From Garner to Wake Forest and a few stops in between, Wake County is full of good bars and cozy lounges. I went from Wake Forest, a Baptist stronghold in the northern part of the county, to Cary’s world of connoisseurs, to a friendly biker bar in Apex, to Garner, where locals have turned a humdrum chain restaurant into the place to go. All over, karaoke and poker are king, there are live bands and DJs, and most crank up the action on Wednesday nights. So here goes.

Wake Forest may be home to the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, but it’s also home to one of the most hospitable bars in the area. You might think that a seminary just a few blocks away would put a damper on late night spirits, but locals say you’d be wrong. Downtown locations boasting nightlife include Holidaz Sports Bar and Night Club (formerly Jerry’s Lounge), Burkenstocks Bar & Grill and Skippers.

It was a late Wednesday evening when I visited Burkenstocks and was met by bartender Stacie Chapman. Her day job was working with kids with disabilities before burnout set in. The large, antique bar wasn’t that busy, and you could see it used to be an old soda fountain with marble tops.

The building is an old dry goods store featuring a high, tin roof. Owners Jeff and Amy Dowdle settled into town after living in the low country of Charleston, where Jeff, who’s the executive chef, attended Johnson and Wales Culinary School. Yes, there are canned beer specials called “Redneck Wednesday,” but don’t be fooled. I felt welcome there.

“I judge my food by this place,” said local fan Richard Stinnett, who was there with his son, Lt. Richard Stinnett Jr., who was just back from Iraq, and his wife, Beth. Michelle Priest and Jerome “Bones” Zimmer dropped in from Skippers, just a block or two away, and the couple joined me at the next stop on my bar journey.

Holidaz is the only late night dance bar in Wake Forest. It attracts young locals and boasts Texas Hold ‘Em poker, a DJ and karaoke–all on the same evening until 2 a.m. General manager Keith Derrance met me at the bar with a thick Boston accent and chatted about the bar’s new owner and his new-found love for the area. The decor features neon beer signs, scattered tables for poker, and a karaoke book for those who dare to sing solo or duets, which were popular this evening. On Monday evenings there is live mike night.

The next night it was on to Cary with the help of sisters Melissa Starling and Erin Parks and their friend, Amy Starke. Our first stop around 9 p.m. was Woody’s Sports Tavern on Chapel Hill Road, owned by Walter Powell. Things were a little slow, but manager Mat Kwitowski assured us that we were just a tad bit early, so we went inside and straight upstairs so we could look down on the action below (and the foosball next to us). A bank of nine televisions lines one wall with others displayed throughout the tavern. There’s a large stage, but there hasn’t been a performance in quite some time.

On our way into Woody’s we spotted a wine bar next door and decided to check it out. At Maximillians Grill and Wine Bar, a charming gentleman seated at the bar offered to move down to accommodate the posse, but we declined because he looked so comfortable (we later learned it was owner and chef Mike Schiffer). As we settled down and placed our order, bar manager Margie Hennessee engaged us in delightful conversation about the place and the move to its present location. The atmosphere is comfortable, with privacy glass separating wine bar patrons from the regular diners. Though it calls itself a wine bar, there’s a full stock of spirits.

Schiffer told us about plans for an expansion and addition of a tapas menu. The wine list is quite extensive and there is even a secret list of wines, although the wine we requested, a late harvest Riesling, was not available that evening; something about problems with the distributor.

While looking around the room, with swatches of fabric and strings of lights set against the windows, our eyes gazed upstairs to a private dining area the posse named the “proposal room.” How ironic, since Hennessee met her husband, Will, at the bar’s previous location.

We headed across the street to The Depot, once home to a teen nightclub. Owner Frank Stoltman welcomed us and began to give us a history of the club. I had a debate with him over which vodka was the smoothest before settling down with the posse to take in the scene.

The club has three separate areas. One we called the “love lounge,” complete with a sectional sofa and comfy chairs and lighting that can be adjusted. There’s a dance floor they say is one of the largest in the Triangle, complete with a foam machine and shadow dancing area. And there’s the bar, which also has individual tables. The posse also informed me that the ladies’ room may be the largest in the Triangle.

We stayed for a while before making a decision to check out our final Cary club, though three other locations were possibilities. We didn’t make it to the Cosmopolitan, which usually features live entertainment, but manager Katherine Natalie informed me it had been suspended for the summer and would resume soon. Six String Cafe and Music Hall is a favorite, but it was scheduled to close at the end of August (hope they find a new space). And we’ll stop by the Blue Note, a great spot for jazz and conversation, another time.

