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The much loved club celebrates two decades in downtown Raleigh.
When Paul Siler and Cheetie Kumar toured with their band, The Cherry Valence, two decades ago, the couple was unhappy with the selection of places to play in Raleigh. Siler’s solution was to open Kings, a music venue run by musicians, that’s become beloved by artists and their fans alike. It’s also one that, through investment and innovation, is still going strong after 20 years on the scene.
“We were touring a lot and it was frustrating not having a venue that felt like a ‘home base,’” says Siler, who married Kumar four years after the original Kings opened. “A place that we’d want out-of-town bands to come and play and a place that we’d feel comfortable in ourselves.”
Siler wasn’t the only one that felt that way. So he, along with Steve Popson and Ben Barwick, touring musicians in the bands Polvo and Ashley Stove, started looking for a space. They soon found one, a small room on South McDowell Street.
From the outset, Kings was unique.
“Steve had previously owned an ’80s arcade game business on Hillsborough Street called the Blue Bassoon,” Siler explains. “The deal was, part of the building would have old arcades and a pool table and the back part would have a venue area.”
By July of 1999, Kings was open seven days a week.
More like a bar with shows than a concert hall, Siler and his partners began to realize that there were too many nights for bands to be able to fill. They had to get creative. They began to see Kings as a warehouse with proper permits—a de facto community event space.
“Variety definitely kept us open,” Siler says. “There are only so many bands that people will come and see. So we had game shows like the Hollywood Squares, The Gong Show, Family Feud. We had comedy nights, techno parties, dog shows, drag shows, occasional political events and fundraisers.”
In 2007, the space Kings called home was torn down to build a Wake County parking deck just steps from the Raleigh Convention Center. The venue needed to relocate. It took nearly three years, but Siler and Kumar signed a lease in 2010 for the space at 14 West Martin Street, which was a five and dime store from the late 1960s through the 1990s. The space had also formerly served as a bar, retail, and then a pizza shop, with bars called Lizzie’s, and then Alibi, occupying the basement.
“The space that we really wanted is the one that we ended up in,” Siler says. “There was room for a venue, room for a bar and a restaurant space. [Cheetie] felt like she could run a restaurant and put a menu together that would be interesting.”
Kumar thought she could offer an interesting food concept that would work in downtown Raleigh based on her talents for cooking and her background growing up in India, and then in New York City, and then relocating to the South. All of that, combined with the touring she and Siler had done, gave Kumar insights into how to make a restaurant different than others in Raleigh. She called the restaurant Garland.
Garland has evolved over the years, morphing from offering strictly street food—it originally opened selling elevated snacks out of a take-out window—to casual fine dining, with Kumar racking up multiple James Beard Award nominations.
Now, 20 years on, Kings sits above Garland, with dance-friendly dive bar Neptunes nestled below. As a smaller space, Neptunes has been able to fill a void for events that might draw fewer people than Kings. Neptunes, too, is going in a new direction, with interior renovations and an expanded drinks list.
“We’d always had DJs, but we started having other things there occasionally: jazz nights, comedy, rock shows, that were more intimate,” Siler says. “We hope that people will enjoy it as a cozy spot after work, before dinner, or an after dinner spot with excellent cocktails, a good beer list, great music playing and lovely snacks.”
Soon, Neptunes will open at 5 p.m., with a snack menu from Kumar featuring masala popcorn, chile peanuts, soft cheeses, pickles and jerky.
While Kings, Neptunes and Garland are all very much their own spaces, they feed off of each other and help each other prosper, Siler says.
“Often, people come to Garland and then find out about the other two and go the same night, or they come back,” Siler says. Two years ago, he and Kumar bought out their other partners.
“Neptunes is often used as a waiting spot for Garland, which is a great way for people to find out about it,” Siler continues. “Each has a very separate identity, but you don’t have to go far at all to get to the next place.”
Like Kings, downtown Raleigh’s identity will grow and change in the coming years and getting to the next place quickly will be key. As for the storied club/restaurant/dive bar complex—here’s to another 20 years.
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