Bars with a speakeasy feel come to the Triangle

aweigl@newsobserver.comJune 6, 2013 

  • Fancy a drink?

    The Triangle has undergone a first and second wave of cocktail bars opening in the area. (We know Bar Lusconi doesn’t serve cocktails, but we include them here anyway since they are the subject of our story.) Here are our favorites:

    In Raleigh:

    C. Grace, 407 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, 919-899-3675, cgracebar.com/

    Foundation, 213 Fayetteville St., Raleigh, 919-896-6016, foundationnc.com

    Fox Liquor Bar, 237 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh, 919-322-0128, ac-restaurants.com/fox/

    In Durham:

    Alley 26, 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham, 919-213-1267, alleytwentysix.com

    Bar Lusconi, 117 E. Main St. Durham, 919-351-9391, goo.gl/weMD2

    Whiskey, 347 W. Main St. Durham, 919-682-6191, whiskeydurham.com

    In Chapel Hill and Carrboro:

    The Crunkleton, 320 W. Franklin St. Chapel Hill, 919-969-1125, thecrunkleton.com

    Peccadillo, 100A Brewer Lane, Carrboro, 919-351-9391, peccadillo.us

Some people must have thought bar owner Tim Neill was crazy.

A year and a half ago, he opened his first bar in the Triangle, called Peccadillo. It is located behind a car wash in Carrboro. There is no sign outside. There is only a smallish “100A” – to indicate the address – spray-painted on the outside of a steel door. The bar has only a bare-bones website listing the address, email, phone number and hours. No menu. No photos. No Facebook page. No Twitter account.

Neill, 39, was mainly relying on word of mouth to get people in the door. Then he had to hope that his customers liked the idiosyncrasies they found inside. In this cozy, dark room, bartenders in white pharmacist jackets serve beer, wine and only three classic cocktails: Manhattans, martinis and Negronis. Don’t ask for a mojito. They don’t have fresh herbs. Don’t ask for a gimlet or a cosmo. The only fruit juice they have is apple.

Neill must be doing something right. About a month ago, he opened a second bar in downtown Durham called Bar Lusconi. Again, there is no sign outside. This bar has no website, although there is a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Despite Durham being home for rabid lovers of all things local, Neill doesn’t serve any local beer. His beer list is limited to esoteric choices from France, Belgium and Slovakia. His cheapest beer is $7.

Even a beer aficionado, like Michael Hayek, beer manager for Mutual Distributing, is stumped by their menu.

“It’s not often I see a beer list that I don’t know stuff on it,” says Hayek on a recent Saturday night at Bar Lusconi with friends.

It says something about the evolution of the Triangle’s bar scene that Neill’s two quirky establishments can succeed here.

The country’s craft cocktail movement started in the mid-2000s with bars, like Employees Only in New York City where Neill used to work. The trend came to the Triangle around 2008 with the opening of The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, Foundation in Raleigh and Whiskey in Durham. It continues with the more recent additions of C. Grace and Fox Liquor Bar, both in Raleigh, and Alley 26 in Durham.

These bars do things differently. They have selective beer and wine lists. They offer classic cocktails and riffs on those classics. The bartenders make the syrups, the sodas and even the bitters. They squeeze fresh fruits daily for juices and source ingredients from local farms. Some have installed special ice machines to churn out larger cubes that perfectly chill a cocktail without diluting it as quickly as smaller chips or cubes would.

These bars may not have something for everyone. But Shannon Healy, the longtime bar manager at Crook’s Corner who opened Alley 26 last fall, says, “We would all rather absolutely delight most of the people than pacify everyone.”

Into this developing bar scene stepped Neill. The Australian native brought his business savvy to the Triangle from New York. While tending bar at Employees Only, one of the country’s best craft cocktail bars, he met Jesse Gerstl, 30, a regular and marketing consultant. Neill mentioned he wanted to open his own bar outside of New York, and Gerstl offered to be his business partner.

Neill moved to North Carolina and opened Peccadillo in December 2011. Gerstl moved here this spring before they opened Bar Lusconi. Then the pair hired Dean James, 32, who had also relocated to the area after working at renowned craft cocktail bars in California, including Olympic in San Francisco. (Neill and James knew of each other in the small craft cocktail world but had never met.)

Neill said some of the speakeasy feel to Peccadillo wasn’t intentional. For example, it made no sense to put a sign outside the bar because a nearby concrete plant meant there is white dust everywhere. Any kind of outdoor facade would have to be constantly cleaned.

But he, Gerstl and James were intentional about Peccadillo’s narrow focus. “Craft cocktails tend to spiral out of control very quickly. In an effort to make new things, you end up with people putting out off-kilter cocktails,” James says. About Peccadillo’s limited cocktail offerings, James says: “No one is drinking these drinks the right way. They are simple. They look elegant. You look good drinking them in a dark bar.”

Neill says the key to getting people coming back to both bars is customer service. If a customer comes in and asks for a drink they don’t serve, a bartender will ask a few questions and suggest something the customer may like. “In order to take people into this world,” Neill says, “the way to do that is to offer them fantastic service and offer them the opportunity to not like it.”

At least one table of customers were happy on a recent Saturday night at Bar Lusconi. Hayek, who works for the beer distributor, and his friends had ordered some larger bottles of beer for sharing. Neill and James, who were both working that night, insisted on bringing cheese for the group to try with the beer. Then the bartenders brought chocolate toffees for the table to try with the beers.

Stephen Mague joked about Neill and James’ insistence: “You are going to have this cheese.”

His friend, Ben Woodward, 36, who owns Saxapahaw brewery Haw River Farmhouse Ales, retorted: “That’s the beauty of this place. The world needs more of these places.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848, or on Twitter, @andreaweigl

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