“Oh look, the bears are new,” says the man next to me, referring to the giant bearskins draped on the wall behind the bar. He is sipping a bubbly pink concoction from a champagne flute with rich, blush-hued pomegranate seeds lightly floating, skimming the bottom of the glass. The showing of contemporary art at 21c is its selling point, differentiating the bar from the flood of trendy new bars blooming in downtown Durham. You have to schedule a tour to see the bulk of the “museum,” but the pieces are a great conversation starter. Rows of spoons dipping to a steady stream of water greet you in the dining area, and hundreds of mini plastic soldiers are painted into an American flag. Even the light fixtures could be considered art, white and cloud-like and casting a surreal and ethereal but bright glow. There’s a long, clean bar with plenty of seats but also lounge areas when you first walk in. The open floor plan and ample light are much better for a pre-dinner or early evening drink rather than a late evening tucked away in the shadows. The bathrooms change from clear to opaque by locking the door. Cheese is served on slabs of stone. There’s spoon art.
The bar food, while beautifully served, is pricey. Four of us ordered the meat and cheese plate for $19. The Brie and pate were displayed dramatically on a stone slab with flourishes of nuts and sauce. Just reading the menu is an exercise in sobriety: “Antillean Daiquiri,” “Tree of Forty Fruit,” “Julep Swizzle” — best of luck trying to order after a drink or two. You might be best just pointing. I got the Julep Swizzle and almost didn’t want to drink it and ruin the aesthetic: Crushed ice gave the ombre liquid a bubbling effect from green to brown, and a twig of rosemary saluted me from the top.
The best part about ordering here is how relaxed the bartenders are. Ordering a “Konichiwa, Y’all” is a lot more enjoyable when the bartender can laugh along with you, and most are more than willing to customize your drinks, something hard to find in the era of “mixology” and the wizard-bartender.
What I liked the most about having a drink here was the feeling that I was downtown in the middle of any swanky metropolitan area. Stepping through the doors is like stepping out of the state, or even the country, without the airfare and travel hazards. It makes for a great getaway only 20, maybe 30, minutes from home — there’s even a valet service at the door. It was busy for a Tuesday evening, and on any given night you can expect to be surrounded by Triangle businessmen off work, friends clinking champagne glasses and college theater majors wearing their wide-brimmed hats inside.
There’s a “see-and-be-seen” element to 21c that I associate with a larger city, and that helps catapult Durham into its own as a food-and-drink destination in North Carolina.
Lit amongst the Old Tobacco skyline with alternating purple windows, 21c makes a mission statement of being unique. The contemporary art museum/hotel gives you good drinks and an atmosphere you’ll be talking about all night. I advise getting dinner after at either the counting house or from one of the bouquet of eateries within a stone’s throw of the hotel — your wallet will thank you. It’s expensive, but for the occasional evening out, it is worth the splurge.