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Chapel Hill/Carrboro Nightlife:

Bars, Music Clubs and Cafes

Live music, Station, CarrboroLiving in one of Americas most walkable towns makes every night a weekend for me. Well, it would if I were not so lazy but at least I know that I can go out every night if I choose to and not even have to drive. Most of the places I go are within walking distance but there are a number of bars and clubs that a vehicle is handy, though for those who have not heard "The Buses are Free!" Here is a list of places I like in Chapel Hill either at night or in the morning. Some of the bars are restaurants and you may have noticed I have left them off the restaurants page. Then again you may notice I have left some of the restaurants off the bars page. That is because some restaurants are better places to drink then they are to eat at and so despite not getting listed in my favorite restaurants they did make it on to this page. It doesn't mean they are my favorite bars either, just that they were worth mentioning.

Cats Cradle

Cat's CradleSince 1969 there has been a Cat's Cradle with the occasional break between the changing of owners or locations. The current and hopefully permanent location on Main Street in Carrboro is the best and Frank Heath is probably the most respected and intelligent club owner in America. Any band knows that owners of music clubs can be pretty unpleasant human beings. Most of them are burnt out and most clubs just limp along, prospering and suffering with the trends and the bands. Somehow Frank manages to attract the best bands for any generation. I can walk in there one night to see John Mayall playing harp or my daughter can go there to see one of the boy-bands she has a crush on. A list of who has played at the Cradle would impress anyone. It would include Richard Thompson, Don Dixon, NRBQ, Ben Folds Five, Badfinger, Nils Lofgren, Bruce Cockburn, Jr. Brown, Al Stewart, Cheap Trick, Arrogance, Jonathan Richman, Bad Brains, Dave Davies, Dexter Romwebber, Archers of Loaf, Zen Frisbee, Del Amitri, Indigo Girls, Alex Chilton, Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter, Brave Combo, The Replacements, Todd Rundgren, 3 Mustaphas 3, Superchunk, and these are just the groups I have seen there. The club is smoke-free, has lots of different beer and a great sound system. You can't beat this place for live music especially if it is someone you really like. See my collection of vintage Cat's Cradle Calendars

The Art Center

Carrboro Arts CenterAnother great place to hear live music and usually it is someone you have heard of either on the way up or on the way down or where they have been and will always be. They sell beer and wine and many of the shows you need to get tickets in advance because it is a small theater and will sell out if the act is well known. But you can see people like Arlo Guthrie, Billy Preston, Richie Havens, Red Clay Ramblers, Marcia Ball, Steve Forbert, Rick Danko (well, not anymore but he played there), Leon Russel, Fairport Convention, Michael Penn and a lot of people who I have never heard of but manage to sell out the place. The Art Center is on Main Street in Carrboro in the same building as the Cats Cradle. They also have plays and classes in drawing, photography, painting and lots of other interesting things for those who don't have the compulsion to go out drinking every night. Or you can take a class and then go out drinking.

Orange County Social Club

Orange County Social ClubWhat the Hardback Cafe was to Chapel Hill, OCSC is to Carrboro, (minus the books, coffee, food, light, live music, Grant and Holly). OCSC is where young triangle artists, musicians, writers and hanger-oners come to talk, play pool, drink and smoke lots of cigarettes, get trashed, meet a guy, have sex, get pregnant, get married and raise a family and then come back two years later when they get divorced and start all over again. It can get awfully crowded in here but on warm nights people head for the garden in back. I think you are allowed to smoke back there and almost everybody who comes here smokes or of they don't they may as well. If you come early there are usually only a handful of people here. Things begin late at OCSC and they end late as well. Often people come here after a show at the Cradle or go back and forth between here and the Station until they find their friends or someone to have sex with and maybe marry for a couple years. OCSC is on Main Street in Carrboro next to Acme Restaurant where you can go for a quiet non-smokey drink at their bar. Open Monday through Sunday from 4 pm until 2 am. Call 933-0669. It's a private club so you have to be a member, a guest or go through their instantaneous membership process and pay a dollar or something.

