By Liz McLaughlin, University of North Carolina
The Wooden Nickel is the coolest bar you’ve never heard of… unless of course, you’re a Hillsborough native.
In a town with a population of just under 6,000, this bar acts as the neighborhood watering hole where everybody knows everybody and newcomers are welcomed like family. “People often ask if it’s a family bar,” said Jessica Myers, a bartender at the Wooden Nickel for two years. “We sure fight like brothers and sisters!” Jackson Keel is a “regular” who has frequented the bar for just over a year.
“I did get kicked out once,” Keel said laughing as he pointed to Drew Bryant, another bartender at the Nickel who has worked there for three years.
“Yeah, I kicked him out,” said Bryant with the geniality and amicability of an old friend.
Stories shot back and forth from the bartenders and patrons recounting good times had at the small pub. One attempt at a bar-top dance ended in a loud crash to the floor and an “insane” Halloween party showed the towns’ creativity.
Just after 8 p.m. the bar was standing-room only. The walls were lined with full tables. A cowboy pin-up girl leaning on a cardboard fence stared down at them from a wall full of old pictures and obscure paintings.
Seated at the bar were regulars that the bartenders call by name. Bryant asked, “Another of the usual?”
“This bar is great because nine times out of 10, I will know exactly what they’re going to order when they walk in,” said Ted Gudeman, a four-and-a-half-year bartender at the Nickel enjoying his night off with fellow Hillsboroughians.
The center of the pub consisted of a thin bar top surrounded by a packed crowd and amidst scattered pint glasses. Loud and lively conversation filled the air.
The Wooden Nickel is owned by Matt Fox, who is well-liked by staff and regulars. Continuing the Nickel’s big, happy family reputation, Fox allegedly got rid of a straggling patron by threatening to call his wife.
“It’s a regulars bar where everybody knows everybody,” said Gudeman.
The bar has 125 different liquors to choose from, including rarities like Pimm’s and Blavod black vodka, seven beers on tap featuring local and regional craft brews as well as popular imports and a diverse wine list that offers something for every imbiber.
The menu is unapologetic and experimental. One patron was warning others about the aftermath involved with a house specialty, the fried banana peppers. A neighbor at the bar ranted about the house-cured smoked salmon sandwich with fried broccoli that he had just devoured.
“The food is always so fresh here too,” said Keel. “Even the wings aren’t frozen.”
This bar doesn’t house the usual counter-top bell to alert bartenders of dishes ready to be served. Instead, the cooks give the back of the shared keg-wall a couple of punches to get the message across.
The bar has been the Wooden Nickel for five years. The Tupelo Tavern was its predecessor, a less-successful bar only open four days a week, covered in carpet and carrying a much more limited bar selection.
“The Nickel is open seven days a week,” said Gudeman. “And we are busy every one of them.”
The characters inside are nothing short of interesting.
“It has a little bit of everything,” said Myers. “It’s a gay bar, it’s a redneck bar… we serve all kinds of people here.”
“It’s a freaking great bar,” said Brian Harper, a Hillsborough resident. “I am from a small town in Wyoming and this reminds me so much of that.” Harper provides medical consultation to injured scuba divers for a living. And “no,” he assured me, he was “not making that up.”
There may be a recession going on, but this pub isn’t feeling the hit.
Myers said that the bar was more seasonally affected than directly reflective of the economy. January is always slow, when people are trying to stick to their New Years resolutions and are feeling fat from the holidays. But by early February, as evidenced by the cozy bar packed shoulder-to-shoulder, everyone has given up on those resolutions and headed back to the Nickel.
“People drink when they’re happy, when they’re sad, when they’re broke and when they’re rich,” said Myers.
The pub is a main social scene in the town of Hillsborough.
“Since I moved here a year ago from Durham this has been my social connection to the community,” said Victoria Flynn. “This is where I met most of my good friends.”
“You’ll never find a place like it,” said Jonathon Whitford, a Hillsborough resident speaking of the Nickel’s unique character.
Gabby Hoyt was born in Hillsborough and after moving away for two years, re-connected with old friends at the Nickel.
“It’s a great place to run into old friends and meet new ones,” said Hoyt, as she pointed affectionately to the people sitting beside her.
Adam Rosemond has been a frequent customer of the Nickel for five years even though he has moved out of the area.
“It’s just a very accepting bar with great service and good beer,” said Rosemond. “What more could you ask for?”