Durham’s Alley Twenty Six, known for an ever-changing cast of finely tuned concoctions, just accomplished something no bar in North Carolina has ever done. It was named a finalist in the James Beard Foundation Awards’ Outstanding Bar program.
Why is this important: The James Beard Awards are considered one of the highest honors in the restaurant world. It’s dubbed the Oscars of the food industry and has generally been dominated by restaurants and bars in the country’s biggest cities.
- Only one North Carolina chef, Ashley Christensen of Raleigh, has ever won her first award for chefs.
Shannon Healeywhose bald head and salt-and-pepper beard make him look more like a chemistry professor than a bartender, has been serving drinks in the Triangle for more than 20 years.
- Before launching Alley Twenty Six in Durham city center in 2012, he was responsible for the bar program at legendary (and now closed) southern restaurant Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill.
- Efforts are underway to relaunch Crook’s, Healy said, although it’s unclear whether it will reunite this year.
What they say : “[The nomination] means a lot. It means we become the place to represent our state and other outstanding bar programs throughout North Carolina,” Healy said.
- “I’m still in disbelief, especially because when I opened this place in 2012 there was nobody in Durham city centre.”
Every weekHealy and his team of bartenders, servers and managers come up with ideas for a new cocktail-small-plate pairing for Thursday night.
- Every Wednesday they choose a different premium bourbon to sell at clearing prices.
- In mid-April, the kitchen created a roasted beet tostada that Healy paired with a mint spritz made with tequila reposado, mint syrup, lime, sparkling wine and soda water.
The creativity of the bar was also its savior during the peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic, when patrons were barred from entry by decree or simply chose not to come.
- He used every square inch of the adjacent driveway (yes, Durham’s #26 driveway) to create a large and dynamic outdoor space for customers.
- She began bottling a variety of her own cocktail syrups and bar ingredients to sell to customers.
- And he’s created virtual cocktail-making classes and kits for drinkers at home.
Big Picture: Customers are starting to return to Durham’s city center restaurant scene in greater numbers. But it’s still a struggle, Healy admitted, noting he’s had to make some of the toughest decisions of his career over the past two years (like closing Crook’s).
- “It’s stupid work if you don’t really have hope,” Healy said. “Especially over the last few years, and if you look back at my months of data, it’s been a dumpster fire. But I’m optimistic we’ll get through this.”
🦃Go-to-drink: After a day’s work, it’s no cocktail party, according to Healy.
- He prefers to drink Wild Turkey 101 or any “dumb yellow beer” he can find sitting down..