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Nightlife Critics’ Pick Winners: Best in the Nest 2021

The best in Charlotte's nightlife as chosen by Nerve critics

best nightlife in Charlotte

If there’s one thing we’ve done our research on, it’s where to have a good time in this town. We’re more than happy to share what we’ve found.

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Best New Nightlife Spot:
Trolley Barn Fermentory

What’s the most cliche thing that could open in South End? A brewery? A food hall? A cocktail bar? Trolley Barn Fermentory challenges your patience by being all three things at once. But aren’t hybrids sort of what Charlotte’s food scene loves?

We all love corn dog shrimp-and-crab hushpuppies after all. And like crab puppies, Trolley Barn has created something warm yet quirky, new yet familiar, and so easy to both love and hate. You can have the trash-healthy greens at Greenworks or a burger loaded with mac and cheese, and wash it down with a cocktail or a craft beer.

Trolley Barn is proof that the cream truly rises to the top, and eye-catching food always overcomes the eye rolling. It embraces the experimental nature of Charlotte dining in a way it totally doesn’t have to, and more often than not it pulls it off. It’s the weirdest, coolest, nicest and most fun nightlife spot opened in Charlotte this year.

Trolly Barn Fermentory
Phil Buchy of Legion in the brewery’s new Trolley Barn concept location. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Best New Bar:
The Vintage Whiskey & Cigar Bar

The Vintage is located in South End and has an inviting yet bougie neighborhood feel when you walk in for the first time. The 1,000-square-foot stone patio leads to a set of garage doors.

The indoor space isn’t sprawling by any means, with a small front-bar area off to the right and a custom-built walk-in cigar humidor off to the left. But once you sit down the feel of the space lets the smallness of it sink away.

The bar program offers more than 120 varieties of whiskey and includes a full espresso bar in collaboration with west-Charlotte roaster Enderly Coffee. Cocktails at The Vintage range from $13 to $18 and are crafted with house-made teas and syrups as well as ingredients from the kitchen.

The Vintage Whiskey & Cigar Bar
The not so smoke-filled room at The Vintage Whiskey & Cigar Bar. (Photo by Brian Twitty)

The inside of the space is surprisingly not smoky due to their custom-engineered HVAC system. It is a fully automated and integrated system using commercial-grade products from Trane and Greenheck. It has been specifically engineered for the abatement of smoke and particulates and can exchange air in the room up to 60 times per hour, just in time for a new worldwide appreciation for fresh air inspired by the pandemic.

Best Place To Get Dressed Up For:
The Crunkleton

Arriving in Charlotte from Chapel Hill to rave reviews in 2019, Charlotte folks haven’t dropped this spot for the newest shiny thing. It remains the perfect space to bring your friends when you want to celebrate a successful project or celebrate a birthday. It’s also the spot for the most serious whiskey drinkers, as owner Gary Crunkleton takes his spirits seriously, even helping create House Bill 909, aptly nicknamed “The Crunkleton Bill,” which changed North Carolina ABC laws by allowing the regulated sale of antique liquor. Even in this shortage situation, The Crunkleton is sure to have some liquor you won’t find anywhere else.

Best Hidden Gem:
BackStage Lounge at Southbound

You may have been to SouthBound, the SoCal street food taqueria on South Boulevard, but did you know there’s a hidden speakeasy around the back? BackStage Lounge is described as a modern take on the traditional neighborhood speakeasy, with an intimate romantically elevated vibe. On the menu are food and drinks named after 1970’s rock ’n’ roll bands and songs.

To get to BackStage Lounge you have to enter and go down the hall of Modern Classics Grooming Lounge, then there’s a mural-lined hallway leading to a secret phone booth. Pick it up, say the password of the week posted on social media, and only then you can walk inside.

Best Regular Party:
Hazy Sundays at Petra’s

There is no better cure for your Sunday Scaries than the highly curated sounds of Probably Will and Ray Krol, taking over the back deck at Petra’s every Sunday evening and making you forget about the nightmare that will be Monday morning. A brand new outdoor stage has only made things more hype. Walking out of Calle Sol after having just finished a chill Sunday evening meal with the family? Hear that acid rock drop and let yourself be pulled into Petra’s.

