What’s the best bar in town is almost an impossible question to decide…
Twenty Years of Bars in Durham
a Longitudinal Study with personal bias
A not-so brief discussion of “The Button” and the Durham bars that have worn it in the last two decades.
by: Aaron Mandel
What’s the best bar in town is almost an impossible question to decide. Is it the most popular bar? The one with the best selection of beers? Whiskeys? The one with the friendliest bartender? Most reasonable prices?
It is a subjective question. Personal taste matters immensely. But what is a little easier to track is which bar in a town has “The Button”, the quintessential cool, “It” status over every other establishment in town.
In theory: the process works a little something like this…
First a bar opens and nobody knows about it, so nobody goes there.
Then, whether it is great or not, at least a few people go there. It is a bar. It is there, they go. People drink. They try new spots.
If it is pretty good, good, or perhaps pretty and good, word spreads a little and a few more people go. People drink. They try new spots.
Most likely, among the locals, the hip and the early adapters arrive first. If a bar is largely unknown but in a desirable spot, those who live nearest-by, along with the hip and the early adapters discover it. For the latter two, it is their mission. It defines their hip coolness, their status as early adapters. They find these places first. Ably and frequently assisted by their disposable income and their child-free existence’s time and availability.
If the hip early-adapters decide the bar is cool, gradually, it becomes more cool. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy, the presence of more and more hip people, the kind of people who know about these places, verifies the identification of the bar or club as hip.
Slowly the place goes from mostly empty to somewhat fuller on the regular. Peeps who are generally down, but not early adapters, hear what’s up. Buzz begins, word starts to get out more widely. People hear people are going to this bar. People report to their friends that they, too, have been to this bar. It accrues to their status and the bar’s. An underlying implicit assumption, the earlier you discover said bar or club, the hipper you are.
Word spreads from the hip and their friends to the friends of their friends and their friends, too. As frequently observed, in a town the scale of Durham, there are only about three degrees of separation instead of the usual six.
The bar which was once marginal is now packed. Quickly the uber-hip early adapters, who have been complaining about this bar’s popularity for a while, stop going. The bar is still hugely popular and packed out. Everybody is there. It has “The Button”. This is “the Place”. New people who you have never seen before are suddenly there. In droves.
A bar may hold “The Button” for weeks, months, a Summer, perhaps a year, or even on an outstanding run, two years.
Gradually, the generally hip stop going regularly. The bar is still full for a while as everyone else plays it out, only slowly realizing there are less and less stereotypically hip people there and more and more plastics. Or are the hipsters the plastics? And the nerds the cool kids?
NVM. Let’s stick with the dominant paradigm. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.
Periodically, there are still nights the bar gets packed out, it’s reputation has a carryover effect. Occasionally, the early adapters and the hip return for nostalgia or more likely to play the “remember when” card. But over the months, as the nonentities dominate and the crowd shrinks, the best bartenders leave for the new spots their clientele have decamped to. Following the money. The cycle becomes self-fulfilling. The place gets emptier and emptier. The new bartenders can’t tell the regulars from the scenesters. Finally the bar either closes, renames itself, or becomes reincarnated at the bottom of the dive cycle— nobody goes there.
“The Button” passed on long before the nadir. Bars are born, die, live, kick the bucket, and get reincarnated in cities and towns, across continents in municipalities everywhere. People drink. They try new spots.
There are, of course, bars outside this cycle, not playing the game, bars and clubs which are for one reason or another are not trying to become the hippest spot in town or are destined to never be considered (too small, too out of the way, etc.).
The cycle is facetious, too. Who among is brave enough to judge the cool and the hip from the rest of us? Haven’t we all felt uncool, outside, lost at times? And if you truly like bars, haven’t you treasured the pleasure of good dive bar abandoned by the tragically cool and uber-hip to the locals and the regulars?
So grab your full salt shakers and prepare to sprinkle a few grains of disbelief. I would love your feedback, commentary, and opinion. I know I missed things and left out great places.
So then: A brief history of the passing of “The Button” in Durham as I have heard and understood it.
When I got here at the end of the 1990’s, George’s Garage on 9th Street proudly wore “The Button”. It was huge and it was packed. It was the ‘see and be seen’ spot, and the single’s proverbial meet/meat market. As I was totally new to Durham from across the country, I have no perception of whether Durham’s hip intelligentsia, the cool mafia, were going to George’s or not. (I have heard tale of a 7th Street Station where The Palace Vault is now).