Southern Rail

Mike Benson of Southern Rail, CarrboroCross the street to the old Carrboro train station to Southern Rail which is a great place to hang out and drink in an actual turn-of-the-century railroad station and a very cozy bar car. The Station itself has a live music stage and a big beautiful wooden bar. Lots of space outside for  summer nights which in North Carolina can happen at any time of the year. This is the cultural center of counter-culture Carrboro. They serve food every night til late and at about 10:00 the place starts filling up until some nights it seems like there are a thousand people here. There may be and there is plenty of room for them. The Bar Car, which is an actual railroad car is a sort of intimate place with a few tables, a long bar of course, and an outdoor covered deck with a gorgeous view of the parking lot. The main bar is sort of the central staging area for the restaurant which it sits in the middle of. In the winter they have a couple gas stoves that keep the place cozy. Eric the bartender plays sixties and Motown and if there is a game worth watching, it is on one or all of the many TVs scattered around. Bar food includes the best wings in town, nachos, tater-tots or french fries loaded with all the stuff people want on them and even some healthy dishes. The Tiger Room is a cafe with espresso, beer, wine, mixed drinks and just about everything someone from Carrboro would want for breakfast with the exception of food. But you can order from the kitchen once it opens for lunch. At night it becomes just another facet of the continuous party that seems to go on there night after night. Mondays is open-mike night. Tuesday is Trivia, I think. Maybe its Wednesday. Every night there is music of some sort and there is never a cover charge. The whole enterprise is owned by visionary Mike Benson and staffed by an amazing crew of talented people who will keep you entertained if you have nobody to talk to. Come for dinner and just hang out and wait for the party to begin. And drink the Founder's Breakfast Stout that Dave ordered for me or he will never take my advice again.

Local 506

Stu Cole at Local 506, Chapel HillA notch below the Cradle with name bands and some un-named. The Chapel Hill march to fame usually begins at the Cave and goes through Local 506, culminating with a gig at the Cats Cradle before the band breaks up. Local 506 plays host to nationally recognized Sleazefest, Honkeytonk-O-Rama, Sparklefest (my favorite since I am a pop guy) and other music festivals. The club is famous for its Alternative, Country, Rockabilly, Southern Rock and it is rumoured that Southern Culture on the Skids call this home. The bar and pool table are in the front so you can have a conversation if you don't like the band. Located at 506 West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Don't be intimidated by its appearance or by all the tattoos. Everyone is very nice and not only might you survive the night you may even make some friends and become a regular. Like the Cradle keep your eyes on the Chapel Hill kiosks and Carrboro phone poles for their flyers (put up by The Posterguys) to see who is playing. If you come early you can hang out at the bar and have a few drinks and watch your favorite bands do their sound-check, then go somewhere in the neighborhood for a bite to eat and come back for the show. Best bands I have seen here include Blue Cheer, The Olympic Ass-Kicking Team, and Parthenon Huxley but most bands who play here I have never heard of but that does not keep shows from selling out. Local 506 operates as a private club in order to serve liquor in addition beer. Memberships are $3 and available at the door. All shows are All-Ages and Non-Smoking.

The Cave

Michael Kelsh at the Cave, Chapel HillThis is the oldest bar in town and to give you an idea how old when I began playing here in 1980 it had already been around for 12 years. It uses to be a smoky hole-in-the-ground that attracted some pretty good musicians despite being a health threat to anyone who led a relatively pure life. (People who smoke and drink heavily were unaffected). Beginning as a folk club they now have all sorts of bands and solo acts playing and the front room where the bar and the music is became smoke-free if the whole place isn't. It is strange but for somewhere I spent half my life in I don't get back there very often, though as typical with me when I do I find myself asking why I don't spend more time here. You can catch returning locals like Michael Kelsh(photo) and bands like the Countdown Quartet, Evil Weiner, members of Squirrel Nut Zippers, and surprising cameo appearances like really drunk members of REM and other famous bands who just happened to be in town and wanted to go back to see if any of their old pals were still alive and drinking here. Out of town friends that I have brought to the Cave have said to me "Now I know why you live here". I don't know if they meant it as a compliment but that is how I took it. Lately it has become a private club which means they now serve mixed drinks and you have to be a member, though like all these places becoming a member is a mere formality. You pay a dollar and you are a member for life. The Cave is at 452 1/2 West Franklin Street right next to the West End Wine Bar. Groves works on Saturday night and Sunday during the day and you should go and hang out with him. He is a really nice guy.

