in 1/2 shot portions. (Not in a single night, silly.) You'll flip your kilt when you see the choices: The Balvenie Portwood 21-year, Macallan 25 and The Glenlivet Archive 21 are only a few. The Glenmorangie 25 is also available for $95/shot—but if you're willing to part with that much cash, just join the Club!
The PR has plenty of food, too. Its full menu ("excluding pasta and soups") is offered until 2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday, with an additional breakfast menu after 11 p.m. A two-egg spread is $5.95, the ham biscuit a lovely $2.50, or if you missed dinner, try the delectably greasy charred ribeye, hand-cut to order, with bleu cheese butter, for $16.95.
Pair a cabernet with your steak (or your chili-cheese fries), and you'll find the menu lists the Parker rating for each wine, a helpful if incongruous detail. A query to our server, Mike, about their jalapeños yielded another detail: The kitchen's peppers are grown by owner "Gus" Gusler in his Cameron Park backyard, appealing to the slow-foodie in all of us.
That's the secret of the PR. It seems like a dive bar but is subtly trying to be something more. At first glance, it looks so well-worn that it might be rife with grouchy regulars who'd like nothing better than to make a "new fish" unwelcome. Yet if you spend even an hour or two there, you'll see a broad cross-section of Raleigh and probably get to know half of them. The staff is casual and cheerful, and it's a do-your-own-thing kind of vibe.
John Shuck is a big fan for just this reason (and the cheesy sausage dip doesn't hurt). "Bert McMillan tends bar there," says Shuck, "and he's been there for 12 years, say, and there are customers that have been going there forever. It's been there forever and it's not going anywhere. It was a place that was kind of not doing much business, and when the ownership change took place [about three years ago] it became a place where people are going now."
It's admittedly simplistic to break it down this way, but late-night Raleigh seems to have developed three speeds to choose from.
Stay in low gear and hit the homegrown favorites like The Players' Retreat or the Village Draft House. Shift into high gear (aka high-brow) and luxuriate at Globe or Solas. Or just coast along, in the middle lane, and park yourself at The Raleigh Times Bar or The Borough.
It's your city. Take a ride and see what you find.
For more information on the restaurants in this article, see our online Dining Guide.
A little midnight snack
Ann-Cabell Baum Andersen, 41
Realtor, owner, The Glenwood Agency
Favorites: The Borough, Duck & Dumpling, Globe"I love me some Borough. Those hush puppies with that honey butter, there should be a law against that. She serves them until 2 a.m., and it's nuts. It's definitely the hangover cure."
Vanessa Bowman-Allen, 30
Activist, performer in The Cuntry Kings. See her upcoming show for Pride weekend (Sept. 26-28) at Club 9/ Metro 8
Favorite: Dain's Place, 754 Ninth St., Durham (www.dainsplace.net), serves food until 2 a.m.
"It's a nonsmoking environment. Great veggie burger and fries. And great beer specials. It's pretty awesome every night, and Wednesday they have trivia."
Phonte Coleman, 29
Musician in Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange. Check out his albums at www.myspace.com/phontigallo
Favorite: Cosmic Cantina, 1920 Perry St. (second floor), Durham, serves food until 4 a.m.
"When there's a late night in the studio, we always have to get somewhere really quick. Cosmic Cantina's been a staple for me since I was in undergrad [at NCCU], just the little $5 quesadillas. The food is good and the prices are good. I'm a loyal Cosmic Cantina supporter."
Runners-Up: "I also hit International Delights on Ninth Street. And Bull City Wings on Fayetteville."
John Shuck, 42
Brewer, co-owner, Carolina Brewing Company
Favorites: Players' Retreat, Village Draft House"My favorite place to go out for food and the general feel of the place is Players' Retreat. I'm 99 percent sure it's the oldest bar in Raleigh, and it feels like it."