Nightlife Critics’ Picks 2020

We got about two-and-a-half months of winter nightlife this year before everything stopped. For that reason, you may find this category a bit lacking. Hell, some of these establishments we’re honoring out of pure nostalgia for our last trips in February — here’s looking to you Coyote Joe’s and Surf Inn. We can’t wait to come back, but for now, we’ll pay homage to some of the after-dark staples we were able to patronize at some point this year.

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Best New Nightlife Spot:

Indoor minigolf? Genius.

A look inside Stroke when Ryan Pitkin beat Justin LaFrancois. (Photo by Justin LaFrancois)

A first of its kind in the area, Stroke jumped off popularly in the beginning of this year. They have also come back pretty well since being allowed to, with proper safety measures in place. If you have been there you know the space is plenty big enough for social distancing. The bar area is eclectic with a mid-century modern feel to it that is simply pleasing to be in. The space started out serving a full menu but recently announced that they would close their kitchen.

The course offers a level of difficulty that you can find at any outdoor minigolf course, but with less obstacles. It still makes for a great hour-long activity that only costs you $10 before going to relax in the lounge-y bar area.

This is the best new nightlife spot because it offers more than loud-ass music, drinks and the same arcade games you can find anywhere. It feels like a swanky, down-to-earth, miniature country club. A lot of work went into making this place the destination that it is and the design and opportunity for a different experience that they offer set this spot apart.

Best Place to Bar Hop:

South End may be a bit more trendy for the younger COVID risk-takers crowds, but the more popular place for the more traditional barhoppers is NoDa. The notorious arts-turned-bar district offers the historical, the artistic, the eclectic, and the strange all within a walkable strip of North Davidson Street.

In a year when outdoor drinking was not only necessary but critical to your health, NoDa has plenty of opportunity for that — even after losing the popular Solstice patio. Once Billy Jack’s hit NoDa, this was an immediate go-to stop. Bar hopping can require a beer and a shot every once in a while, a quick bite of food, a change of scenery, whatever it may be, you can find it all there, along with well-spaced outdoor tables, strict capacity limits and temperature checks at the entrance.

The newly opened Roy’s Kitchen & Patio offers a taste of the islands and a spacious back patio. There’s also outdoor seating at Heist Brewery, Haberdish, and Wooden Robot.

By this point you may need a bite to eat and if you’re lucky, Cabo Fish Taco, a coveted favorite, won’t be slammed. If it is, don’t worry, you can still fill up on one of the best cheesesteaks in Charlotte while still getting boozy at JackBeagle’s on the back patio.

And we didn’t even mention one of the best pations in the neighborhood because, well, here’s a whole new category for it…

Best Rebuild:
NoDa Company Store

Last year’s Best Place to Day Drink honoree has always been cool because of its dedication to patio drinking. So one might think that once they were allowed to reopen following the first Mecklenburg County shutdown, they would do so and leave it at that, right? Wrong. The team at Company Store put their heads together to stop folks from putting their groups together. They replaced the smaller tables and chairs and brought in the big stuff, centering the patio with immovable picnic tables and installing benches around gas fireplaces on the edges, making for cozy corners that don’t allow for mingling with folks outside the group you came with.

Pandemic or not, it was a great renovation and made Company Store that much more the place to be after its reopening on June 7.

Best Fun and Games:

We had no idea what duckpin bowling was a few years ago. We barely understand it now. All we know is that it’s somehow harder than regular bowling, and it’s that differing factor that makes Pinhouse not just another self-serve bar.

This two-level bar has tons of taps, a back patio with yard games, live DJs upstairs, tons of TVs for sports, and of course the aforementioned duckpin that’ll have you cursing in frustration when you can’t figure out why you suck at it.

Pinhouse improves on every element of its sister concept Hoppin’ in South End, and proves self-serve doesn’t have to be lame.

Best Bartender:
Josh Hebert

Josh Hebert is not only a fabulous magician mixologist, but also a pretty awesome human. He created such a welcoming atmosphere at Zeppelin. There’s something comforting about visiting a spot and knowing you will see a familiar face behind the bar. Even if you intentionally slide in to grab a beverage for outdoor seating, Josh always made it a point to find time and step away for a quick catch up convo.

When COVID hit, all dreams of creatively crafted drinks came to a halt for patrons and bartenders. While he attempted to fight for a law allowing the sale of to-go cocktails from shut-down bars, no such luck was had.

