Driven through downtown Raleigh in the wee Saturday morning hours lately? If you haven’t, you might not be aware of what’s happening on Hargett Street. Just a few blocks west of the gay club nexus of Legends and CC–itself the scene of a bit of revelry as dancers and barflies walk back and forth between clubs–you’ll find a street scene worthy of a far greater metropolis than the City of Oaks. Guys and girls, black and white, gay and straight (and all very well-dressed) emerge from cabs and strut down the sidewalk, laughing and calling out to each other before taking their places in an orderly line that disappears through a narrow door and into a brick warehouse. Inside (if they can get in) they’ll dance to such old-school faves as Newcleus, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Grandmaster Flash and The Gap Band. If they’re among the club elite, the sea of bodies on the floor will part for them to bust a move, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Breakin’ II (Electric Boogaloo).

Welcome to an evening at WickedSmile.

You can be forgiven for being a bit confused about this Raleigh establishment. For years, it was known as an upscale eatery whose nod to music consisted of sedate jazz on the weekends. Then, in June 1999, the restaurant’s 30-year-old owner Chris Bender decided to take the advice of some of his friends.

“We had started throwing theme parties every once in a while that featured DJs and stuff,” he says. “We had local talent, and everyone said, ‘You should go for more of the club thing you do so well,’ so we did it. And we knew that we couldn’t have people dining on rack of lamb or whatever and blast hip-hop at them.”

Out went the rack of lamb and the jazz. In came hip-hop, techno, live rock bands and internationally known DJs such as Phoenix duo Radar and Z-Trip (who performed at WickedSmile a few weeks ago). Wednesday and Friday nights feature old-school hip-hop, during which you’re likely to see members of a local breakdance collective called The Swoon Unit do their thing.

“For the guys who do it, it never went away,” says Robert “Grand Mixer” Mooney, the club’s resident Friday night DJ. “Most of the people doing it are in their early to mid-20s, and it was the first thing they got into when they were kids.” Thursdays feature artists from local electronica label Deep Secret, and on Saturday, Chad Wilson (a.k.a. Chad Wicked) plays progressive house.

And, in the past few weeks, WickedSmile has fired up the kitchen again and added food–only this time it’s fried catfish, biscuits, pan-roasted chicken and pork ribs. Down home food at, prices that are, if not down home, at least reasonable ($6-$12 or thereabouts). The most unique part of a WickedSmile dining experience, though, is the background music. Rather than just throwing a bunch of CDs into the changer (or, God forbid, playing Muzak), the restaurant has live DJs spinning music.

“We’re doing soul food so we have kind of down-tempo acid jazzy stuff playing during that time,” says Wilson, who in addition to coordinating the club’s music, owns Hillsborough Street’s Wax Worx music.

Among the upcoming events Wilson has scheduled for the club are a DJ battle between DJs from Deep Secret and House Nation (scheduled for March 9), a Deep Secret Records release party for his own new CD Theme from Wicked, and live fusion-drum ‘n’ bass from five-piece Baltimore group Lake Trout. For those who want to see some real breakin’ action, Mooney, who helped coordinate last year’s breakdance contest at the club touts the upcoming B-Boy Cardboard Classic, scheduled tentatively for this month. Check to confirm all schedules.

So far, WickedSmile is one of a small handful of local establishments to attempt an even mix between fine food and music. (Humble Pie, located around the block from WickedSmile, concentrates almost exclusively on live rock and country music.)

“Who’s to say that you can’t have a really happening scene and do food as well?” he says.

Businesswise, expanding WickedSmile into an actual club has paid off for Bender. Culturewise, it’s filled a pretty sizable entertainment gap for people who want to go out and dance without hearing the same “whump-whump-whump” over and over again.

“It’s filling a valuable niche,” says Bill Mooney, co-owner of a local bar (The Stingray Room) and the screen-printing company that does WickedSmile’s T-shirts (Tannis Root).

“One thing I like is that it’s a mix of black, white, gay, straight, and that’s good. With residences going up next to Raleigh’s traditional gay strip I wonder if those businesses will have problems with more mainstream groups moving in,” he says. WickedSmile, says Mooney, “is a more tolerant business.”

Bender also likes being in a neighborhood that was already known as the place to go for people who wanted to dance.

“My neighbors are awesome,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for better people around me as far as other entertainment-type venues. It’s a really cool scene in that neighborhood.”

“We get everyone, the yuppies, the gay, straight, students, professionals. Everyone comes and has a really good time. And that’s what I like.” EndBlock