When I was working Uptown in my early, post-college years and craved a beer after work, I had to walk a few miles. Uphill. Sometimes barefoot and in oppressive summer heat — or in the middle of a snowstorm. You kids don't know how good you have it now that downtown Charlotte offers a choice of bars and restaurants. Back in my day, we had only one place to go.
But what a place it was. And still is.
Alexander Michael's opened at 401 W. 9th St. on April 26, 1983. It was a big night for the new restaurant. "We did 77 [customers]," says Steve Casner, who was the manager back then and is the owner now. "We hit the ground running."
Casner worked for original owners Alexander "Zan" Copeland III and Michael Troiana (the "Alexander" and "Michael" who gave the place their names) at another restaurant they owned, Proposition XLV in Myers Park.
Charlotte native Tripp Funderburk, nephew of the late Zan Copeland, worked at Alexander Michael's one summer when he was a student at Myers Park High. Now a Washington, D.C., resident, he credits Casner with the pub's longevity. "Steve Casner is probably the main reason it's still going," he says.
But it was Uncle Zan who had the vision to put a bar where no bar had gone before. "Zan saw that it was the only spot zoned for a bar/restaurant in the new developing area there, and jumped on it," Funderburk says. "He built the bar out of doors from a bank. I helped sand them. It really has that Cheers neighborhood feel — great location, great decor and good service."
From the beginning, Al Mike's — as regulars call it — felt like it had always been there. Maybe that's because it's housed in a building, originally the Crowell-Berryhill grocery store, constructed in 1897. And if the wooden building (actually Masonite, but designed to mimic the original wood) feels like home, that may be because it is someone's home. Two identical loft apartments are upstairs. One is the Al Mike's office, and the other has at times served as Casner's residence.
Uptown resident Eric Huntley, 45, lives in walking distance ("Like, almost sharing plumbing close") and has been going to Al Mike's since the early days. He estimates he's there to eat in or take out three or four times a month.
What keeps him going back? The people.
"Steve Casner; his son, Cooper; and the team that works for them," he says in answer to the question. "They are as real and as laid-back as you're bound to find in Charlotte." Cooper, now in his 30s, was just 3 years old when his dad started managing Alexander Michael's.
Huntley says Al Mike's doesn't put on airs. "They are not a sports bar. They are not a martini bar. They are not a bistro," he says. "And, they haven't suffered from not changing their DNA."
The interior is cozy (seating about 70 people), friendly, dark (courtesy of the abundance of wood and dark green walls), authentic. If it feels a little dated, you can forgive; this is not the kind of place its regulars want to change.
Today, Al Mike's remains what it has always been — a comfortable, unassuming neighborhood tavern. "I go to Al Mike's because I want a beer and to not be rushed," says Huntley. "They have a great selection of old favorites and local brews. This is not a wine bar, and they don't try to be one. This is a bourbon-and-beer joint."
It's also got darned good food. "I live on their 'What It Is' [blackened chicken breast over rotini pasta in a Cajun cream sauce] and the chicken pita with Cajun fries," says Huntley, who also raves about the Monday meatloaf and boneless fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
"We've been trying to do farm-to-fork for the past couple of years," Casner says, talking about their culinary evolution. "Our greens are organic. The pork chop we feature every Thursday is from Grateful Growers."
This is comfort food served in equally comfortable surroundings. "I recently took some colleagues from Edinburgh, Scotland," says Huntley. "They loved the laid-back atmosphere that gave them a gentle reminder of the pubs from their hometown. But, they did have a laugh at the idea that Al Mike's had been around since 1983 — since their local pubs of similar aesthetic ... have been around since 1783."
OK, so it wasn't quite 1783 when my pals and I had to hoof it to Fourth Ward for happy hour; it was the late '80s. I may have exaggerated the difficult trek, but the part about heading to Al Mike's in the snow is true.
Huntley says, "If there is remotely a chance of a snow day, there is no other place to be to watch the flakes and merrymakers falling down. It's beyond picturesque, inviting and cozy to sit in that space with a view of the beautiful Fourth Ward homes and know you really have nowhere else to be."