Saturday seemed like a typical night out on the back patio at Sadlack’s. Beer and conversations flowed as Kenny Roby and Friends played, spirits warm despite the winter chill. About the only sign that anything was amiss came with a question heard repeatedly throughout the evening:
Hey, where we gonna drink next week?
Sadly, “next week” is just about here. Sadlack’s, one of Raleigh’s most fabled blue-collar dives, will end its four-decade run on Hillsborough Street as Tuesday turns into Wednesday. It’s closing to make way for a hotel and retail project that will take up the entire Bell Tower Block, across from the N.C. State campus at the corner of Hillsborough and Enterprise streets.
Sadlack’s owner Rose Schwetz has bought the Berkeley Cafe, which is less than two miles away in downtown Raleigh, and that will take a little of the sting out when it opens in the spring. But even though the new Berkeley will have a lot of the same cool, funky ambiance, it won’t be the same for the regulars – everyone from students and professors to late-night characters straight out of a Tom Waits song – who have darkened Sadlack’s doors since the ’70s.
Demolition of a sort has already been going on for weeks. Artifacts have disappeared from the walls inside, replaced by graffiti including a countdown of “Sadlack’s Worst Bartenders.” Coming in at No. 2 is expatriate rock star Ryan Adams, who formed his pre-fame band Whiskeytown there in 1994 with his Sadlack’s co-worker Phil Wandscher (who rates a scribbled “honorable mention” on the list).
‘Last band standing’
For Tuesday night’s “Last Waltz,” Raleigh hardcore honky-tonk band the Backsliders will play. And with the wrecking ball set to swing soon, there’s no telling what Wednesday morning’s sunrise might reveal.
“I’m actually a little nervous about it, but we’re gonna tear the walls down,” said Backsliders frontman Chip Robinson. “It’ll be nuts. All of us have played there tons of times individually, but this will be the Backsliders’ first time there as a band. So, just in time. It’ll be cool to be the last band standing.”
Sadlack’s impending demolition will close a chapter going back to the days when Hillsborough Street, not downtown, was the center of Raleigh nightlife. Between the Brewery (which was torn down in 2011), Comet Lounge (torn down this year) and Sadlack’s, some of Raleigh’s most notable bands had their salad days in watering holes up and down the Hillsborough Street strip.
That includes Whiskeytown, the Backsliders and Roby’s Six String Drag, three of the best 1990s-vintage alternative-country bands in the country. Saturday night, original Whiskeytown bassist Steve Grothmann was playing behind Roby, and Robinson was among the guests who got up to sing a bit. There should be plenty of special-guest cameos with the Backsliders Tuesday night, too.
‘Home away from home’
But Sadlack’s has been as much of a hangout as a music venue for its regular clientele, and lots of folks remain in a state of denial about the end. Rose Ann Hockett has been a Sadlack’s regular for more than a decade, and kept coming even after she quit drinking.
“It still doesn’t feel real yet,” Hockett said. “I’m still shocked every time I go inside and see stuff on the wall that’s gone. It’s just a building, but it’s still been my home away from home for a long time.”
Inside the kitchen Saturday night, Sadlack’s owner Schwetz was cleaning up and reflecting on the coming rush. She has to be completely out of the Sadlack’s space by Sunday, at which time the Berkeley will get all her attention.
Schwetz bought the Berkeley in September and launched a major remodel that will combine aspects of both the Berkeley and Sadlack’s into a place some wags are calling “Sadly.” The grand reopening is set for February (inspections and permits permitting, of course). But having owned Sadlack’s off and on since 1984, Schwetz is having as hard a time saying goodbye as everyone else.
“My car always seems to drive this way on its own,” she said with a laugh. “Even when I’m going somewhere else, here is where I end up. It’s the best corner on Hillsborough; I’ve loved being here.”
Schwetz isn’t the only one. Sadlack’s place in the community, and as a world unto itself, has not been lost on her.
“This place has been home to a lot of people,” Schwetz said. “A real community, which took me a long time to realize. It’s not just a bar or restaurant to a lot of people. It’s more like their living room. That’s hard to lose.”