Stepping inside Imbibe is like walking off the Chapel Hill streets and right into a New Orleans restaurant. The walls are adorned with Saints posters and Abita flags and the menu boasts NOLA classics like po boys, gumbo, and muffalettas. The purple, green, and gold of Mardi Gras are everywhere. Special bread is even flown in from New Orleans for the classic sandwiches.
For every bit that Imbibe represents the jazzy, music hall atmosphere of New Orleans, Zog’s Art Bar and Pool Hall upstairs reflects the vibrant, divey nightlife of the city. The bar is backlit with red lights, a skeleton in a cage hangs in front, and there’s an old skeeball machine off to the side. The ceiling tiles are all painted differently – one shows a cat wearing a party hat while another the Joker and his sly smile. And the best part? They’re all painted by customers.
That concept reflects best what owner Mandey Brown strives for in her businesses: acceptance and inclusivity for all, in the art world and beyond.
Brown, a New Orleans native, moved to Chapel Hill in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. She took ownership of Zog’s in 2010 where she began selling local art at no commission. She also opened the gallery to any artist that needed a place to display and sell their work.
“There’s something to be said for picking art,” she said, “but I don’t want to reject anyone’s art.” An artist herself, Brown went on to say that she has learned to recognize all artists’ validity whether or not the art is her or anyone else’s particular style. She said it’s fascinating to watch people walk around and connect with art that she wouldn’t have expected.
Brown carried that openness and inclusivity into Imbibe when she opened it in 2016 directly below the Art Bar and Pool Hall. While art and drinks are the main focus at Zog’s, food and music are the foundation of Imbibe.
With regularly scheduled music Monday through Thursday evenings, and Fridays and Saturdays open to rotating musical guests, there’s always live music happening at 108 Henderson Street (they’re closed on Sundays.)
Their busiest nights are often Mondays, Brown said, when trombonist Danny Grewen and pianist Robert Griphanzo hold a jazz night. Singer-songwriter nights on Tuesdays and local pianist Mark Pericelli playing on Wednesdays are some of the other regular music nights at Imbibe.
“I remember the first time Grewen and Griphanzo played here,” Brown said, smiling. She had never heard Danny Grewen play trombone or sing before, though she knew him as a Zog’s customer. “The first time he got on stage I was in the kitchen. He started singing, and he sounds like Chet Baker, and I just couldn’t move.”
It’s moments like those that have resonated with Brown over the years. She has loved seeing her regular customers grow in their lives, whether it be outside of her businesses or through events like open mic night and drawing workshops. “You never quite know who you’re talking to,” she said, “ and you don’t know what the person you’re talking to might become.”
She hopes to continue fostering that growth within people by offering Imbibe as an art space during the day. Whether it be for performance rehearsals, art classes, or poetry workshops, Brown said that she is open to anything and everything and encourages local artists to contact her if interested.
“We’re a very safe space,” she said. “We accept anyone who is kind to us and kind to our customers. Because of that, I can walk in and feel good about what I’m doing.” That mentality is what has earned Zog’s and Imbibe many loyal customers, and what will keep Brown’s businesses around for many years to come.