Instead, we found the most charming and eclectic wine bar–Ciao Cafe and Wine Bar downtown. We had to search for it, but heard the music resonating from the patio. We arrived just as owner Piero Potenza was preparing to close, but he invited us to sit at the bar and have a glass of wine, served with a glass of cool, filtered water, but not before looking skeptically at the posse and our intentions.

“After you’ve searched and searched for the warm fuzzy spot, and when you finally found it, you have arrived at Ciao,” Melissa said, and the rest of us agreed. The late-evening, high-energy music, tapas-styled menu, the smell of ground coffee, burning candles, and the awesome patio complete with stone fountains is a scene straight out of Italy, not downtown Cary. I hesitate to reveal the location, as did owner Potenza, as he cannot accommodate but a small gathering on any given evening. Upon leaving this local scene, Potenza’s farewell to us was “Ciao.”

Finally, it was 12:30 a.m. and time to head back to Garner, where our trip for the evening began. It was a quick trip back, just in time to see that Sidelines Sports Pub & Grill had turned off its neon open sign and had bar stools turned upside down. Erin made a dash inside and said “no” to stopping and we kept going. We were all famished, so off we went to the only chain grill and bar on our tour. The recently opened Buffalo Wild Wings was bustling with local folks watching television and talking over lifted spirits. Thanks to assistant manager Jason Fuller, we sampled many of the popular items, including the celebrated wings with all 14 sauces.

Then it was off to our final destination–Fenway Sports Bar & Grill. This crowd was indeed younger than I had expected, and the guy at the door was trying to close down the operation shortly after 1:30 a.m. Poor door guy–Kevin Justice was trying to follow instructions per management, who seemed to be unavailable when I asked to talk to someone. Anyway, once in we enjoyed partying with a rather diverse and young crowd, and at closing time we turned down invitations to several after-parties, which were to begin as soon as the doors closed.

This time we were too tired. But stay tuned for the sequel: Garner After Hours.

Another night, another town. Morrisville is more than the airport and RTP–a short trip down Airport Boulevard reveals a mall, hotels and more than a handful of restaurants, including one locally owned sports pub and grill, Oh’ Mulligans Sports-Pub-Grill on Jerusalem Drive just off Airport Boulevard. I remember the former bar at the same location, which had a reputation for being less than reputable, but tonight all of the bar patrons had nothing but accolades for the new owners, Mike Norris and Scott Hartner.

“This is the best place to have a beer when Interstate 40 is backed up,” says Greg Shultz, a customer sitting with Greg Zukowski and another friend.

The bar has a private party room, main bar, dining space and pool area. It wasn’t easy at the beginning, says Hartner, a former food and beverage manager. But regulars feel at ease when all the bartenders, including Todd Skorich, remember their drinks and offer hugs.

Then it was on to Apex and a local after-work joint called The Little Bar on U.S. 64.

“I love this place,” says Brad Emerson. This little place has a deck, two pool tables, a small, wooden dance floor, a juke box and a corner space for a band.

Most of the locals call it a biker bar, but do not fear. “They say bikers are mean, but they’re not,” says Michelle Taylor as she focuses her eyes on the trivia game, prompting boyfriend Danny Brown to help her when she’s stumped. “It is one of the last bars out of the city limits,” Brown says.

You can get a ‘do rag for just about $5 plus other sundries including Tylenol, BC’s and Rolaids to help you digest cheese and sausage sticks, pickled eggs, Slim Jims and raw peanuts. How thoughtful. Then there are bar rules: “This is not Burger King–You don’t get it your way. You take it my way or you don’t get the damn thing.”

Brown calls life here “just as The Little Bar turns,” and at 11:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night, that meant lights out and to all a good night.

Wake County bars
Wake Forest
Burkenstocks Bar & Grill, 211 S. White St., 554-4820
Holidaz Sports Bar & Night Club, 415 Brooks St., 554-4299
Woody’s Sports Tavern and Grill, 8322 Chapel Hill Road, 380-7737
Maximillians Grill and Wine Bar, 8314 Chapel Hill Road, 465-2455
The Depot, 320 E. Durham Road, 469-8222
The Cosmopolitan Grill at MacGregor Village, 103 Edinburgh South Drive, 380-1322
Blue Note LP Restaurant, 2425 Kildaire Farm Road, Suite 201, 645-0305
Ciao Café and Wine Bar, 201 W. Chatham St., 469-3021
Sidelines Sports Pub & Grill, 1185 Aversboro Road, 954-0303
Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, 148 Shenstone Blvd., 661-5238
Fenway Sports Bar & Grill, 1490 Garner Station Blvd., 661-0888
Oh’ Mulligans Sports-Pub-Grill, 100 Jerusalem Drive, Suite 108, 465-1900
The Little Bar, 2901 U.S. 64, 362-1122