Downtown Raleigh is getting a new underground bar.
In December, longtime Raleigh pubmaster Niall Hanley—whose businesses already include the Hibernian chain, Raleigh Beer Garden, and the forthcoming Morgan Street Food Hall & Market—will make his first venture into the city center with Watts & Ward, a 6,000-square-foot, multi-room bar in the basement of the historic Montague Building. Despite the size, he’s aiming to create an intimate, lively atmosphere that focuses on cocktails and bottled beer. As noted by The News & Observer, it’s a next step in the growth around and investment in Moore Square.
“It’s a basement, so I believe the space lends itself to a nice craft cocktail bar—leather seats, speakeasy-style, with lots of mixed-up furniture,” says Hanley. “There will be three different rooms, and each will have a distinct personality. The building dictates how it wants to be built.”’
It only took Hanley an instant after seeing the space beneath the downtown Italian restaurant Caffe Luna to decide this would be his next project, says Patrick Shanahan, the filmmaker and painter who is the project’s other partner. Shanahan, whose father bought the building in 2007 and runs a law office upstairs, had shown the basement to several other potential partners. He met Hanley while painting a mural at Raleigh Beer Garden and mentioned his idea. Hanley seemed to understand its potential immediately.
“As soon as Niall walked in, his eyes lit up, and he started spouting off a layout of how we would do this. I would say 80 percent of those ideas are going to be in the room when it opens,” Shanahan says. “When I read a script, I start thinking about how it’s going to look, ways to make it look interesting. Niall’s brain works the same way with an empty room and a bar.”
Until five years ago, the Hargett Street basement served as the headquarters of the Women’s Center of Wake County; flyers for the facility still line some of the windows on the patio that opens onto the city’s bus station. The space has been latent ever since, as Shanahan, who also runs his film office upstairs, has attempted to find the proper collaborator and convince his father that a basement bar would enliven the quiet office building without overrunning it.
Customers will arrive off of Blount Street, through one of two doors at the bottom of stairwells that run alongside Caffe Luna. They’ll enter a long hallway that branches off into the room’s three small spaces, each equipped with its own customized bar and a mix of small booths and communal tables. Each of the little rooms can be cordoned off for events, from low-key jazz concerts to group dinners. And outside, there’s a wide patio that provides a nice view of Raleigh’s recent growth, with glimpses of the SkyHouse, the PNC Plaza, and the Red Hat headquarters overhead.
“The first time I ever went into an underground bar, the big city went away. There’s a mysticism to the subterranean stuff,” says Shanahan. “I hope people come here and feel like they can be transported—maybe out of Raleigh, or at least they can be anyone.”
Shanahan will largely cede the operation of the bar to Hanley’s enormous team, as he continues to concentrate on film. (His recent documentary, The No Hand King, is currently in purchase negotiations.) Shanahan provided the space, the concept, and the name, a reference to early legal efforts in North Carolina to jumpstart Prohibition more than a century ago. Hanley seems comfortable with that arrangement.
“I like Patrick. I like the space. And the deal just made sense,” says Hanley of the impetus for his first proper downtown venture. “Glenwood is surging again, and it’s great. So it’s time to try this.”