Charlotte’s favorite watering holes: who’s there, what they’re drinking and why they come
by Palmer Stowe | photographs by Richard Israel
Despite a 1985 statewide ban on the sale of discounted alcohol during limited hours, the spirit of happy hour lives happily and healthily in Charlotte’s many watering holes. Come 5 o’clock, cozy taverns, grungy dives and plush cocktail bars around the Queen City slowly begin to fill with Charlotteans of every stripe, all sharing the common desire to turn the dial down on the day with a pint of beer or an icy martini. For our new happy hour feature, I’m slinking into a handful of the city’s best-loved canteens (with a designated driver in tow) to talk to locals about how, why and with what particular poison they’re blowing off the day’s steam.
Clockwise from top left: George Macon, Dana DuBose and the author at Providence Road Sundries; DuBose at Sundries; a framed news article at Sundries; friends Marsden Haigh and former owner Johnny Deramus; Macon at the bar.
Providence Road Sundries, Myers Park
Crouched over a glass of OMB Copper and a bottle of Bud Light at one corner of the worn bar sit Dana DuBose and George Macon, both in the real-estate development business and both sporting Myers Park-dad chic — a common look around this place. They’re passing an iPhone back and forth, admiring pictures from a recent duck hunt. These longtime friends have been coming to Sundries for years; particularly Dana, who grew up in Charlotte and jokes that he started showing up at the casual neighborhood spot as soon as he was legally able. A plate of wings (buffalo and dry-rubbed) appears as the guys reminisce about the past, when grabbing happy-hour drinks with friends at Sundries was a more common occurrence.
Tucked into one of the restaurant’s wide, wooden booths are two older gentlemen — one of whom turns out to be a local celebrity. Johnny Deramus grins as he asks if we’ve seen the newspaper clipping in the front of the restaurant. “That’s me!” he says, as his friend Marsden Haigh chuckles across the table. Johnny, the restaurant’s former owner, bought the space in 1976 and retooled it from something reminiscent of a soda fountain into a version of its current iteration. He’s clearly delighted to recount past days of Sundries’ long reign as Myers Park’s favorite casual spot for a pint. With a gleam in his eye, he points to where his name is hidden in the celebrity mural that spans the bar’s southern wall. The gents admit they’re out cutting loose a bit because Marsden’s wife is away at the beach. We leave them to continue recounting days gone by — both, like Sundries, cheery with memory.
Clockwise from top left: the author at Abari; Will Farmer and Tabitha Farmer enjoying post-work beers and pinball; musician Tom Miller; Steve Cole at Super Abari Game Bar.
Super Abari Game Bar, Belmont
At the Namco Quick & Crash Real Shooting Game, Steve Cole is trying his best to shatter a small teacup as it glides across the screen. He enjoys the larger arcade cabinets here at Super Abari Game Bar, like this carnival-style shooting game and Taiko no Tatsujin, a Japanese game similar to Guitar Hero but featuring large computerized Japanese drums instead of electric guitars. His friend, Nicole Ritter, joins him, returning from Abari’s neon-lit bar with a beer in hand. Steve muses over what’s drawn them here this particular evening. “It’s something to do, you know? Rather than just sitting at a bar. And they switch up the games.” Abari’s large game space is lined with pinball machines in addition to the various cabinet games — Dr. Mario, Pac-Man, Tekken, not to mention the 8-foot-tall, playable Game Boy.
Over at the pinball machines, Will and Tabitha Farmer are trying to decide between the Attack on Mars or Stranger Things. Like myself, Tabitha’s only recently begun learning the nuances of different pinball cabinets. I point out the nearby Fish Tales machine and warn that, despite a goofy appearance, it’s particularly unforgiving. Like Steve and Nicole, Will and Tabitha have been to Abari a few times to enjoy a post-work beer while sampling the changing mix of new and vintage games. Tabitha, a Gastonia native, fills us in on how she met her baby-faced husband, and how he introduced her to the wide world of pinball. I suggest she look into Belles and Chimes, an all-female pinball league, and leave Will and Tabitha to duke it out on Stranger Things.