West End Wine Bar

West End Wine BarWith an endless list of wines of all prices this is a more upscale place to go but fun no matter what your age is. Not much in the way of food, maybe a cheese plate and a few appetisers and in my opinion they could expand their menu, but since they are within crawling distance of three of the best restaurants in Chapel Hill (Elaine's, Tellulah's, The Lantern and 411 West-See Restaurants), I guess it does not matter. Upstairs they have a patio and downstairs is another bar with three pool tables, liquor by the drink, beers on tap, and a juke box. The cellar is a good place to watch Tarheel basketball if you want to stomp and cheer with your rowdy friends and the main floor is a good place to watch if you want to analyze it. The Wine bar is smoke free and right next to the Cave. If you need to smoke you can go on the terrace or out front. Live jazz some nights. I forget which. If you want more of a selection of food with your wine then go to Glass Half Full in Carrboro. But if you are in the West Franklin area and want a quiet place for a drink then this is a good place to start. They also have a pretty good list of beers and cocktails.

Tyler's Taproom

Tyler's Beer Store, CarrboroTyler's is more multidimensional than you might think and I will explain how I utilize it. I live about a block away so it is usually my first and last stop. I begin by going into their beer store where on Thursday nights they have beer tastings with reps from the best American craft breweries pouring samples. On other nights they actually have four beers on tap that you can sample or even buy a glass if you decide you really like it. Then I go next door for dinner (on the nights I don't eat elsewhere). On Tuesday they have pint night which means you get to keep the glass of the particular beer they are featuring that night, or as many glasses as you can drink. If there is a game there are several TVs. The Speakeasy is the closest bar to my house and often my last stop. With a large screen TV in their annex and smaller ones in the bar room, lots of choices of imports, micro-brews and crummy American beer, pool tables, girls and guys who know Tarheel basketball (probably football too) and cool bartenders. Live music occasionally too. All are located on the corner of Main and South Greensboro Streets in Carrboro. If you sit at the window you can watch the whole world go by.

DSI Comedy Theater

DSI Comedy TheaterThe premier comedy club and comedy school in North Carolina, if not the south, DSI's small theater on the back side of Carr Mill Mall, between Elmo's Diner and the Station, is a place that most people don't even consider for a night on the town. But I can testify that if you go you will probably laugh harder than you have in ages and certainly harder than you have laughed at anything on TV lately. Zach Ward, proud Owner and Executive Producer of DSI, has trained comedy talent featured on television and currently serves as Managing Director of ImprovBoston in Cambridge, MA. He remains actively involved in the Theater and the NC Comedy Arts Festival which is held here. Paula Pazderka, the Artistic Director and School Manager, has been involved in comedy for over a decade, studying in Chicago at ImprovOlympic before moving to Carrboro, where she found a home with DSI.

DSI Comedy School offers new classes to the public every month in the art of improv, stand-up and sketch comedy. Again let me testify that I have a friend who went to the school and he was not a funny person by nature. In fact I would have labeled him uptight, paranoid, and not particularly clever. I went to his stand-up routine which is part of the school's graduation and I was stunned at the transformation. He was very funny. And you should have heard the people who were probably funny before they took the class. So go to the club and if you get inspired to be funnier than you already are sign up for the classes. They also host the North Carolina Comedy Arts festival, the largest comedy festival in the south and one of the premiere comedy festivals in the country. Acts from New York, LA, Chicago, DC, Boston, Philadelphia, and every city in between flock here to perform, network and develop as the next generation of comedy talent.