Petra’s in Plaza Midwood (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Best Place to Day Drink:
NoDa Company Store

Name a better all-around day-drinking or hangout spot in NoDa besides NoDa Company Store … we’ll wait. When it comes to neighborhood staples, NoDa Co. is the G.O.A.T. When the word “community” comes to mind, this spot is the pinnacle of leading by example. From organizing free community dinners to providing a multifaceted space for gathering, NoDa Co. is owned by members of the community and created for the unequivocally genuine “ALL” that is the larger Charlotte community. Complete with snacks, food trucks, bottled wine, beer, spirit-free options, games, spiked creations, and all the patio nooks and crannies (we’re talking Butterfly Highway by summer and personal fireplaces by winter), you’ll have everything your heart could desire.

The only hang-up? If you think you’re going to ONLY want to day drink there, think again. Chances are, once you cozy up to the patio heaters with a seasonal spiked hot chocolate, you won’t want to leave and the day will quickly turn into night.

NoDa Company Store
NoDa Company Store (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Best Place to Bar Hop:
Plaza Midwood

The options to drink are plentiful in Plaza Midwood and Commonwealth, and the proper bar crawl can fit into any themed night you are looking to have in the neighborhood. Dive bars, cocktail bars, music venues and the like are scattered throughout the neighborhood.

For a cocktail night you can travel from Soul Gastrolounge to KiKi and Tattoo just downstairs. Then cross the intersection and sip cocktails while playing minigolf at Stroke before ending the night with drinks under green velvet at Single Barrel Room.

Soul Gastrolounge
Soul Gastrolounge (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The dives are a great option as well. From Common Market to the Thirsty Beaver, down to Midwood Country Club and Skylark Social Club, there is an option for everyone at any time. Thomas Street Tavern is a local favorite and Hattie’s Tap & Tavern is a two-minute drive up the street. Add in Workman’s Friend for the Irish pub night or Moo & Brew for a craft draft night.

For live music you can bounce around between Petra’s or Thomas Street Tavern or Snug Harbor or Skylark Social Club or *gasp* a brewery. The point is, Plaza Midwood has it all and there isn’t a better place to bar hop.

Best For Fun and Games:
Paranoia Pinball

Charlotte can’t seem to maintain a barcade. Such a simple, fun concept seems like it should be an easy win in a city full of young people looking for something to do. However, Blind Pig is really the only game bar that seems to have found a consistent niche. We’re hoping Paranoia Pinball is next.

Paranoia used to be Palmer Street Arcade, but the new iteration focuses on just pinball and ditches the food and cocktails (although a cocktail menu is possibly in the works). Paranoia houses many of the favorites of the pinball world, including Attack From Mars, Fish Tales, and our favorite Jurassic Park.

You can grab a cheap beer, convert that $10 bill you found in your winter jacket into quarters, and enjoy a night surrounded by relaxed pinball fans. It’s nothing like South End’s other game bar, which tends to either feel like a nightclub or a church Bible camp on any given night. Paranoia Pinball is more grown and sexy. Or, shall we say, grown and gamey.

Best Bowling Alley:
AMF University Lanes

Bowling alleys nowadays look to draw in customers with fancy neon lights and DJs and all that other bullshit. AMF lanes, for now, stays true to the authenticity of the cigarette-smoke-filled lanes of decades past leaving that lingering nostalgia. A pitcher of Miller Lite runs cheap and foamy, with liquor choices the most basic and overpoured.

These are the places with the snack bars serving burnt-cheese pizza and hand pump-dispensed cheese substitutes on off-brand Tostitos. Heaven. AMF University Lanes is a great spot for that low-key date night you’ve been looking for, or the next alley to sign your league team onto — bowling shirts not included.

Best Place to Spend a Sober Night:

The world is slowly becoming a friendlier place for non-drinkers. According to Nielsen, in 2019, nearly two-thirds of millennials were reducing their alcohol consumption, and that trend is only continuing to grow. The Charlotte hospitality industry is starting to do more to accommodate non-drinkers as well. Just a few years ago, the fanciest non-alcoholic drink you could typically find at a restaurant here was a Shirley Temple or a seltzer (back in the day before spiked seltzer was a thing) or a bevy of mixed juices topped with soda water.

non-alcoholic options
One of Elsewhere’s non-alcoholic options, “So Fun.” (Photo courtesy of Elsewhere)

Now there are places like Elsewhere, a cocktail bar with an impressive non-alcoholic menu that goes beyond just a soda. They serve a Moscow Midnight with mint, lime, cane simple and fever tree smoked ginger beer, and even have a Ritual zero-proof tequila alternative for use in other cocktails.

