When it comes to cocktail seasons, summer reigns supreme. You can enjoy a nice Old Fashioned in the fall, sip on a refreshing spritzer to celebrate spring or tip a healthy shot (or two) of bourbon into some eggnog to survive the family Christmas, but summer really lets cocktails shine.
Without further ado, here are some of the best summer cocktail spots in the Triangle, along with my recommendations on what to order. And of course, for the best (and safest) summer cocktail experience, take a cab or bribe a designated driver with some of the delicious food on offer at many of these spots.
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Best Overall Bar
106 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh
Menu and hours: gallopelonnc.com or 919-835-3596
In compiling this list I quickly began to realize there was one place that defied category. It fit so many themes: well-crafted cocktails, a fun, hip atmosphere with a cozy patio, friendly and very knowledgeable bar staff, and some of the best food in town. So I decided to create a category all its own and bestow upon Gallo Pelon title of “Best Overall Bar.” Located above Centro Mexican Restaurant in downtown Raleigh, Gallo Pelon is North Carolina’s first mezcal bar, and they hit every note with near perfection. Never had mezcal? No problem! The servers are happy to explain about tequila’s smoky cousin, its varieties and how its made. Hungry for a snack while you drink? You pretty much can’t go wrong with anything on the menu.
What to order: If this is your first visit, go for a mezcal. Talk with your server about your preferences and the options, they’ll find the fit for you. If you’re feeling like a cocktail, my favorite right now is the Big Muff, made with Mezcal Ensemble #2, fresh lemon juice, Amaro Montenegro, Orchard Apricot Eau du Vie and cane sugar. And when it comes to food, the elote fritters and yucca frites are the perfect accompaniments.
Best Patio or View
The Roof at The Durham Hotel
315 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham
Menu and hours: thedurham.com/roof or 919-768-8830
There are dozens of great spots across the area to imbibe outdoors, but none that combine the promise of fresh air with one of the best views in the Triangle quite as well as The Roof at The Durham Hotel. With sweeping vistas of downtown Durham, a menu by James Beard award-winning chef Andrea Reusing, and cocktails for all tastes, The Roof at The Durham Hotel is the best spot to sip while gazing at Durham’s (rapidly changing) skyline.
What to order: There are a few favorites on the cocktail list at The Durham (The Punchwagon and Airmail among them), but if you’re going for the full experience you should order, well, The Durham. The hotel’s signature cocktail mixes cognac, rum and 10-year tawny port with some Benedictine and a dash of angostura bitters for a fresh cocktail that feels like a classic.
Best Place for Business
The Bar and Lounge at The Umstead
100 Woodland Pond Dr., Cary
Menu and hours: theumstead.com/dining or 919-447-4000
Sometimes the best deals are made over a few drinks, and if you’re looking for a spot to impress your clients, your search should end at The Bar and Lounge at The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary. Featuring both intimate indoor seating and a lovely outdoor patio, The Umstead seems to be the power lunch (or happy hour) spot of choice for the Triangle’s suit-and-tie crowd.
What to order: The Bar and Lounge at The Umstead Hotel has a seasonal rotating cocktail list. This summer you can’t go wrong with The Rhubarb, a boozy concoction of Durham Distillery’s Conniption gin, Aperol, sparkling wine, grapefruit juice and rhubarb.
Best Bar Snacks
415 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham
Menu and hours: dashiramen.com or 919-251-9335
Let’s be honest – sometimes that one summer cocktail turns into two or three, and suddenly you find yourself reaching for a food menu to balance things out. When I’m craving a combination of tasty treats and fantastic drinks, I head to the Izakaya at Dashi Ramen Shop in downtown Durham. Featuring a rotating menu of specials and small plates, themed-nights like Yaki Mondays and Gyoza Tuesdays, and one of the best selections of Japanese whiskeys in the state, the Izakaya above Dashi rarely disappoints.
What to order: Snackwise you absolutely must order the black sesame nori popcorn. Munch on this while you peruse the rest of the menu. The specials are almost always spot-on, and the lamb belly buns and fried shrimp heads are winners. To wash all that down, try the Tokyo Drifter, a cocktail so good they put it on tap. Aperol, sweet and dry vermouths, Umeshu (Japanese fruit liqueur), Millbrandt (bitters) and orange bitters are poured over crushed ice for one of the most refreshing cocktails I’ve ever had.
