By Clair McLafferty
Photos via Wise Man Brewing & Bar Pina
A little over a decade ago, I started college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Though I ended up transferring away from Wake Forest, I fell in love with its peculiar city. The college town was and is home to more than five postsecondary schools, but at the time, options for eating and drinking were largely limited to chains.
The Dirty Dash, as we called it, was home to a couple extremely college-y bars and one local coffee shop. No one ventured downtown unless there was a Greek events, concerts, or church—it wasn’t considered safe.
In the ten years since, it’s changed dramatically. Earlier this year, I learned about the city’s progress when I met Stephen Thompson, a Winston-Salem native and the lead bartender at bar piña, the city’s first tiki bar.
He was leaving for college at about the same time I was there, and was shocked to see its progress when he returned to bartend in 2011. “Now, we have 30 or 40 bars, an equal amount of restaurants, five breweries, three distilleries, and multiple convention centers,” he says. “Another two or three businesses open a month.”
“It’s been a wild ride,” he says. “Since it’s happened so fast, it still has that small town feel, and we’re gaining the amenities that go along with mid-level and bigger cities, but we don’t have any traffic, and crime is negligible. For the last six years, it’s been the most lovely place to live, and it happens to be my hometown.”
It was also, surprisingly, the first state to allow the legal sale of vintage alcohol in bars, as long as the bar has a vintage liquor permit. “We’re usually behind the times,” says Thompson. “In some regards, the state’s progressive, but it’s like we try to be more progressive because of how backwards we are in some regards.”
As Thompson says, it does have its drawbacks. Like Alabama, my home state, North Carolina is a control state for alcohol. All wholesale alcohol purchases must go through the government, and here, the only liquor stores are run by the state.
This can hinder the availability of some of the more esoteric ingredients necessary for craft cocktails. It can also dramatically increase the cost of booze. The state also tends to be socially conservative, as evidenced by the so-called “bathroom bill” that originally forced transgender people to use the bathroom designated by the sex on their birth certificate and disallowed the state for passing workplace protections for LGBT individuals. Portions of the bill have since been repealed.
Despite these setbacks, the state as a whole is growing rapidly. Its home to old tobacco money, tourism, research dollars, and high education levels, all factors which attract up-and-coming industries and businesses. For many North Carolina cities, the growth has attracted people from all over, which has pushed the craft cocktail movement forward quickly.
But in Winston-Salem, the number of college kids can shift the focus away from craft cocktails. It also has a secondary effect of stripping out a lot of the pretension present in larger markets. “It kind of helps to keep us in check, to remember that bars are meant to be fun,” says Thompson. “You don’t want to take it too seriously.”
When I visit, I’ll be checking out:
Tate’s Craft Cocktails is the original Winston-Salem cocktail bar. “They’ve been there so long that everything is as good as it is in a bigger city and they have all the toys.”
Locals know Recreation Billiards as Rec Billiards. But this 70-year-old pool hall and bar hasn’t lost its mojo. Before legendary bar consultant Tobin Ellis won awards for best bar setup, he traveled to Winston-Salem to rebuild Rec’s basement. “That gave us our second spot to get really good cocktails,” says Thompson. “Everybody goes there. You can’t even move on the weekends.”
bar piña is brand new, the first tiki spot in town, and the Dash’s only rooftop bar. “During the warmer months, it’s a really nice, cozy place to enjoy the bar, some tunes, the view,” he says. And if you want to visit Thompson, it’s a double win: he’s the lead bartender there.
“Most nights, pretty much everybody ends up at Single Brothers,” says Thompson. “It’s kind of the hip, divey cocktail bar that can make pretty much [any cocktail].” Order a shot and a beer, throw some dice, and enjoy the 80s music.
If that’s too fancy for you, head across the street to Silver Moon Saloon. “[It] has all the look and appeal of a biker bar, but [the doors] are open to anyone.” Expect cold, cheap beer, Jäger Bombs, and a great patio.
For a fancier meal and solid cocktails, hit The Katharine Brasserie + Bar in the Kimpton Hotel downtown, he says.