Best Patio:
Room and Board

Room and Board has suffered from a bit of an identity crisis — or at the very least an identity question — in the two years since it opened. Is it supposed to be a pizza place? A sports bar? A night club? A place to grab a beer real quick while you wait for your high top to be ready at Billy Jack’s Shack? A place where everyone who quits Billy Jack’s Shack can go to work?

Room and Board NoDa
Room & Board in NoDa (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The problem in figuring out what a place is trying to be, however, is in assuming that everyone is trying to be something. Some places are just … places. That’s what makes Room and Board such a great patio bar. You can dance, watch sports, take shots, or eat pizza. The DJ seems to have two speeds: 2000s emo and songs from TikTok, a playlist designed to elicit as many reactions of “I LOVE THIS SONG” as possible. With the noises of NoDa on a Friday night in the background, an evening spent on the patio at Room and Board is a cheap and easy time that deserves a spot in the weekend rotation of any active Charlottean.

Best Rooftop:
Lincoln Street Kitchen & Cocktails

Tree planters and string lights tend to be the norm decor for most rooftop bars and patios around Charlotte, but at Lincoln Street Kitchen & Cocktails it gives off more of a je ne sais pa feel that tucks you away into the corner of South End, away from all the hubbub. A glimpse at the Uptown giants protruding through the skyline, or a view of the flat west side of Charlotte, offers each guest a different visual experience. It is an added bonus that you can dress up (or down) for a date night on the roof and watch all the South End Sallys go sober into Lost & Found and stumble out drunk.

Best New Patio:
Novelty House

The category is Uptown patios. What’s your answer? Imperial’s rooftop, finished. Flight, gone. The Daily, closed. Merchant & Trade, excellent but pricey. Any other mention may be honorable but will conjure, “Been there, done that.”

Enter Novelty House, the rooftop patio that the Queen City didn’t know they were thirsty for. Also, it’s important to note, it took the place of the coveted back patio at Connolly’s on bustling East 5th Street. Novelty House is donned with a neon “Wish you were here” sign, floral walls, ample seating, an L-shaped bar that almost spans the entire length, and a view that rivals any you’ll find around town, let alone from a four-story building.

After months of anticipation, Novelty House burst onto the nightlife scene and drummed up attention right from the jump, packing out the house with patrons from near and far.

Best Renovation:
The Milestone remodel

An artisan bar handcrafted from a fallen century oak tree, a spacious patio with ample seating and skyline views, a booming PA system with top-notch sound quality, a premium selection of local spirits and craft beers, toilets clean enough to sit on. Think we’re describing the latest bougie South End gentrification bar? Get ready to have your mind blown. I’m talking about The Milestone Club.

Yes, the grimey AF historic punk club housed in a 100-year-old building has emerged from COVID with a serious glow up. Gone are the duct-taped barstools, sagging ceiling, and bathrooms that looked like they hadn’t been cleaned since opening day in 1969. There are even windows now to let in natural light.

The Milestone Club in west Charlotte
The Milestone Club, on Tuckaseegee Rd. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Don’t worry, the 18 layers of graffiti on the walls are still there, as is the beloved staff, and the vibe remains unchanged. Owner Wyley Buck Boswell plans to start hosting outdoor shows on the patio this spring. And the kicker? You won’t have to drunkenly fumble around with the ATM anymore, because they take cards now. What a time to be alive!

Best Dive Bar:
Hattie’s Tap & Tavern

Named for owner Jackie DeLoach’s grandmother, it makes sense that Hattie’s Tap & Tavern is a place where everyone feels a little like family. Whether you’re wearing sweatpants or sequins you’re welcomed into the fold with open arms and a cold drink by the staff.

More than just a beloved local dive bar, Hattie’s is known for its fundraisers in support of local organizations and ongoing commitment to the Charlotte community.

Hattie's Tap & Tavern
Hattie’s Tap & Tavern (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Stop by for a beer on the patio with friends (furry friends invited and encouraged), shoot a quick game of pool, or sing karaoke on Thursday night. Whatever your reason for stopping by, just remember to Mind Your P’s and Q’s.

Best Comeback:
The Comedy Zone

If laughter is the best medicine, why the hell did we ever let the Comedy Zone close?! We’re joking obviously, but we were psyched when Comedy Zone quietly made their little comeback, not announcing it with much fanfare, just letting word of mouth spread when an icon like Chris Rock stops by to work out material like he did in November.

December alone has some heavy hitters on the schedule, too: Sam Morrill, Clint Coley, Mark Norman and Chris Tucker to name a few.

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