The Best of the Rest

The Baxter, Chapel HillOn Graham Street in Chapel Hill, close to the Carrboro border, a new bar-shop called Beer Study serves featured micro-brew on tap and also has a large selection of bottled beer from all over the world. Almost next door is The Baxter Arcade, an experience like no other bar in the NC Triangle Area, with its nerd-chic atmosphere and up to 50 vintage and original arcade games, quality beers, in a warm location filled with pop art, unique toys, an outdoor patio space, two indoor lounge areas, and lots of room to enjoy your company. Speaking of beer, Milltown has the best selection on tap and lots of food to go with it as well as about 150 bottled beers, mixed drinks and wine. They have live music occasionally and different events celebrating Saint Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, and any other holiday worth celebrating with alcohol and music. The BowBar is a popular late night hang out for the young and hip. It is on Rosemary Street right between Carrburritos and Greenbridge. Tallulla's, the Turkish restaurant has a small bar and on weekend nights becomes the kind of club you find in Istanbul with an international clientele dancing to DJs. The alternative is going across the street to the bar at Kipos which has the feel of a luxury hotel on a Greek island. Lucha Tigre is a Chinese-Mexican Tapas place that takes great pride in their exotic drinks. The problem is that it is one of the few places on this page that you can't walk to since it is down Airport Road and there are only so many exotic mixed drinks you can have until the reality hits that you are far from home and too drunk to drive. Oh, well. That's what taxis are for.

Glass Half FullFor those looking for a quiet evening there are a number of choices of places you can get a drink and a snack and a whole meal if you like and the music won't be so loud that you can't hold a conversation. The best place in my opinion is Glass Half Full(photo), and on Monday nights they do half price wine served by very friendly bartenders. If there is a game on you can watch it without the sound. The Crunkleton is one of the most popular bars in town with an adult vibe and bartenders who know how to make a mixed drink. They also feature jazz and blues some nights but most people my age will find it more appealing early in the evening when you can have most of the place to yourself. It has been known to get loud in the later hours. If it does and you can't take it just go across the street to the bar on the Franklin Hotel or walk over to The Lantern or 411 West both of which have great bars and snacks. 411 West has half price wine on Monday nights.

Right next door to Glass Half Full is Steel String Brewery which opened in April of 2013 and is making delicious beers on the premises. From the very beginning they attracted crowds of beer lovers and wandering musicians. People stop at the food trucks before coming here and have their dinner and their beer together at one of the wooden tables on the bar. Great beers on tap, friendly bartenders and Irish music on Weds featuring members of the Red Clay Ramblers. Good place to watch the game.

Chapel Hill Undergound is in the former location of Hell, which was one of the most popular bars in town, located in the basement of 157 E Rosemary street in a building that over the years has seen its share of drinkers. It features live music, pool tables, a decent beer selection, and holds the middle ground between frats and hipsters. Located in a basement at 149 1/2 East Franklin Street, Goodfellows offers eighteen draft beers, over forty varieties of domestics and imports, and nightly drink specials. Tuesdays are Trivia Night, Wednesdays are Karaoke Night, Thursdays are 90s Night, Fridays are DJ Night, and Saturdays feature a host of drink specials. Nightlight at 4051/2 West Rosemary Street is in the buidling that once houses the Skylight Exchange and the Cat's Cradle and has live bands many nights, slam poetry, trivia and other fun stuff.

Second Wind started out as a juice-bar, or at least that was the rumor. Then it became a bar and grill but people had more fun drinking than eating there and so they dropped the grill part and it is now a music bar with a very friendly NY/Chicago feeling. Great bar, fun bartenders, and a small stage that can pack in a lot of entertainment. Try to come for Geoff Gilson's Pop Vox, a once a month one man variety show that will have you singing, dancing and laughing. Or come when Skinny Bag of Sugar plays and check out Hugh Swazo, the greatest singing lead guitarist in the world. There is live music most nights and good conversation the rest of the time. No cover. You can even come here to drink and order take-out from any of the nearby restaurants.

