The proverbial "going out for drinks" date as a grad student is challenging. Eighteen-dollar cocktails have limited appeal. And most first dates don't lead to seconds, so it's important to keep things fun. Here are a few good boozy options around the Triangle for the broke and potentially not-so-serious.
DOYLE'S SPORTS BAR
Venturing out to Doyle's—a couple of miles outside Durham's downtown—gives some breathing room from seven years of first dates gone awry. It's a dive bar's best format: cheap drinks, simple entertainment, and an easy departure from downtown pressure. Beer starts at around $3, wine and liquor at $5—but nothing is too pricey, and pours are generous. For food there's Piper's Deli next door and Tacos Nacos around the corner. Doyle's is cool with people bringing in takeout food. Pool, darts, and foosball, plus Jeopardy! at seven p.m. on TV, help ease date-night nerves. A digital jukebox provides music, so bring dollar bills to show off your good taste (the place vibes toward Prince, Bowie, and the like).
Lonerider's quirky tasting room, The Hideout, is on the outskirts of Raleigh en route to Durham, close enough to the airport to watch planes come in. It's a great spot to try a new craft beer after a fun activity, like an Umstead Park hike or quality time at Frankie's Fun Park (both are right around the corner). The mock-Western interior is fun, and food trucks (at peak times) keep the outdoor area popular in nice weather. The bar can get crowded right after work, but things calm down quickly. Most Lonerider beers you'll find at the grocery store are available on tap, but you're better off sampling from their line of exclusive experimental beers, any of which will run you between $5 and $7 per pint.
THE ATOMIC FERN
The Atomic Fern aims for a fun-loving aesthetic with stacks of old board games lining the walls, but it has the key characteristics of a great bar. Its long, accessible counter makes the most of a narrow space, and tall-backed booths lend intimacy to a pair or small group. Decent beers on tap are priced around $5; liquor is also approachably cheap. There's no food, but you can order from Bull City Burger just across the street. Game nights can get rowdy, so stake out a good spot at the bar. If you and your date are ready to compete, jump into one of their quicker two-player games while you're getting to know each other; swap out Catan for Love Letter if things are going well.
THE DEAD MULE CLUB
While East Franklin caters to undergrads and West Franklin is transformed by new condos, the Dead Mule Club hides in plain sight between them, consistently avoiding the attention of crowds. The few beers on tap are usually local, with a much wider assortment of bottles and cans. An excellent whiskey selection is a nice change from the sea of cheap liquor nearby. Signature cocktails start at $8. The food menu is limited, but decent. The bar, in a converted house, maintains a homey feel; if you're lucky on a cold evening, you can nab a seat by the fireplace. When the weather is nice, the sweeping deck provides a comfortably distant view of passersby.