Ascending the alcohol food chain in the Whiskey District

by Brian Clarey

It’s nighttime in the Whiskey District and the streets at the corner of Walker and Elam have swallowed enough rainwater to carry a sheen that loosely reflects the spotlights and neon.

The bright spots of downtown have put a pinch on the body count here at the Corner in recent months ‘— I myself haven’t been out here in a dirty dog’s age ‘— but this is one of those neighborhoods that will never, ever die.

To be sure, things here ebb and flow as they do in every part of every city in America. And the denizens of the Whiskey District are poised for a comeback.

Thom Shirley works the floor at his new bar on the corner, the Offshore Lounge, in the structure that once housed the Lindley Park Coffee Shop. You might not recognize the place anymore ‘— tall tables and flat-screen TVs fill the space that previously held quiet, caffeinated conversation and the area outside has become a patio and a small green lawn with a tiki bar and a area for live music.

A couple ladies at the bar decide to venture to the outdoor section. They move to a table and within, oh, I’d say 45 seconds Shirley is on them, leaning into the table with one foot propped on a chair, making them smile and then giggle. When they’re joined by a third, equally winsome lass, I figure he’ll be there all night.

And then he’s off like a cue ball, returning with a couple glasses of red for the ladies and a snookerful of the kind of lavish attention that was always his specialty when he worked across the street at the Wahoo.

But gone is the fitted, backwards baseball cap, the towel tucked into his waistband, the sardonic smile that could morph into a leer ‘— a good kind of leer ‘—in a fast slide.

No, he’s big time now. Slacks. Proper shoes. A collared button-down. Is that thing starched?

The whole thing is kind of a no-brainer. Thom spent eight years at the Wahoo, starting during his time at UNCG (Class of ’01) and continuing afterward. He’s always had a strong following ‘— all good bartenders do ‘— but his regulars aren’t getting any younger, and some of them no longer want to hang out in cheap-drink joints where sticky stains on the bar rip out their forearm hairs and there’s a 50-50 chance they’ll encounter some vomit in the bathroom.

‘“We’re going kind of upscale,’” Shirley tells me: a small but tasteful wine list with several exclusive bottles; high-end scotch; a Martini menu; and soon a limited tapas-style menu with items like tuna and a cheese plate with olives or fruit.

‘“We’re still working out some things with the Board of Health,’” says co-owner Mark Oetjen, a friend of Shirley’s from way back in the day, ‘“but we should have food by next week.’”

The place is pretty swanky, especially for the corner of Walker and Elam, but this is a neighborhood that has seen some changes after remaining the same for a long, long time.

You can still buy cheap beers at the Bestway or get drunk while you do your laundry at the Suds & Duds (which, by the way, was once the preferred work environment for YES! Weekly columnist Ogi Overman). They’re still drinking sugary red shots at the Wahoo, chain smoking at Walker’s and getting a groove on at the Blind Tiger.

But when Neil Reitzel opened Fishbone’s a few years ago it was something akin to a coming of age for the drinkingest neighborhood in town. A little classier, a touch more refined, not quite so much shouting.

Shirley and Oetjen’s place is a perfect complement to the maturing action.

‘“I’m ready for this,’” Shirley says. ‘“It’s what I know. I make my sandwiches like I like ’em and I hope everybody else does.’”

At 10:30 Shirley’s former boss Will Henry, proprietor of the Wahoo and longtime stalwart of the Walker Avenue scene, comes across the street for a little Crown Royal and to take a look at his newest competition.

He’s just in time to see another customer walk through the door, a six-foot woman augmented with strappy heels, with hair the color of raw honey and a microskirt that could double as a headband. Air pressure drops as every man in the room sucks in his breath and holds in his gut.

Except Shirley who, unfazed, steers right for her and within moments has ingratiated himself. She’s relaxed and laughing before she gets her first drink in her hand.

Thom Shirley, one patron remarks, has got a touch.

‘“Yeah,’” says Henry, his former boss, ‘“he’s touched a lot of ’em.’”

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