The Blue Horn Lounge is no longer the best kept secret in Chapel Hill because it is no longer a secret. With more fun and entertainment per square foot this small bar-club next to the Varsity Theater on Franklin Street plays host to some of Chapel Hill's best musicians including the David Spencer Band several times a month. Carolina Basketball games are shown with the voice of Woody Durham on WCHL and through the miraculous efforts of the bar's scientists there is no delay!  So no longer do you  have to listen to some idiot national broadcaster or the self absorbed ramblings of Billy Packer. You can watch the games and listen to them with Woody, like the good old days. Do you need another reason to come? Great drink menus, lots of imported beer and and easy place to make friends. Blue Horn Lounge is a private club for members and their guests but membership will cost you all of one dollar.


He's Not Here
: I have to admit it has been about 20 years since I have gone to this indoor/outdoor bar in downtown Chapel Hill but with the crowds of UNC students still going there and Joel still tending bar I would imagine things have not changed much. They have live music occasionally but it is more known as a place to go have a beer after class or any night of the week. He's not here is behind Carribou Coffee right where Franklin Street meets Columbia.

Carolina Brewery: With "traditional pub food" (if you call "traditional" burgers, sandwiches and nachos) this Chapel Hill bar-restaurant proves that if the beer is good, who cares what the food tastes like. One of two microbreweries in town and with outdoor seating on Franklin Street many people stop here to eat and juice up before a Tarheel game. With Tellulah's, Elaine's, 411 West and the Lantern nearby if you want fine dining juice up here and eat elsewhere. But if you want burgers, fries, and American-style beer-drinking food that you can wash down with good micro-brewed beer then come here. 460 W. Franklin St, Chapel Hill. 942-1800.

Top of the Hill: The other micro-brewery and of this writing the last business left on the corner building that used to be home to the Carolina Theatre, The Gap (see ya), and First Union bank. The best view of any bar in Chapel Hill and the only bar you can take an elevator to. Besides that the food is ok and tastes better the more you drink. (But so do the napkins for that matter.) However the general consensus is that this is a good place to drink, watch the sunset, eat appetisers and wonder what will open up downstairs. Corner of Franklin and Columbia streets this is a great place to watch Apple Chill. Or it was. I heard they are making their own vodka now.

Cafe-Bars

We are not as young as we used to be and sometimes a night on the town requires some preparation. For some of us that means a nap. For others it means strong coffee and these cafes all pride themselves on having the best. They also serve beer and wine and in the case of the Tiger Room, stronger alcohol too. So you can start your evening here and if you like continue it.

Openeye Cafe, CarrboroOpen Eye Cafe: This coffee shop in Carrboro may have the best coffee drinks in town as well as wine and beer. They have live music many nights of the week and even when they don't it is a good place to meet someone as wired as you are to talk to if you are not as shy as they probably are. Now in a new larger location right next to the old smaller one across from the dreaded Wendy's on Main and South Greensboro Street. Their other location, Cafe Driade in Chapel Hill also has music, wine, beer and the feeling that you are out in the woods. You are on the edge of it. Driade is down Franklin Street on the left just before you get to the intersection of Estes Drive. There are very few places in Chapel Hill/Carrboro where you can start your day where you ended the night before. (Time-Out is another). If you want to walk to the outer reaches of downtown Carrboro, go to Looking Glass Cafe for an espresso, a beer, a glass of wine and maybe some live music as well. In the opposite direction Jesse's Coffee & Bar at the intersection of Rosemary and Main in Carrboro, also serves alcohol and has a nice outdoor area where they occasionally have live music. For those who want to be centrally located the Tiger Room is the cafe at the Station and they serve very nice coffee drinks and since they are a bar they can also add a shot or two of your favorite spirit or vice-versa. Try getting a bottle of Founder's Breakfast Stout and adding a shot of espresso. It is a great afternoon pick-me-up. And once you are picked up you are in the midst of all the nightlife.

