Featured photo: The owners of Hel’s, Allison Cambra and Morgan Masencup, are longtime downtown fixtures in Winston-Salem. (photo by Madison Roland)
There’s a wrought-iron gate on Trade St. in Winston-Salem. The wide alleyway it protects has been vacant for well over a decade. As of March 31, that golden gate is wide open, the newly painted, hot-pink entrance leading to a shaded patio surrounded by fresh murals and leftover graffiti.
Hel’s, named after the Norse Goddess of the Underworld, is the most recent addition to Trade Street, owned and operated by longtime downtown fixtures Allison Cambra and Morgan Masencup. Both have tended bar at numerous downtown locations during the past decade.
“When I turned 21 I started going to Single Brothers,” Cambra explains. “I was just there as a customer and then eventually I got hired on.”
As with most bar jobs, the test for initial hires is as a barback on a busy shift. You take out trash, refill the ice, and constantly stock the coolers and fill up the mixers. Before long you start to remember recipes and how to work more efficiently while dodging the other bartenders.
“Morgan and I ended up working really well together and we became really fast friends,” Cambra says.
Upon entering the alleyway at Hel’s, the patio tables await afternoon regulars and weekend tourists. Sunscreens stretch across the open alley, waving lazily in the spring breeze, a cool respite on a hot day. A pale soft glow emanates from the open door that enters into the building beside the patio. The barroom is dark and unassuming, the black ceilings interspersed with painted over ductwork and pipes. The walls are a sharp purple and maroon, the lighting arranged to complement and adjust the mood. The deep colors align with the mood lighting and reveal cozy nooks with seats and bar tables straight out of 1977. The black tables in the rear seating area would be at home in Studio 54’s heyday. The soft, purple glow from a string of wall mounted LEDs illuminates the entire bar area, but the focal point is the bar itself. The sanded, exotic hardwood stretches down the side of the room, with enough space to accommodate multiple patrons. A wide range of alcohol from Amaros to standards is displayed on the black shelves behind the bar.
Another feature that sets Hel’s apart in the landscape of bars in the city is its mission.
“Inclusivity,” Cambra says. “A lot of people I think have this misconception that we’re like a female-only bar or like a queer bar…. We are just who we are. We’re here for you to just be authentic and be genuine and you know… treat others the way that you want to be treated.” She continues, “[We] find a lot of inspiration from the queer community because I think there’s a lot of authenticity there. It takes a very brave person to accept themselves, and that’s something that the queer community has down pat.”
The idea of inclusivity isn’t relegated to just marginalized people either.
Hel’s will have standard fare like Negronis and Old Fashioneds but the drink menu includes plenty of options for non-drinkers as well — a full range of non-alcoholic selections from mixed drinks to beers to even non-alcoholic spirits.
Cambra is a non-drinker who sees the need for others like her to have a social outlet that feels comfortable for them, too. But the avoidance of bars by many non-drinkers is something she empathizes with.
“Because I’m a bartender, I feel comfortable moving in and out of [bars],” she says.
In addition to its inclusive mission, Hel’s plans to host collaborative events like bar crawls and charity fundraisers to add to the camaraderie for which many of the bars downtown are known. They also plan to hold events of their own. Besides the usual staples of trivia and the occasional DJ, Cambra and Masencup are planning regular events like drag shows and some live music.
“Marcus is doing European house music for us on Thursdays, but then the next day, you can have a hardcore show,” Cambra says. “And it’s that adaptable nature that Winston really needs.”
Harking back to the 00’s era of Downtown Winston-Salem where self-starters who know the terrain pursued passions over focus groups, Cambra and Masencup have poured their creativity into Hel’s. It’s a place that offers the perfect blend of what Winston-Salem used to be, while offering a glimpse of the future.
Hel’s is located at 545 Trade St. in Winston-Salem. They are open daily, from 4pm to 2am. Follow them on Instagram at@helswsnc
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