by Eric Ginsburg
Greensboro is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the type of city where you could get lost in the downtown. Certainly not if you’d lived there for the better part of a decade.
The downtown of North Carolina’s third largest city is developing rapidly, locals will tell you, but it still lacks the depths of center cities in places like Asheville, Durham and even nearby Winston-Salem. The action is concentrated on the main drag, so much so that when I asked my friend Erin to meet at the downtown Marriott’s bar for a drink, she struggled to find it, despite the hotel being one of the larger structures hulking on the city’s skyline.
The downtown Greensboro Marriott is, for most residents, an eyesore, its dirtied exterior a reminder of the not so distant doldrums of the city’s recent past that it is in a hurry to forget. There’s talk of new hotels downtown, more than a couple actually, something that excites people who seem almost embarrassed by the forlorn Marriott.
After some navigational help, Erin pulled into one of the many empty street parking spots in front of the Marriott on Monday night, with a lone limousine as the only thing preventing her from stopping directly in front of the door. At just a little after 8 p.m., two members of the janitorial staff at an office building across Greene Street — who were emptying the trash together — were the only movement on the block, the one sign of life.
Few seem to ever concern themselves with wondering what might take place inside, the existence of a bar inside not occurring to them. Or if it did, they might picture a dimly lit room where Sinatra plays to a couple lonely businessmen drinking alone, and where a slight but discernible musty scent rises from the carpeting.
But it isn’t that there is nothing to speak of, or muse about inside. It’s just that nobody invited the locals to the party.
As soon as we stepped inside the Greene Street entrance to the downtown Marriott we could hear the sounds of a full house. The national college football championship on televisions had, most likely, drawn a few parties out of their rooms upstairs and into the common area, where they wagered about each team’s chances and ordered beers with their meals. But guests often hang out at the tables, bar and lounge area, our bartender said.
The staff hadn’t anticipated a turnout quite this strong, in part because the expected 23-percent occupancy had leapt to a figure in the 60s. With the holidays squarely behind them, the business travelers had returned.
The cocktail menu is what you’d predict from a mid-range hotel such as this, with a Tommy’s Bombay Collins that tastes dangerously like lemonade and hides the gin well, a stiff Grand Old Fashioned with Maker’s Mark and Grand Marnier and the newly debuted Moscow mule with a welcomed ginger kick. An adventurous beer drinker could only reach as far as a Rebel IPA, as one businessman had, or Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat, though the wine list proves to be more extensive and the food selection includes snacks that can be out in five minutes or appetizers in 10.
A hiply dressed man, maybe 35, immediately caught our attention. Sitting alone with a glass of red wine in front of him, his brow permanently furrowed as he stared into his phone, captivated yet clearly scrolling casually, he stood out instantly. He was, it turned out, the only person drinking alone, probably the youngest person in the bar besides us, and — in addition to appearing a little distraught — out of place.
This is not the image of the lonely man at the lonely hotel bar I’d conjured in my mind before stepping inside. We wondered if he, like us, was an interloper, but after more than an hour we watched the man — who had hardly looked up at the noise erupting around him as Alabama and Clemson each scored early touchdowns — pick up his coat and head for the elevator.
I heard a server tell a guest that the bar would be open until 1 a.m., much later than other proximate venues on a Monday evening, but as 10 p.m. came and went, it looked like the crowd would linger long enough to justify it.
Erin and I eagerly agreed that we felt disoriented. There are no windows in the bar, the elegant white lobby mostly obscured from view and itself not a visual reference point for passersby. The exterior camouflages the hotel, and us in turn, allowing us to forget our geography.
That’s no easy feat in a city you’ve called home for almost a decade, especially if you live half a mile a way, in a city where you can’t get lost downtown.
Visit the bar at the Greensboro Marriott Downtown at 304 N. Greene St. (GSO).