—article by Brian Howe
When I call Eryk Pruitt, he’s immersed in an advance reader copy of a Southern crime novel that somebody wants him to blurb. Eryk spends plenty of time with ARCs, as the author of several acclaimed chicken-fried thrillers and the local ringleader of the national crime-fiction reading franchise Noir at the Bar. When he brought it to the Triangle years ago, he never dreamed that, come the summer of 2019, he would be hosting it at his very own bar.
Eryk and Lana Pierce, who are married, live out on the Orange-Durham county line. Just six months before the pandemic, they took over King Street Bar, at 114 West King Street, and rebranded it as Yonder: Southern Cocktails and Brew, a bar and music venue. They sought to fill a fallow niche in the Hillsborough bar scene, which meant centering craft cocktails instead of suds, and art and artists instead of sports and TV.
“One thing I was extremely proud of was, during the 2019 Super Bowl, we put on Eyes Up Here Comedy, which is all women, and just packed the place out,” Eryk says. His dark, gritty fictional milieu—his latest novel, the Anthony Award-nominated What We Reckon, is about two paranoid Texas drifters toting a hollowed-out bible full of cocaine—is hard to square with his kind, sunny demeanor.
Likewise, the Yonder portrayed in Dark Yonder: Tales & Tabs could hardly be more different from the friendly, inviting actual place. That anthology, assembled by New York-based crime writer Liam Sweeny, features Yonder-set stories about “degenerates, criminals and regulars just itching for something to happen” by 20 authors, some local, others not. It also includes drink recipes, photos and a foreword by Eryk, who’s there working and chatting it up pretty much every minute it’s open.
Eryk and Lana both have long backgrounds in the food-and-drink industry, which also funded Foodie, Eryk’s 2012 film. He’d helped Tim Lyons open Blu Seafood & Bar in 2007, and then ran it for five years. In 2019, at Lyons’s behest, he and Lana gave King Street Bar a makeover. They covered up the bocce ball pits and added comfy couches. They put in a stage and bought a new sound system with an Orange County Business Investment Grant. They had open mics and poetry readings and put local art on the walls. When Lyons was ready to move on, it was a no-brainer for them to take over.
“I love dive bars, but the town already had a bunch of dive bars. If they had a bunch of upscale cocktail bars, we probably would have been a dive bar,” Eryk says. “Knowing Hillsborough has an arts community, and their sports interests were already being served, we were like, let’s make this all about creative expression.”
A wide variety of local music revolved across Yonder’s small stage before the pandemic, and on its sidewalk afterward. “We had Ally J, the Durham jazz singer,” says Eryk, who salutes Nash Street Tavern as almost a sister venue. “There’s a Cajun band called the Cajammers that tear it up. We’ve had some of the big local folks, like Dex Romweber, all the way to young singer-songwriters. We’re particularly excited about Love & Valor from Burlington, just a very soulful young group that you expect to see on a Grammy stage, but right now they’re playing on our sidewalk.”
The marquee offering has to be the Katharine Whalen Jazz Hour, which took place on Thursdays before the shutdown, where the legendary Squirrel Nut Zipper shows up with whomever she wants—often, her Swedish Wood Patrol partner Danny Grewan is in the mix—and plays whatever she wants. During the pandemic, it has moved outdoors, on every temperate Friday, from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m.
“I grew up a fan of hers, out in Texas,” Eryk says. “I was like, what could it hurt to reach out? I’ve been privileged to enjoy Katharine’ company all through this. The day after lockdown, she invited us out to her farm, where she was rehearsing with some people. We were really scared and didn’t know what was happening, and that was the first thing to calm us down.”
As COVID wanes, Yonder is proceeding cautiously but optimistically. Love & Valor is returning for an outdoor show on April 17, while Jeremy Alder—whom I wrote about for the INDY when he was giving away his savings on Twitter—is starting up his monthly comedy showcase again on the second Sunday of May. A new art exhibit, by Natalia Torres del Valle, just went up, and you can expect the return of Noir at the Bar when the all-clear sounds for indoor events.
Mocktails were recently added to the kicky ginger-and-habanero-laced cocktail menu, in response to the “changing relationship with alcohol” Eryk noticed among his regulars during the pandemic. It’s that kind of personal touch that kept the young bar alive through the pandemic, while Eryk and Lana sold six-packs and T-shirts and books and Mason jars full of wine frosé, anything they could sell outdoors—that personal connection, based, of course, on storytelling.
“During this, we got to really find our clientele, the people who struggled with us to keep us open,” Eryk says. “Where someone’s dollar goes means so much more to them now. I think we’ve gotten more regular customers, and I think it’s because they let us sit there and tell our stories and listen to theirs.”