While Zeppelin’s future looks anything but promising, Josh can now be located at Lincoln Street Kitchen & Cocktails! Though we miss the “Coke and Peanuts” concoction of tequila, peanut molé, Mexican Coca-Cola reduction, and bourbon-barrel-aged salt, there are many more tricks up Josh’s sleeve to indulge in.

Right now at Lincoln Street, Josh’s favorite drink is the clarified milk punch. It’s pineapple, matcha green tea, lemon, orange, warming spices, and patron tequila. It starts as a green liquid but he clarifies it over whole milk to make it a clear yellowish color. It’s a true test of patience and his favorite thing to do at the moment!

Best Bar to Get Dressed Up For:
Merchant & Trade

Swanky. Sexy. Upscale. Maybe even bourgeois. Those are the words that come to mind the moment you enter Merchant & Trade on the 19th floor of Kimpton Tryon Park Hotel. Not to mention, the website explicitly outlines a dress code that opens with, “Dress to impress…”

You may get away with dressing down at other spots boasting a $14 cocktail, but this isn’t one of them. Nor should you, from the “chandelier” of glassware hanging above the centerpiece of an inside bar and curated cocktail menu to the appetizers and the panoramic views of the skyline, everything about every detail put into this Uptown destination force you to feel like you’re preparing for a night of indulgence.

So don your very best and get ready for a night on the town.

Best Hotel Bar:
Cordial at AC South Park Hotel

Cordial is nestled into the eighth floor of the AC South Park hotel. Upon entry, you’ll notice two separate patios. While both have stellar views, the preferred side is likely the one with fire pits and a clear shot of the city in the distance. Do not worry, they offer to relocate you if the seating situation allows while you’re there. Nothing like getting the full experience.

With plenty of local beer on tap, they also offer a tasty range of cocktails. “It’s French” with Grand Marnier, grapefruit, and sparkling rosé and “Rye Negroni” with coffee liqueur were top choices. It can be difficult to have great cocktails and food, but not at Cordial. The charcuterie board for two or four, caribbean jerk wings with cilantro-lime ranch, and pulled chicken + avocado flatbread all hit the spot. The location can seem set off to itself, but it is actually near Paco’s Tacos. Cordial is the first rooftop bar offered in SouthPark. Enjoy the spacious, chill vibes before everyone catches on.

Best Comeback:
Hattie’s Tap & Tavern

Throughout the COVID-19 shutdown, bar owners like Jackie DeLoach at Hattie’s Tap & Tavern were handcuffed as far as options. When it became clear that to-go cocktails would not be legalized in North Carolina even temporarily, she took to selling to-go beer from her spot, only to be told by a misinformed agent that even that was illegal.

Hattie’s Tap & Tavern.

DeLoach held car washes and benefit concerts to stay afloat, but it was barely enough to keep the doors open. Once Phase 3 finally rolled around and Hattie’s was allowed to reopen, DeLoach made damn sure her bar wouldn’t be the scene of any outbreak that gave regulators a reason to shut her back down.

She set up a socially distanced line to get to the bar and only allowed a few people inside at a time, while her staff fervently enforced the mask mandate on the back patio. Things looked grim there for a while, and now it looks like they’re going in the wrong direction again, but if another shutdown occurs, we feel pretty secure in saying it won’t be because of Hattie’s.

Best North/South Dynamic:
Wooden Robot Brewery

Honestly, either Wooden Robot location is ideal for day drinking. The amount of space and variety/amount of beers on tap sets you up for a lengthy day of steady drinking.

While the NoDa spot has a large rooftop, the OG South End Wooden Robot offers food consistently through Twisted Eats onsite. Having food, two patio options (when both available), and close-by bars to jump to might be a little more ideal.

Wooden Robot Brewery. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

Start light with the popular Good Morning Vietnam Coffee Vanilla Blonde Ale (or they currently offer a Cinnamon Roll and Goodnight Vietnam Coffee Porter option). Switch it up with the Cherry Cobbler or Rasperry Sour Ale. What He’s Having IPA is always a good choice, or if you really want to get there, the Godless Killing Machine Imperial Stout at 12% will do it. The staff staying the same certainly helps the vibe along with the tunes always making it hard to not do a little jig in your seat.