With one more loop around the floor, we find Tom Miller also trying his luck at the Namco Quick & Crash. Tom, a musician, is visiting Abari with his girlfriend (sporting very fetching pink hair) and a pack of buddies who have scattered to all corners of the game floor. Tom warns us that Abari goes from quiet to busy in the blink of an eye, and I suddenly notice many more bodies standing in front of pinball machines. While everyone we spoke with seems drawn to Abari for a similar reason, I can’t help but appreciate everyone’s different tastes in the games themselves. “I like anything from the ’90s,” Tom says with a smile. “The old fighting games, Mortal Kombat, that type of stuff.” As we head out, he cozies up to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game and drops his beer in the handy game-side cup holder, soaking up the retro nostalgia.
BrickTop’s regular Renee Bromfield and the author share a toast
Renee Bromfield is perched on a stool at BrickTop’s roomy bar, contemplating the dry martini punctuated with blue cheese-stuffed olives in front of her. Renee, a Texas native who’s been in Charlotte for the past 12 years, lives nearby and visits BrickTop’s fairly regularly for happy hours, and otherwise. She loves the food here, the excellent service and the interesting mix of folks that crop up around the bar on any given day. “I love the grilled artichokes,” she muses, “and the trout.” But being a Texas girl, she’s also a big beef fan, and we swap steak recommendations before she tells me about her job at AvidXchange, a software company near uptown. While describing a Google campus-like workspace, Renee is joined by friend David, who meets Renee for drinks whenever they can get together. After dishing over BrickTop’s ribs for a moment (they’ve earned Renee’s Texan seal of approval), we bid her good luck on her future happy-hour endeavors.
Clockwise from top left: Colorado natives Caleb Schmitt and Bryan Frost at Smokey Joe’s; Tim Dayton, a regular at the bar; Jared Sherrill peers down the bar at Smokey Joe’s.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Monroe Road
Upon plopping down next to him at Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Jared Sherrill asks me if I’ve noticed the waterfall. As this is only my second time here, I tell him I definitely haven’t. He points up, into the dark ceiling of the shabby-yet-cozy space, where my eye is indeed drawn to a small waterfall inexplicably nestled in the bar’s rafters. Jared says he likes spots like Smokey Joe’s — divey, but friendly and welcoming. A Florida native and traveling nurse, Jared hasn’t been in town long, but he fell for Smokey Joe’s low-key atmosphere right away. A veteran of the food and beverage business, he shares a taste in bars with many others I know in the industry — unfussy, inexpensive and a little on the gritty side. Smokey Joe’s isn’t putting on any airs, but therein lies its charm. Jared confesses that nursing and working in restaurants share similar demands; lots of time on your feet and very few breaks. So to him, whether you spend your days waiting tables or tending to patients in a cardiac stepdown unit, enjoying a cold, cheap beer from the comfort of a well-worn barstool seems like the perfect way to end a day.
As Jared continues his evening wind-down, I find Tim Dayton sitting at one of the many incongruous table-chair combinations at Smokey Joe’s. Tim’s watching his buddy Mad Dog and another friend play a bit of pool. Tim grew up in the Charlotte area but has a long line of kin back in Tennessee. “I’m one of the first in my family to do something other than making moonshine,” he quips, sipping Michelob from a pint glass. He does landscaping around town and has been coming to Smokey Joe’s since before he was old enough to legally order beer from the bar. Like Jared, the cheap beer and casual atmosphere are the big draws, not to mention the pool table. Charlotte has plenty of good pool halls, Mad Dog shares, but he does like playing a few games at Smokey Joe’s when it’s quiet. “It gets rowdy on the weekends! Heck, it’ll probably get rowdy tonight come 9 or so,” adds Mad Dog (who didn’t want his photograph taken). Despite the heavy rain now drumming down on the roof, I can believe it. The guys wrap up their game and step outside for a quick cigarette, but not before Mad Dog declines one last request to snap his picture. Next time, Mad Dog.
Settled into a low-slung leather couch, Caleb Schmitt and Bryan Frost are sharing a laugh over bottles of beer and recounting past bar adventures back in their home state of Colorado. “We’ve had a few friends end up down here,” Bryan says. “It’s nice to be able to get together and catch up.” Caleb and Bryan are among the more spiffed-up customers in Smokey Joe’s this evening, both clearly dressed for office jobs. They make for a bit of a gear change from Tim and Mad Dog, and my conversations with both highlight the fantastic mix of folks that patronize Smokey Joe’s — in my opinion, the mark of a truly great watering hole.
With the rain still driving down, I leave Bryan and Caleb with a few other Charlotte recommendations but assure them they’ve found a real gem in Smokey Joe’s. SP