During that same end of the 90’s and dawn of the new millennium era, Ringside was an amazing dive of a firetrap on Main Street. It featured multiple floors some of which felt nearly abandoned and derelict, others of which featured poles for dancers and DJ’s. It was too sketchy to ever have “The Button”. But oh the memories! One story you might hear from by-gone Durham, on The Ringside’s very last night in existence, it hosted a legendary wedding party, where they sold every last drop of booze in the house.
After George’s Garage next place that definitively possessed “The Button” was Joe & Jo’s. It opened in 2002, where Bull McCabe’s is today. At the time, this was an eastern outpost. Downtown had almost no restaurants and bars in that era. The INDY Week described it as an “island among panhandlers”. I remember Joe & Jo’s having occasional music, an extremely loyal clientele, a tolerant and diverse vibe. It never became a meat market and just as it was starting to get really popular, it closed. The owner JoAnne Worthington posted on the bar’s MySpace page that she was moving to Belize to be with her sick father.
Of course, the James Joyce was open during this era. It was and is a stalwart. But it was and is almost inevitably counter-culture rather than popular. Recall its long standing motto, “The James Joyce, where you don’t have to have a good time to drink.” Lovely bitter truth in there. Not the way to “it” status, though.
Next door to the James Joyce, The Federal opened its doors in 2004. Less than two years later Joe & Jo’s had closed, Bull McCabe’s hadn’t opened. The Whiskey was years away. The Federal’s first food menu was great. The booths (for that era) were plentiful. There was outdoor seating. The bartenders were friendly and the staff was so good looking that there used to be a running joke about making a Federal Staff Pin-up Calendar.
Sidenote: Sexist jokes of earlier eras that felt benign then look quite different today. Especially as we understand more about how seemingly benign approval ultimately countenances awful, repugnant behavior. Making wrong seem okay.
The Fed, as it was affectionately referred to, had a very long run with “The Button”. It was especially popular with Durhamites who had gone to high school here, moved away, and returned on holiday breaks, and then eventually moved back to Durham.
Just a bit down the block a new outpost called Alivia’s opened, in her pre-Pinhook era, Kym Register was a bartender. Talk about a place that had outdoor seating. And garage doors and lots of windows. But the food was lousy and somehow the atmosphere never quite worked. Was it a restaurant? A pick-up spot? A Dukie bar? As everyone investigated simultaneously Alivia’s held “The Button” for six, eight, ten weeks, perhaps it never truly displaced The Fed and only served as an alternative.
In between those two spots is a Durham institution. Devine’s sports bar has been in operation since 1976. Owner and Duke alum Gene Devine is still regularly found on-site. And even today the back bar is still haunted by curmudgeonly former local sportswriters and their hangers-on, although less and less, as even those eras end. If Devine’s ever had “The Button” in Durham’s roughest of days, it predated me. If the name Tommy Couch rings any bells… Devine’s is still my favorite bar to watch a baseball game and has the most neighborhood sports bar feel in town.
Eventually “The Button” passed from the Main Street block with Casbah, The Federal, and Alivia’s further east down Main to the Whiskey for an era. This was a sign that all of Durham’s downtown cultural center was moving to the east. Whiskey has long since passed on “The Button” and been rechristened Critterion. In the day, it had a very popular upstairs cigar bar. Upstairs had a hipster vibe so hip that the bartenders were almost rude to customers in the legendary French waiter style. If you don’t know what you are ordering, please GTFOH.
The DIY district was just coming together. Fullsteam opened in August 2010. MotorCo opened in September of 2010.
There were no picnic tables outside of MotorCo when it opened. There was no garage bar. There was a fantastic rotation of food trucks both in front of Fullsteam and right at the corner of Geer and Rigsbee, in front of MotorCo where it feels like it all began for Pie Pushers and Chirba-Chirba among others. Without the picnic tables, let alone the planters, the posts and chains, and the parking meters that are there now, food trucks could back their trailers right up on the Motor Co site. Kokyu BBQ was the most frequently seen. I couldn’t tell you per se exactly when MotorCo grabbed “The Button”. Being there was immersive. It was definitely before Surf Club opened, before Parts and Labor existed as a sub-entity of MotorCo, during an era when that side was called “the garage bar”.