Best Dog Bar:

I adopted my pitbull/boxer mix Gracie in May. I was always worried that a dog would impede my busy social and professional life. Where would she stay when I was on business trips? Who would walk her if a happy hour beer turned into five? That’s why I bought a Founding Membership for Skiptown the day it was announced. They have everything a dog owner needs: walking, boarding, grooming, and of course, a dog bar. Their requirements for vaccinations are more stringent than any other dog bar in the city, and the South End crowd always makes for fun people-watching. -DB

Best Patio:
Dilworth Tasting Room

Dilworth Tasting Room has a patio that is rather easy to obsess over. As soon as you head out back, take note of the LOVE sign to grab a quick photo upon entry/exit. There’s also a flowing wine mural by Darion Fleming that would make a nice backdrop. With the feel of a secret garden, the patio is spread out extremely well with seating.

Cross all your fingers and limbs that your necessary patio reservation gets you as close to the koi fish pond as possible. Apologize in advance for spacing out from the conversation because you weren’t aware how mesmerizing koi fish are. It feels like being in the mix with nature sitting among beautiful greenery covered in twinkle lights, which everyone loves. The food, cocktails, and vibes are all present and lively at Dilworth Tasting Room. If you can’t catch a seat at a table out back, there’s an additional bar out back to take advantage of.

Best Hidden Gem:
Surf Inn

That which shall not be named due to its sacred nature, this divey bar is sure to top any Best Hidden Gem list. Not just because of the wildly unique experience one will have at adventurer’s first kiss, but largely due to the fact that when you arrive, you will be confused as shit where the bar entrance even is.

There are very few places in the Charlotte nightlife scene that give pause, surprise, intrigue, desire, and excitement all at once. This bar, however, easily achieves all that at once. It’s one of the oldest existing bars in Charlotte and a “regulars” hangout in the purest of forms. When you get ready to walk through the door, take a deep breath and set your inhibitions aside, because once you cross over, there’s no going back. But the truth is, if you’re cut out for this hidden gem, you won’t want to go back.

Best Rooftop Patio:
Whiskey Warehouse

There are a multitude of rooftops in the Queen City. Some offer breathtaking, up close and personal views of the skyline. Some come with high-priced drinks under the guise of “carefully curated cocktails.” Others, like Whiskey Warehouse, lean toward the subtle views of the skyline, 360-degree views, prime viewing for sports games, and hightop tables in a come-as-you-are, laid-back atmosphere. Whether you’re visiting Whiskey during the day or night, there’s something about the rooftop patio that sucks you in from the moment you sit down.

You never plan to stay for “just one,” because that quickly turns into three and five while the same logic may not follow when you’re eating dinner downstairs.

Best Dive Bar:
Smokey Joe’s

There isn’t a single dive bar list in Charlotte that should exist without Smokey Joe’s Cafe at the top. Nestled at the corner of Briar Creek and Monroe roads, it doesn’t look like much on the outside (as is the case with most dive bars). But on the inside, you’ll find a cozy, yet rough-around-the-edges watering hole to indulge in wetting your whistle. A “regulars” spot, Smokey Joe’s can be intimidating at first for some, but for others who embrace it in all of its weirdness of the bargoers, bartenders, and scattered antique mall aesthetic, it’s home. Live music, stiff pours, pool, darts, ping pong tables atop sand on the ground, ring toss, fire pits, inebriated patrons included and all are necessary to complete the recipe for the perfect dive.

Best Weekly Event:

Now in it’s 8th year, Knocturnal has weathered some major storms and it’s still Knoc(k)ing — online, for now. And that’s cool. It’s developed a new following on Twitch, with people joining the party from places like L.A., Miami, London and Pakistan. Of course, that’s not the same as the live ass-shaking, mic-rocking, b-boying Charlotte hip-hop fiasco it’s known to be, but we’ll certainly accept dope DJ sets from A-Minor and others every Monday night for the time being.

Knocturnal (Photo by Brian Twitty)

We appreciate how host and organizer, David “Shadow” Rea put it: “People who are trying to throw live events right now are crazy. I can’t do that because I love our people and I take protecting them seriously. Until life’s back to normal, join the thousand or so people rocking with us on Twitch each week.”

Best Place To Spend a Sober Night:

And that’s your best bet. Or for a drunk night for that matter. Enough said.

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