Best Place for a Classic Cocktail
320 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Menu and hours: thecrunkleton.com or 919-969-1125
This was a tough one for me, as there are quite a few places in the Triangle that are putting out fantastic classic cocktails. That being said, there is truly no place quite like The Crunkleton. This Chapel Hill institution has been the beloved watering hole of cocktail obsessives ever since owner Gary Crunkleton opened on Franklin Street in 2008. With a cozy atmosphere and a healthy mix of college students and old-timers alike, The Crunkleton is the perfect place to sink back into a comfy chair and sip on a cocktail that has endured through the decades.
What to order: Classic cocktails are subjective and possessive; everyone has their favorite. For me, it’s a French 75, the cocktail I order at every new bar I go to. At The Crunkleton they make theirs with brandy instead of the more common gin, and the resulting Carrboro 75, a nod to the “Paris of the Piedmont,” is one of the best in the state.
Best Place for Innovative Cocktails
Alley Twenty Six
320 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham
Menu and hours: alleytwentysix.com or 919-213-1267
I’ll cut right to the chase. Durham’s Alley Twenty Six makes some of the best and most innovative cocktails in the state. Owner and head bartender Shannon Healy has been a fixture on the local restaurant scene for years. If drinking cocktails were my religion, Alley Twenty Six would be my church.
What to order: If you’re only going to have one cocktail at Alley Twenty Six, make it a Batten Down the Hatches. With Durham Distillery’s Conniption Navy Strength Dry Gin, Smith & Cross Navy Strength Rum, Aperol and grapefruit, you really only need one anyway. If you’re in the mood for two, move on to the Yippie Kha Yai made with Reposado tequila, housemade “blue ginger” syrup and tonic syrup, apple brandy, lime and soda. After that please order some food from chef Carrie Schlieffer’s delicious “Kitchen Lab” menu and call an Uber.
Best Place to take Fido
Parts & Labor at Motorco
723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham
Menu and hours: motorcomusic.com or 919-901-0875
Sometimes man’s best friend wants to tag along too, and you want a spot where your four-legged companion will be just as welcome as you are. Head to Parts & Labor at Motorco Music Hall. It has plenty of outdoor seating, lots of water bowls and other dogs to keep your pooch entertained, plus a great drink list, beer on tap and a street-food inspired menu.
What to order: Parts & Labor is not a cocktail-forward spot per se, but they make a mean gin and tonic, which is truly my favorite summer drink. If you decide to go for brunch, their Bloody Mary is a must.
Best Place for a Date
423 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Menu and hours: lanternrestaurant.com or 919-969-8846
Ahh, the elusive date bar. You want it casual enough to not intimidate, but nice enough to impress. The bar at Chapel Hill’s Lantern restaurant should be your destination. This is one of the most gorgeous bars in the area with intimate tables and optional patio seating. It doesn’t hurt to have chef Andrea Reusing’s innovative menu combining North Carolina ingredients with Asian preparations.
What to order: It’s summer, so obviously you’ll order The Junebug. With Pimm’s, fresh ginger-lemon soda and cucumber, this is sort of the perfect date drink. It’s delicious enough to satisfy your cocktail crave, but light enough so that you don’t end up embarrassing yourself.
Best Place for People Watching
Fox Liquor Bar
237 Wilmington St., Raleigh
Menu and hours: ac-restaurants.com/fox or 919-322-0128
If you’re being honest with yourself, you can admit that people watching is one of life’s greatest pleasures, made all the more fun when you have a drink in hand. One of my favorite places to sit back and observe the intricacies and oddities of human nature is Fox Liquor Bar in Raleigh. One of the jewels in chef Ashley Christensen’s food and beverage crown, Fox might not seem like the most logical choice (it’s underground, for starters), but its rotating crowd of Raleigh’s finest make it one of the best spots to see and be seen. Grab a perch at the bar or hunker down in one of the cozy corners and just observe.