It wasn’t long after Surf Club opened that it grabbed “The Button” away, in part because it was so popular with the MotorCo bartenders and staff after they got off work. Surf Club was widely popular with service industry people during this era. A veritable who’s who of Durham’s other food and drink establishments would gather on Surf Club’s front patio and low block wall to smoke, gossip, and commiserate.
Surf Club is a classic case of “The Button” and has actually held the title for quite some time. It went from empty and a veiled feeling that perhaps the saucy, grouchiness of The Whiskey cigar bar bartenders was going to be carried over here, to gradually, fuller and fuller. It opened the back up. Added bocce. Expanded the side yard. Brought in DJ’s Bought the fire truck. Added the DJ Booth out front. Kept the run going.
I have had many a drink there. And full disclosure, The Surf Club has contributed to the Clarion Content’s Independent Media fund that sustains our existence.
While it is still packed out regularly, keen observers note, so is Alley 26. Alley 26 has been packed for some time. It’s clientele are frequently beautiful and well-dressed. Such duds aren’t de rigeur at Surf Club. Alley 26 has also expanded, now serving not only fabulous craft cocktails, but food as well on Chapel Hill Street.
There is the rooftop bar and it’s great views across the way at The Durham.
Another relatively new contender is the cozy underground vibe at Arcana, on the outside edge of the south facing part of the downtown loop. Dare I say near Teasers entrance?
Across the eras described The Green Room has long been the unquestioned leader in best pool hall in town. It’s gritty tiled floors, parking lot sink hole, and iconic shuffleboard table only add to the vibe. As does the owner’s penchant for cult movie classics and soccer over traditional American sports on the bar’s televisions. Even if the original was across the street, The Green Room is legendary.
Satisfactions has a similarly long history and home in the heart of Duke undergrads.
Shooters, no comment.
Doyle’s. Hey, don’t laugh. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know. Plenty of pool tables, cigarette smoking, crusty regulars, and an extremely long history of being popular with the servers who work in the restaurants near the former Southsquare Mall. Doyle’s has seen many a competitor come and go.
Dain’s on 9th Street has also reached institution status. It helps to have an epic character founder/owner like Dain. Great lively bartenders. Outstanding burgers. A real city needs bars like Dain’s. Solid A-1-As. Maybe never the very most popular, but full to capacity.
I would put Bull McCabe’s in the same category. People were skeptical when it took over for Joe and Jo’s. But in an era when the whole place only had two picnic tables and G was running trivia, it could have made an argument it held “The Button”. I would say it never quite did. A knockout of a runner-up, but never quite the title belt holder. McCabe’s source of power was iconic bartenders Willie and Tracy.
McCabe’s added picnic tables, twice, expanded backward, moved the bathrooms, built the patio, and then enclosed it. Reaching capacity even at those massive dimensions and finding extreme popularity with Durham’s soccer aka football rooters and supporters.
The Pinhook, perhaps the most complicated discussion, I saved until nearly the end. Can a bar possess Durham’s soul but yet never “The Button”? The Pinhook is movement-centric and intentional. It operates like a family business with heights and foibles. It has asked the community of Durham for support and it has supported the Durham community.
The Pinhook’s birth was connected with Bull City Headquarters’s demise. BCHQ is a Durham legend, like 305 South Anti-Mall, both are as real as the tunnels under the city. I can’t say more, though there are those that know more of the story out there.
I think it is almost irrelevant to The Pinhook’s existence and mission whether or not it ever held “The Button”. It has hosted hundreds of great live shows, from famous acts before anyone knew who they were, to otherwise totally marginalized acts and groups who wouldn’t get a stage or an opportunity in a traditional club setting.
The Pinhook’s vitality is part of Durham’s character.
Granted nothing lasts forever, where is “The Button” now?
The server community is surely flocking to The Accordion on Geer Street, in the former home of El Columbiano, en masse. The bartenders are totally friendly. It is a great location. There is a picnic table out front.
Don’t tell too many people about it.
K. Thanks. Bye.
*The Bar on Rigsbee has been an anchor dance spot in a LGBTQ friendly city. Spiritual successor to Steel Blue. Actual successor, too?
*In the demised category, shout out to Broad Street Café, in the Oval Park Grill space. It had a great sound system, a too wide concrete bar, and occasionally, live music better than it ever deserved. Nobody went though. Did anyone else hear Grasshopper?