For those who drive...

The Haw River Ballroom

Haw River BallroomOne of the best places to see a band is the Haw River Ballroom, run by  Tarheel Basketball legend Tommy LaGarde and his wife Heather. This music venue is in a beautiful space set in the former Dye House of Saxapahaw’s Historic Cotton Mill. With three levels, a riverside deck, a concessions bar and coffee shop, a full service stage and sound system, gorgeous historic detail, solar and geothermal power and an idyllic rural setting just minutes from Chapel Hill there is just no other place quite like it. Featuring Live Music by bands that have outgrown the Cat's Cradle, they also host music festivals, weddings and special events, theater, classes conferences, lectures, and Dances. Cup 22, their coffee shop, is open from 8am – 9pm weekdays and 9am – 9pm weekends. You can make a night of it and eat at the excellent Eddy Pub and Restaurant or stay late enough to go to breakfast at the Saxapahaw General Store and avoid the deer. If it is Saturday you can go to the farmer's market or enjoy their River Mill Concerts that start in May and continue through August.

Time Out Sports Bar is at the Holiday Inn on 15-501 across from Mariakakis and is owned by Eddie who is known to anybody who has had a late night meal at his fastfood restaurant in University Square. Big screen TVs, live music, Pub Poker on Monday night, live jazz on Thursday, and the same North Carolina beach bands you will see at the Carolina beaches on weekends. For those who eat there's a breakfast buffet every day and a lunch and dinner menu that includes chicken, steak, ribs, pasta dishes, salads, sandwiches and more, along with a large selection of appetizers and desserts, and full beverage service. Don from the Original North Carolina Sports Bar which was Chapel Hill's first sports bar has helped Eddie turn what could have been your typical Holiday Inn Bar into something a little better and a lot more fun. Its like taking a beach holiday in your own town and if you meet someone you really like there is no place more convenient than the Holiday Inn. Shag lessons on Thursday.

The Kraken Bar

The KrakenA few years ago, actually many years ago, there was a little bar at the intersection of 54 and Dodson Cross Road. It was actually not much more than a shack but it was supposed to be a biker bar and there was even a motorcycle gang that was either affiliated with or they just liked the name of the bar so much they decided to name their gang after it and put it on their jackets like the Hell's Angels. Alas, motorcycle gangs like the rest of us eventually grow up and raise families and get jobs and before you know it guys who lived on their bikes limit themselves to riding only on Sundays if the weather is nice. The Broken Spoke faded into the sunset and though the bar was taken over by other people it was never successful again. Until these two dudes came down from Seattle, looking like two thirds of ZZ Top and opened a cool bar where slackers, rednecks, punks, and other people from the neighborhood, which is mostly woods and farms, could hang out, hear live bands, and not have so far to drive home thus decreasing the likelihood of DWIs. Then a funny thing happened. People from Chapel Hill and Carrboro, who have no shortage of bars they could walk to, began driving out to Kraken for the festivals and goat roasts and other things they were doing out there and suddenly, there was a scene.

Blue Note Grill

JW Jones Band at Blue Note Grill, Durham, NCThough actually in Durham and not in Chapel Hill, tucked away on the service road that borders 15/501 Business, a couple doors down from Spartacus Restaurant is the Blue Note Grill, your friendly neighborhood ribs and burgers bar and grill that has brought in some really terrific blues bands. It is an intimate setting for hearing some very professional bands and people even get up and dance. Lots of micro beer choices, many of them local, and I can vouch for the baby-back ribs and the pulled pork as well as the shrimp-stuffed jalapeno poppers. They have open blues jams on Tuesday, and live blues and traditional rock bands Weds through Saturday. I saw JW Jones here and they were the best blues band I have seen since the Nighthawks, twenty years ago. The grill is owned by Andrea & Bill Whittington who both cook there and is located at Boulevard Plaza Shopping Center aka 4125 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard. This is the kind of place you really have to go out and support.

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