Vince Chirico and the team behind chic Charlotte cocktail destination Idlewild (424 E 36th Street) announced a new project that might seem revolutionary in this social media-influenced age of bespoke cocktails and revered mixologists — a bar that’s really just a bar.
Opening Wednesday, November 15, in NoDa, Charlotte’s trendy Bohemian neighborhood just north of Uptown, the Ugly (424 E 36th Street) will be everything that Idlewild is not. There will be no reservations; there will be no waitlists. While Idlewild has no menu, the Ugly has a peg board posted behind the bar filled with plastic letters spelling out the names of just six cocktails, all batch-made. There will also be beer, in cans, and not just IPAs.
Throw in a photo booth and a bright red neon sign beckoning potential customers walking by to come in and embrace “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly,” which also just so happens to be the names of three weekly drink specials, and this might verge on what some people are tempted to call a dive bar. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — just don’t say that in front of Chirico. “What’s wrong with just the word ‘bar’?” he says, “Why does there have to be a descriptor in front of it?”
For Chirico, questions like these are less rhetorical musings on “what’s in a name” than they are insights into his success. While Charlotte’s cocktail scene is as thriving as ever, creating celebrities out of local mixologists whose names are known well beyond I-485, Chirico has taken a different approach. You may not know Chirico’s name, but you certainly know his establishments. “It’s just not me or my style,” he says, “It’s always been about the bar. Not about Vince and the bar. The best regulars are the ones who keep coming back to the bar, to the whole team, and I’m going to give them something they want to keep coming back to.”
How the Ugly became exactly that place wasn’t necessarily premeditated years in advance. Months after Fairweather, Idlewild’s sister bar next door, opened to great success, it occurred to Chirico that when viewed objectively, the bars were awfully similar. Despite being crowded every night, and despite wildly popular dollar-oyster Mondays, Chirico thought the neighborhood deserved a place that was as different as possible from Idlewild. The first step toward realizing this idea would come with a repurposing of spaces: Idlewild would move next door and absorb the Fairweather space, and the Ugly would move into Idlewild’s original home and transform it into something entirely unrecognizable.
With the Ugly, Chirico is giving NoDa back a piece of itself.
Years of gentrification and urban repurposing have transformed NoDa from what was once a textile manufacturing center with the mill workers’ residences nearby into the trendy night spot and weekend brunch destination it is today that newcomers to Charlotte love and longtime residents loathe. Weeds grow across abandoned train tracks running through the center of the nightlife almost as quickly as new luxury apartment developments sprout up around them. The only things edgy left in NoDa are the prices that restaurants charge for scrambled eggs at brunch.
The Ugly will bring a bit of accessibility back to NoDa — as a bar for everyone, and perhaps even one with a bit of an edge. “Better late than ugly,” says a framed drawing just inside the door, and though vodka sodas are okay, if customers request something more complex like a margarita, bartenders have been given permission to tell them to go next door to Idlewild. The Ugly will not be about high-priced top-shelf liquors or even the usual creature comforts customers have come to expect from a cocktail lounge.
“The ‘80s are coming back, man,” Chirico says, “I’m following what I see to be the trend. It’s becoming less and less about the cocktail sit-down vibe and more about just having fun.”
“Without breaking the bank,” implied throughout, goes unsaid.
All of this means customers are also in store for a quirky food menu that’s designed for simple, quick enjoyment and not a multi-hour, multi-course, or even composed plate commitment. Bags of chips, bar nuts, and Hot Pockets straight from the grocery store aisle. There might even be Jimmy Dean croissant breakfast sandwiches until 2 a.m., for which Chirico is confident there is a market.
But at the Ugly — NoDa’s newest bar that’s just a bar — what exactly is that market? Who is going to be up until 2 a.m. to eat them? Will there be foosball bros, crushing beer cans at the table in the back in between points and “bruhhhs”? Will there be women living their best Coyote Ugly lives, dancing on the bar, or along back walls decorated with reclaimed road signs and random Japanese art, to whatever music the bartenders feel like playing? A typical playlist could include Madonna, Tupac, or the latest banjo-laced folk music hit, so the choreography will have to be varied. “Maybe,” says Chirico, “And that’s exactly what the Ugly is all about. That vibe, man. Where it’s all, like, okay, as long as you’re not hurting anybody.”