Featured photo: The co-owners of Neighbors, Greensboro’s new bartender-owned cocktail joint, have 75 years of experience between them. (courtesy photo)
They stare out blankly at the viewer, their mouth turned into a slight frown. The warm pink background behind them and the colorful parrot that hangs nearby juxtapose the figure’s lifeless expression.
“We’ve been asked, ‘Is that someone’s grandma or is that Mitch McConnell? Or Bernie?’” explains Ellen Moore, one of the co-owners of Neighbors in Greensboro. “It was actually like $2 at a thrift store.”
The painting of the androgynous figure lives on the side of a refrigerator behind the counter at Greensboro’s new bartender-owned cocktail bar and barbecue joint. Around the corner, framed paintings of horses, a unicorn and a hissing panther add to the absurdity of the space. The vibe is like a cross between the inside of your grandma’s sitting room and the pages of I-Spy, the millennial version. And that’s exactly how the owners want it.
“It’s cluttered and cozy,” says co-owner Max Barwick. “I can’t talk enough about how sterile a lot of places are.”
Despite the goofy atmosphere, the co-owners of Neighbors tout some of the best drinks in town. And that’s because they’re all industry veterans. They don’t look it, but they’ve got 75 years of experience between them.
The group includes Barwick, Moore, Jake Skinner, Ryan Hill and Emma Smith. Many worked in the 1618 restaurant group and at Dram & Draught, both of which are known for their impressive cocktail programs. But they didn’t all start there. Barwick worked at Subway and Applebee’s for a time, while Moore sang songs and served cones from behind a Cold Stone counter. Others have pulled stints at Westerwood Tavern, Mellow Mushroom, local sushi bars and at Quantaince Weaver locations, which include Green Valley Grill and Lucky 32.
Having worked for so many businesses over the years, the group often fantasized about what it would be like to open and run their own place — the kind of place where bartenders call the shots (pun intended), create their own menus and, yeah, decorate the space with flamingos or paintings of people who look vaguely like politicians.
On May 31, the crew opened their doors and the business has been popping ever since.
“I think that in Greensboro there hasn’t really been an in-between like us,” Hill says. “There are dive bars, but also places that are more high-end where you’re seated by hostess…. We wanted to do something in the middle.”
The name came as easily as the idea.
“We wanted to be a neighborhood bar,” Hill says, “because we’re butted up to Fisher Park.”
That’s where many of the group have lived, oftentimes with each other or right next door.
“All of us have been neighbors at some point,” Moore says.
The building, painted a fitting millennial pink, is easily recognizable even though it’s tucked behind Joymongers and Deep Roots Market.
“The color makes us a landmark,” Barwick says. It reminds Hill of the old-school buildings in Little Havana.
“Now, it’s like you can’t miss it,” Skinner says.
The name of the bar, lovingly painted on the side of the building in a retro font, recalls the Cheers sitcom logo, and adds to the inviting mood.
“People go out to have fun,” Barwick says, “so we’re making it more fun with decor, making it feel welcoming. A lot of places you walk in and feel priced out of, but we wanted to make sure to have things for everyone. No pretension, have it be casual. So everyone can be here to have a good time.”
The group also wanted to make sure to price the menu — which includes 21 drinks and hot dogs and sandwiches — affordably so virtually anyone could enjoy a visit. For example, all of the cocktails are $13 with the exception of highballs. And that was intentional because Barwick says oftentimes people order drinks based on price rather than what they actually want to drink. But at Neighbors, patrons can come in and “choose their own destiny,” Moore says.
“You can spend $40-50 if you want to get a couple of cocktails or you can get in and spend like $8 for food and a beer or shot,” she says.
The food menu focuses on comfort eats like barbecue and hot dogs, which include a Chicago dog, courtesy of Hill who helms from the Windy City.
“My grandpa always thought the world’s problems could be solved over a meal with a hot dog,” he says.
Because the bar stays open until 2 a.m., the group says they wanted to look out for their fellow industry workers who want a delicious, affordable bite to eat that isn’t Taco Bell.
“No one fed us,” Barwick says of coming up in the service industry. “So we’re looking out for our own.”
Part of being bartender-owned includes an attention to pay. The owners make the same as their staff, with front-of-house starting at $7.50/ hour plus tips and back-of-house getting $17/hour. And that’s to show how working in the service industry can be a viable career path for people.
“This is a real career and real job, this is not just a side job,” Moore says. “We want to pay people appropriately so they can do this as a career.”
The drinks at Neighbors include takes on classics like the Titi Mai Tai which includes tangerine and tamarind to the more ridiculous Yachts on the Reg, a strawberry Nesquick milk-washed daiquiri.
“It’s a nostalgia bomb,” Hill says.
It’s pink, it’s delicious, it’s fun, but don’t let the charm fool you. It takes 36 hours to make.
“The punch and milk have to sit together at least overnight,” Barwick explains. “Then the straining process takes 9-10 hours, and you have to wait for the citrus to separate from the milk. You get like one drop every four seconds.”
The drink kind of epitomizes Neighbors as a whole, says Smith.
“It’s very thought out and a ton of prep goes into making it, but it’s still silly and approachable and doesn’t take itself seriously,” she says. “It’s an easy, effortless good time that is very well-curated behind the scenes.”
The rest of the group agrees.
“Like our overly involved sangria,” Moore says. “That’s how everything we do is: overly involved.”
For the owners, everything on the customer experience side is meant to be careless, but behind the pink walls, the crew is using their septuagenarian knowledge to create that effortless quality so that anyone who walks through the doors feels at home.
“We wanted to make a place where we love to hang out,” Moore says.
“It makes it hard to take a day off,” Skinner adds.
To which Barwick sums up, “Yeah, I love hanging out here.”
Neighbors is located at 507 Simpson St. They’re open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Follow them on Instagram at @neighbors_gso.
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