For those who have never been to Plus Dueling Piano Bar in Raleigh, owner Tony Basford offers this comparison.
Of all the bars real or imagined, Basford says his is most like Cocktails & Dreams, better known as the one from the Tom Cruise movie “Cocktail.” In that fictional bar, neon flows like the drinks themselves and every patron knows every word to every power ballad, belting them out together.
At Plus, two pianos trade songs on a revolving stage, always requests from the crowd. It’s a different show every night, Basford said, with professional lighting and, in the days before the COVID-19 pandemic, singers standing on tables serenading the room through a wireless mic.
“It’s not your typical old guys playing ‘Brown-Eyed Girl,’” Basford said. “It’s a very electric type of show, you never know what we’re going to do.”
Last year, the party paused for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, closing Plus and more than 1,000 other North Carolina bars in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
On Friday, following a month of declining COVID cases in North Carolina, the state eased restrictions for the first time since the fall, including reopening indoor bars at 30% capacity. All North Carolina bars can serve drinks inside for the first time in nearly a year.
While remaining largely closed for the past year, bars became shape-shifters to survive. Some have sold toilet paper, groceries and everything-but-the-booze cocktail kits. Some turned themselves into restaurants.
The shape-shift at Plus kept it virtually the same, except it quit selling liquor.
In November, Plus turned in its liquor license as a private bar, instead selling only beer and wine and falling into a quasi restaurant designation that allowed it to welcome customers back inside. Basford said he consulted with ABC officials and an attorney, which he said advised that Plus would be able to operate as usual, with capacity limits.
In the state’s first reopening phase, a line was drawn between bars and restaurants. Bars remained closed and restaurants could reopen dining rooms at half capacity. Practically, one could not order a margarita from a swanky cocktail bar, but could from Chili’s.
“There was a time where you couldn’t get toilet paper anywhere, but I knew I could get toilet paper by the 250 roll case,” said Drew Schenck, co-owner of Dram & Draught in Raleigh. “We stocked bleach, toilet paper, we sold it in our community. In downtown Raleigh there weren’t a lot of options.”
Located around the corner from Glenwood Avenue, the bass beating heart of Raleigh nightlife, Plus has no patio seating, so it didn’t reopen in October when outdoor drinking was allowed.
Since November, Plus has only opened Fridays and Saturdays. Basford said Plus’s 50% COVID capacity is 298, but that it’s been kept closer to 225. Under the new executive order reopening bars, indoor capacity is capped at 250.
“We don’t have 700 people inside anymore, but it’s 200 people excited to be out of the house,” Basford said. “People are excited to feel alive and laugh and enjoy themselves. It’s as electric now as it was pre-COVID, just with a lot less people.”
Over the past year, bars have worked with ABC officials in navigating the line between bars and restaurants. In the summer, a number of bars that had some history of selling food reopened, only to receive letters from the ABC Commission saying they were out of compliance and jeopardizing their liquor license. Plus was one of those bars, and Basford said he was surprised.
“We were caught off-guard,” Basford said. “At the end of the day you’re frustrated, but you don’t worry about things you can’t change.”
Meanwhile, last summer, some restaurants seemed to operate more like bars, even earning a rebuke on Twitter from Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. Later, an alcohol curfew was imposed at 11 p.m., then moved up to 9 p.m. That curfew moved back to 11 p.m. on Friday.
ABC Commission public affairs director Jeff Strickland said guidance from the agency stresses operations and permitting.
“We don’t want to use the word ‘loophole,’” ABC Commission public affairs director Jeff Strickland said. “Some businesses adjust their operations to be a restaurant. But just turning in your private bar permit does not mean you’re not a bar. It’s really about the way you’re operating.”
Coming for a show
In 2019, Plus did $3 million worth of business, Basford said, a figure that kept the bar afloat through the past year while paying $36,000 in rent and expenses. Since spring 2020, Basford said Plus expected to be closed only a few weeks due to COVID, but as case counts remained steady, North Carolina kept restrictions in place.
“We were able to sustain the first month, thinking the next month will be better, always looking forward,” Basford said. “You try to think it’s always going to be better. Then we saw that wasn’t going to happen.”
With the November reopening, tables were kept 12 feet apart and masks were required when not seated. The singing and performance continued.
“We’re not a bar where you go to drink, it’s a show you go see,” Basford said. “It’s like being at a movie theater and you’re sitting on the sidewalk and the movie is playing inside.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the state has used a dimmer switch to describe the gradual reopening of society. Some bars now say the same thing, with their own reopenings possibly taking a few weeks.
Raleigh cocktail bar The Haymaker won’t reopen this weekend, owner Gaurav Patel said, taking the time to reassemble staff and touch up the inside.
“We just don’t have the bandwidth,” Patel said. “It’s tough to deploy capital. We have to preserve every dime. But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
With weather improving and case counts dropping, bars hope the worst is behind the state, knowing that the day they can open their doors means a day of general safety from the virus.
“Any win, small or big, is a win; and this is a win,” Patel said. “What will be momentous is when we can open at full capacity.”
In Durham, the bar Kotuku Surf Club is mostly an outdoor space, with bocce courts and picnic tables. Owner Rhys Botica has already closed another of his bars, Criterion in downtown Durham, but has kept Surf Club afloat. He said he will only open a small part of the indoor space for now, pointing to coming vaccinations.
“We are converting our old pool room, which opens onto the patio into indoor seating,” Botica said. “Myself and our staff haven’t been vaccinated yet, so until we do I’m not comfortable exposing them to the risk of the indoors. Hoping for good weather in the meantime.”
The cocktail bar Kingfisher spent the summer and fall as a backyard burger joint called Queen Burger. Owned by husband and wife Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker, the 2-year-old bar will reopen by taking reservations.
Just outside of Chapel Hill, the roadside honkytonk The Kraken will likely remain an outdoor bar, co-owner Judy Kidney said, with drinks ordered from a window. The bar reopened in the fall, but shut down in early January when the state’s COVID cases reached their peak.
“I don’t think we’re going to be reopening inside for a while,” Kidney said. “We’re just two very small rooms. It can be hard to keep track of how many people are coming in.”
Survival for the Kraken has meant launching a $25,000 GoFundMe campaign and dipping into personal savings, Kidney said.
“We’re very blessed to have such a marvelous community of locals and friends,” she said. “We’re lucky to have our Krakeneisters.”
Now that bars can reopen indoors at 30% capacity, Basford said he’ll pursue reinstating the liquor license at Plus and once again become a private bar. That will mean starting from square one, with background checks and fees as if Plus had never served liquor before. That process will take a few weeks, he said, but until then, the doors will be open.
Basford said his goal in life and through the bar is to promote positivity and make Plus a place welcoming to all people, a goal more easily accomplished when the doors are open. Plus will make it to the other side of the pandemic, putting it on the lucky side of bars, Basford said.
“I am more blessed than I am cursed,” Basford said.