What to order: Fox Liquor Bar makes a mean Dark and Stormy, but one of my favorites is the Corpse Reviver #2. This classic has gin, Cocchi Americano, Cointreau, absinthe and lemon juice. It hits the summer requirements of being both boozy and refreshing.
Best Place for Singles, Gay and Straight
Boxcar Bar + Arcade
330 W. Davie St., Raleigh
Menu and hours: theboxcarbar.com/raleigh or 919-803-2796
317 W. Morgan St., Raleigh
Menu and hours: fifteenraleigh.com or 919-615-2758
Full disclosure: what works for me, a partnered gay man, may not work for my straight friends, so I will attempt to please both sides of the coin. In my single days what I looked for was a place that not only provided me the chance to meet someone, but was also fun enough for me to enjoy with friends or on my own. Luckily for singles, Raleigh has the answer to both of those requirements. People of all stripes and sexualities will have a great time at Boxcar Bar + Arcade, in downtown’s Warehouse District. Come alone and hone your skeeball skills or bring a friend or two to destroy at Mortal Kombat.
For those who fall more along the LGBTQIA spectrum, head over to Fifteen on Morgan Street for good drinks, conversation and mingling. With none of the pounding music and flashing lights of a traditional gay club, Fifteen offers a full bar and the chance to actually have a conversation without shouting. If you’re there on your own just chat with the bartenders, they are some of the friendliest in the Triangle. Fifteen has a welcoming atmosphere too; this is truly a place where everyone is at home.
What to order: At Boxcar, the beer shines, and while they have a full enough bar to fulfill any liquor lover’s wish, there is just something about a cold craft beer in one hand while you dominate at air hockey with the other. The Pernicious IPA from Asheville’s Wicked Weed should do the trick.
At Fifteen, you can choose from a rotating list of liquor-forward cocktails (some classics, some new creations), or you can do what I prefer to do – ask your friendly bartender to whip something up for you. If you’re there by yourself, it’s a great way to get a conversation started.
Best Place to take the Kids
219 Hood St., Durham
Menu and hours: ponysaurusbrewing.com or 919-369-7669
It’s summer, the kids are home all day, you’re without a babysitter, and you really, really just want a cold drink and perhaps 10 minutes without a scream, cry or question. Never fear, there are many places in the area where you can take the kids without the “baby in a bar” judgment. Here is where I deviate from the cocktail theme in the interest of preserving your sanity. Pack up the kids, maybe a soccer ball or frisbee and head to Ponysaurus Brewing in Durham. With an expansive lawn, nightly food truck offerings, and plenty of space for the kids to run and play until they pass out from exhaustion (fingers crossed), Ponysaurus is your best bet.
What to order: It’s hard to go wrong with any of their beers. For those hot summer afternoons, opt for a Biere de Garde or Rye Pale Ale. If heavier ales are your jam, the Export Stout or Scottish Ale should suffice. Quench that little one’s thirst with the juice boxes for sale.
Best Dive Bar / Live Music Spot
Slim’s Downtown Distillery
227 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh
Hours and Show Calendar: slimsraleigh.com or 919-833-6557
Slim’s in Raleigh is both a quintessential dive bar and one of the best places in the Triangle to catch up-and-coming bands. Since 1999, Slim’s has been serving cheap drinks and cutting-edge music to an eclectic crowd. It’s got the requisite dive bar charm with a smoke-filled patio out back and a pool table in the upstairs lounge. This isn’t for those who want to get fancy, this is a straightforward bar where you can get a good, stiff drink and catch a show.
What to order: You’re at a dive bar, not the lobby lounge at the Four Seasons. If you don’t have an ice cold Miller Light or a bourbon on the rocks in your hand, you’re doing it wrong. That being said, Slim’s does have a full bar, so by all means feel free to experiment.
It’s an embarrassment of riches sort of situation when it comes to great places to drink in the Triangle. I certainly haven’t covered them all (my liver might not have made it), and I’m sure there are others that I have overlooked. Here is a quick shout-out to some other fantastic places.
▪ Midtown Grille, North Raleigh
▪ Person Street Bar, Raleigh
▪ Surf Club, Durham