Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Off the beaten path: Hidden nuggets of Durham's bar scene

Indy, 8-22-07


Durham's bar scene is a bit like its breakfast scene: sporadic and hidden, when it's there at all. But the blood is finally pumping in downtown Durham, and progressive initiatives in the area are breathing some much-needed life into the Bull City as old businesses clean up and new businesses start up.

My friend, Michael, has Ray-Bans on, and I'm wearing a black skirt. Some might even say we look hip. He's been living in New York City for the last four years, and I ask him how he thinks Durham's bars will compare. He laughs. As for me, I've been living in Boone, a dry county, so just about anything will be more hullabaloo than what I'm used to.


My destination? Durham's Ringside (308 W. Main St., 680-2100, A friend and I had traveled to a few Durham bars the night before and had spotted red lights and candlelit tables outside a mysterious dark hole in the crisply renovated downtown Durham: Ringside.

"Ringside? Sounds dangerous," the friend said. "Let's do it." After trying out several relatively safe Durham bars, we're ready for some action.

The doorgirl's name is Rabbit. Attractive, thin and slow-spoken, Rabbit appears almost startled to see us. I ask her how she likes Ringside.

"Oh, it's just fa-bulous!" she says. "It's pretty 'Durham.' It's a 1920s theme, kind of like a speakeasy. There are four floors." We are also informed that there is a roof, but people are rarely invited up.

The scene is big-city, underground and ultra-hip: not your typical downtown Durham bar. The music is crisp and loud, and a classic house beat remix of Sade reverberates through the club. A gentleman named Greg buys my friend a Gin and Tonic—"good"—meaning a little weak. I have a Negra Modelo.

The first floor of Ringside is a dance floor with black and white tiles, an ultra-chic mannequin sauntering above and a disco ball. The second floor is a balcony bar overlooking the checkerboard below.

Up the creaky staircase lies the third floor. Ascending the steps is like crawling through Alice's rabbit hole: hip ... and a bit peculiar. This level is for performing, with a small, vintage stage the color of over-crisped breakfast toast.

The fourth floor is Michael Penny's home; Penny owns Ringside.

He welcomes us to his exclusive rooftop, where we chat for over an hour. Penny is a Durham native who opened for business in 2000.

I ask him why there aren't more people here.

"I don't advertise," he says. "It's mostly cool people telling their cool friends." He says that, because of the flamboyant and tolerant nature of the bar, people often try to categorize it.

"We are not a gay bar! The bar is whatever you want it to be," he laughs, looking up at the stars.

It's a beautiful night. We talk about lesbians, heterophobia, New York, Nietzsche and Heidegger. And the bar, of course.

"There are nights here that are just magical: skinheads next to drag queens. It's like standing at the corner of Bourbon Street and St. Peter's," he says. Despite its diverse clientele, however, Ringside has never needed a bouncer and has never had to call 911.

"Every night is different," Penny says.

He only opens the club on Fridays and Saturdays, when he can count on "a really diverse crowd."

"Tell those people in Chapel Hill that Durham is happening!" Rabbit shouts as pass by her post on our way out of the club.

I assure her I will.