It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night. Stone Bros. & Byrd garden center is closed, and the historic Durham Athletic Park is dark and empty.
But cars and trucks are filling up all the street parking near the corner of Geer and Washington streets, and drivers are pulling their vehicles anywhere they can in an already-full lot nearby.
The beacon is the recently relocated The Blue Note Grill. The music club’s opening late last month at 709 Washington St. not only marks a larger, new location, but an extension of the night life on the northern end of downtown.
Until recently, night-time entertainment here was essentially confined between Foster Street and Rigsbee Avenue, with places such as Fullsteam Brewery, Motorco Music Hall, Cocoa Cinnamon coffee shop, Geer Street Garden restaurant and Manbites Dog Theater.
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Blue Note’s flare will likely be boosted in October when Durham Distillery, which makes two gins and three liqueur concoctions, will start offering tastings and tours.
“We are just excited about this section of Durham,” said Melissa Katrincic, 39, president and co-founder of the distillery, which is a few steps from The Blue Note Grill.
As visitors walked into The Blue Note Grill on Tuesday, they found a flurry of activity associated with the Tuesday Blues Jam. Most of the seats were filled in the bar and stage area, along with the adjoining outside seating. Waiters and waitresses zoomed out of the kitchen with deviled eggs, “redneck cheese fries” and racks of ribs that left trails smelling of warm barbecue and freshly fried hush puppies.
On the stage, five men — a drummer, keyboardist, two guitarists and a bass player — strummed the blues as an audience sipped on beers and sweet tea. After three songs or so, a new set of musicians took the stage, per the open jam process. By 7:45 p.m., two couples were spinning on the dance floor. Then two more joined.
Husband and wife team Bill and Andrea Whittington opened The Blue Note Grill in May 2010 at the former Torero’s space at 4125 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard offering pulled pork barbecue, ribs, burgers and salads.
“Our main thing is probably the ribs and the barbecue,” said Bill, 59.
In 2013, the owners started looking for a new space to address the small location’s challenges, such as waiters and waitresses having to cut through the dance floor to get to the kitchen.
While they scouted locations all over Durham, the Whittingtons liked the idea of being in the rapidly evolving downtown and being a little bit ahead of a curve that will see nearby apartments, condominiums and the 15-acre Durham Innovation District on nearby property. That district calls for a 1 million square feet of lab and office space for life sciences and technology companies as well as 300,000 square feet of residential space.
“There is a lot more coming,” Whittington said. “The timing is perfect.”
George Davis owns Stone Bros. and Byrd, which opened in 1914, but has been in its current location on the corner of Washington and Geer Street since 1968. Davis bought into the business in 1976.
At the time, downtown was filled with tobacco factories, car dealerships and retail businesses. If it was a good year for the tobacco industry, downtown merchants would experience what they called “Christmas in the fall,” he said.
The downtown dealerships and tobacco companies started moving out in the early 1980s, Davis said, and downtown Durham was considered the skids by the 1990s.
“I think the final blow to this area was when the Bulls left and went to the new stadium,” in 1995, said Davis, 68.
But the area started to come back to life in the early to mid 2000s, and its nightlife was boosted by businesses, including Fullsteam and Motorco opening in 2010.
Davis said he plans to spruce up his Washington Street entrance to make it a little more welcoming to The Blue Note crowd, which he points out have a little more gray hair than those drinking beer and coffee near Rigsbee.
Players at the Tuesday night Blues Jam weren’t looking to the past or the future, but they were focusing on the music and the energy brought by new and old players trying out The Blue Note Grill’s new place.
They included members of Good Rocking Sam, a trio of musicians that described the Tuesday night jam as an opportunity to play their music, make connections and drink some cold beers.
“It’s a neighborhood,” said band member Chuck Taylor, 49 of Hillsborough, describing the relationship among the musicians.
Nathan Pope, 12, of Liberty has been picking out tunes on a guitar since he was 6. Pope said he tries to attend every Tuesday during the summer, since he doesn’t have school the next day.
“It’s not only just a jam, it’s the people, “ he said. “It is like a whole different life to me … There I am a different person. I am a musician, and the place itself is just a great environment.”
Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges