Just outside Dilworth’s residential neighborhood, where million-dollar homes line perfectly manicured streets, lies a shopping plaza symptomatic of Charlotte’s current expansion. On one side sits a two-story brick building just a few years old, housing an artisan pizza restaurant, craft coffee and cocktail bar, juice bar and yoga studio. On the other, in a single-story strip of storefronts, lies a laundromat, Chinese restaurant and nail bar capped off by the storied Comet Grill.
In a city where cultural landmarks are bulldozed at an alarming rate for the sake of lackluster apartment buildings, Comet has remained a watering hole for locals since its inception back in 1996. While 1996 may not seem that historic for a city established in 1786, when you take a look around Charlotte’s shiny new enterprises, any pre-millennia structure is worth a second glance.
Despite having bartended on the newer side of the divide, I’d never stepped foot in the place. I’d known Comet existed, had served alongside other bartenders who’d worked there (like the majestic Jen Hill) but saved my own dive bar experiences for places like Sanctuary or Common Market.
Getting off work, I’d take notice of the diverse clientele mingling outside, their cigarette smoke intertwining with the sounds of the night’s music, being lifted up almost as an offering of gratitude for what Comet has remained.
Mike Clayton was once a Comet regular, stopping in for his drink combo of choice — PBR and a shot of Jameson — after his shifts at the now-defunct Davidson Street Public House. About a year and a half ago after finding out about Public House’s closing on a drive home from Jacksonville, Clayton was panicked. Tommy Noblett, Comet’s line-cook-turned-owner, offered Clayton a spot bartending a few nights a week.
“When people found out I was working there, they’d joke ‘Who died?’ No one really leaves Comet once they’re there,” Clayton recalls.
Comet’s interior has hardly changed — a long bar full of folks fresh off work, with stairs leading to a loft overhead that’s almost eye level with televisions tuned to ESPN. It’s not hard to imagine the place cloaked in cigarette smoke years ago before the indoor-smoking ban, while music played until after 2 a.m.
As the newest bartender at the Grill, Clayton has a fresh perspective of what somewhere like Comet offers to the city along with his unique juxtaposition of being a craft cocktail bartender in a dive bar.
Queen City Nerve: Have you always aspired to being a bartender or did you just fall into it?
Mike Clayton: I moved to Charlotte in 2007 after graduating college in Cincinnati. I’d heard Charlotte had a good job market but couldn’t land anything so I got a job at Outback [Steakhouse]. I moved over to Dilworth Neighborhood Grill. After managing there a little while, I decided to try again to pursue the 9-to-5 world. After a short time at Wells Fargo, and knowing fluorescent lights were a no for me, I stepped back into the bar scene and haven’t left.
What was your bar training like?
I took over the bar at Davidson Street Public House when the bartender abruptly left. We were keeping it simple but elevated and I taught myself everything I knew. I ordered books, watched videos online, basically did anything I could to master the trade. It was fun — we were whiskey-forward and got to play around and challenge people. They’d come in wanting vodka and I’d try to steer them in the direction of a gin cocktail, just to encourage people to try something new.
After that experience, what was it like walking in to such an established bar?
It was one of those things that when I started, I was basically trained by the regulars. They’d been there longer than I had and in a way showed me the ropes.
What makes Comet different from the other places you’ve tended bar?
Comet is a beer-and-a-shot joint. We have the same folks coming in between 4 and 7 every day. I see them walking in the door and start pouring their drinks. I almost need a hand signal from them if they are switching it up. We all know the customers well and they know us. In a lot of ways Charlotte is missing that. We see the same faces every day — we’ve got the after work crowd and then later on the nightly music crowd. This place is like family. Our status quo is good and we like it.
How would you describe the crowd?
It’s really divers. We’ve got the late-night industry folks who come in for drinks after work. We’ve got the 25-to-30-year-old crowd new to the neighborhood coming in. Then we’ve got the locals who have been coming here since we opened. They keep coming because it still feels old school.
What kind of drinks are you pouring?
This is definitely not a cocktail bar. I’m pouring a lot of Jäger and Evan Williams. We run $2.50 PBR, Miller Lite and High Life specials every day, so a lot of the time I’m just cracking those open and handing them out.
We hear there is talk about Public House reopening in Uptown. What are your plans with that?
First of all, I plan on staying at Comet, which says a lot about this establishment. But I am going to be on bar at the new Public House a few nights a week. I’m excited to get back into craft beer and cocktails. I love Comet but I do miss [craft cocktails].
What can we expect from the new Public House?
There will be a nod to the previous Public House food and drinks. We’re going to have 40-plus taps and I’m hoping we bring back the 36 & Davidson, which was bourbon, Aperol, Luxardo, orange bitters and an orange peel. We’re hoping to regain our old NoDa regulars, but this space is a bit larger and different.
We’ll be sharing a building with the new Middle C Jazz Club — they’ll be on the left, we’ll be on the right. We’ve got a good crowd of leadership — Chris Healy will still be owner/operator and Delano Little from WBTV will be on board. Clayton Sanders will be running the food at both locations. I’m excited to be a part of this, while also staying at Comet. It keeps me on my toes as a bartender.