Greensboro’s newest bar is unlike any other in the city and not just because of its bubblegum pink exterior screaming from a largely residential street at the edge of downtown. Neighbors, which opened a couple weeks ago at 507 Simpson Street, is bartender-owned and operated.
The intentionally divey and playful Neighbors boasts a “living room chic” vibe, as co-owner Ryan Hill puts it, and a deftly executed cocktail list buttressed by a meaty, smoker-centric food menu. It’s run by five local industry vets — Emma Smith, Jake Skinner, Ellen Moore, Max Barwick, and Hill —who wanted to take a different approach to starting a business.
“We didn’t want to be angel owners,” Hill says. “Being owner-operators gives us the opportunity to pay ourselves a little more. We’re also behind the bar, making the same as our people, working and living on tips.”
To start, front-of-house employees receive $7.50 in base pay and back-of-house get $17, plus tips from the bar’s back takeout window. It was “the highest that we saw for entry pay in Greensboro,” Skinner says, though still below what they’d like to offer. Still, they’ve created a business model with planned scheduled raises and that folds longtime employees into the ownership structure.
“Paying ourselves what we pay our staff is important for us because it pushes us to do better, it keeps us close,” Moore says. “We want to provide our team with the lifestyle that we would expect for ourselves, also. It’s really important to keep us on a level playing field, and to understand that hospitality is a career, not a side hustle.”
The friends were inspired by bartender-owned LBM Bar in Cleveland’s Lakewood area as a model for what the business could look like. Greensboro’s Loom Coffee also took a similar approach, with longtime baristas launching the worker-owned roastery in 2020.
The owners at Neighbors all previously worked at 1618, one of the Gate City’s premiere fine dining establishments that at one time bragged three local iterations and a catering arm. Smith, Skinner, and Barwick all spent more than a decade at the restaurant group, with Hill and Moore joining more recently. But it wasn’t a walkout — they gave ample notice of their plans to 1618, and owner Nick Wilson was their first investor. (Wilson and other backers are not part of the ownership structure but will be repaid for their investment. Neighbors also received a catalyst grant from booster organization Downtown Greensboro Inc.)
“I think we all have a pretty healthy respect for white tablecloth [dining],” Skinner says, “but it’s an industry that kind of beats you up after a while. We wanted something where long hours or hard work couldn’t suck the joy out of it for you.”
That’s why Neighbors has an intentionally low price point and a driving motivation to keep things light and enjoyable. Beers are priced at $3 to $5, with a short wine menu that gravitates towards “higher acid and juicy” natural wines just a few notches higher. “We have wine that I want to drink, and I guess I can do that because it’s my bar,” laughs Smith, who — like her business partners — is still getting used to that idea.
The beer and wine selection are driven by its ability to pair with the food menu, something that sounds like a fine dining transplant until realizing that hot dogs are Neighbors’ big seller. Diners can order Chicago, Carolina, and chili cheese-style dogs, which are so popular that their food vendor has to keep supplies on hand just for the bar, which is only open Wednesday through Sunday from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. The food menu also includes “Texas-inspired” brisket, St. Louis spareribs, an egg salad sandwich, and deviled eggs, among other options.
The centerpiece is the cocktail menu, not surprising for a crew of bartenders. Split into shaken, stirred, and island sections, so far the Pornstar Martini with house-infused vanilla vodka has emerged as a fan favorite, as well as a custom “Yachts on the Reg” a milk-washed strawberry daiquiri featuring Nesquik.
Drawing from the Golden Pineapple in Asheville for aesthetic inspiration — and decorated with “the kind of weird stuff you’d see on the wall at a friend’s house,” Moore sys — the Neighbors team renovated a 45-year-old former autobody garage that had been vacant for several years at the periphery of downtown and the coveted but quirky Fisher Park neighborhood. It’s not the only commercial operation on the short block of Simpson Street, but it is the only bar or restaurant.
“It’s kind of cool that we’re not off the beaten path, per se, but we’re not on it,” Smith says. “At first I thought I was disappointed it’s not on a main street, but we like its uniqueness.”
Neighbors is split between indoor and outdoor space, featuring almost 20 bar seats, 12 other chairs, and three high tops inside designed for “a community standing vibe,” Hill says. Outside, five Oktoberfest patio tables from Golden Oldies in High Point comfortably sit eight each, and a covered patio adds to the bar’s allure. The owners hope it will be the kind of place where patrons can’t tell if it opened yesterday or has been a fixture for 20 years, abetted by their throwback cocktails and tastefully dated décor and aligning with their desire to be a true neighborhood bar.