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Historic Downtown Apex

Apex: The #1 Small Town in North Carolina (in 1994)

Apex, Anna's PizzariaLike other people in Carrboro I never really thought of Apex as a town. Probably in the same way that people in Apex think of Carrboro as a part of Chapel Hill. But in the case of Carborro/Chapel Hill you could argue that in a way you could see the two towns as one since the only thing that clearly separates them is a sign that tells you that you have just crossed over from one to the other even though everything looks pretty much the same. However my view of Apex was not founded on any kind of concrete evidence but really on just not thinking about it all that much. To me Apex was the place somewhere in the vicinity of the intersection of Highways 54 and 55, (probably because there is a sign there that I absent mindedly noticed while waiting for the light to change). In my infrequent thoughts about Apex I assumed it was one of those small towns that was swallowed up by Research Triangle Park in the way that small villages are when they dam the end of a river valley to build a lake. You know that somewhere under the water in what is now mud and muck there are streets and the remains of houses and shops where generations of people spent their lives and now return to mournfully gaze at the placid waters which don't provide a clue as to what they cover and how many lives were changed.  But as poetic as that may seem this view of Apex is as grounded in reality as thinking Carrboro is a part of Chapel Hill.

House in ApexTruly, if you turn right at the intersection of 54 and 55 you will pass the kinds of places I spent half my life associating with Apex; shopping centers, small business/industrial parks and the kind of stuff you see driving on highway 1 in New Jersey only newer and cleaner. But then it stops and you drive for miles on beautiful new road past forests and residential developments that have been built or are still a gleam in the eyes of their developers. Eventually, in fact so long that you wonder WTF did Apex have to do with RTP in your deluded mind, you come to the shopping centers on the outskirts of the actual town of Apex. You know what I mean. Enormous parking lots and a mixture of shops, restaurants and the usual culprits: the national and international super-stores that have sucked the life out of every downtown in America. And condos and new homes in neighborhoods with names that the visionary builders hoped would make new home buyers want to live there. Names like Colonial Village at Beaver Creek which work on the minds of young professionals in a number of ways. Who wouldn't want to live in a colonial village on a creek with beavers in it, even if it is just another of the thousands of developments in the area and the beavers have been chased out so their dams won't cause the creek to overflow into your basement, if there ever were beavers or even a creek. But this is a topic better suited for Cary, at least for now. Because if you continue past the new stuff you will see a small sign pointing you towards the Apex Historical Downtown and once you have patiently waited at the light to turn left you are almost instantly rewarded by a line of old historical homes and suddenly a real southern downtown.

Downtown ApexHistoric Downtown Apex is only a couple blocks long but the architecture and the colors of the buildings are beautiful and there are more interesting shops for browsing than you will find in just about any small town in North Carolina as well as restaurants and bars and even one of the most well stocked craft beer stores in the Triangle. It is probably Apex's proximity to everywhere that enables it to support such a variety of businesses. Besides the fact that there are about 40,000 people living in Apex and the population has grown 87% since the turn of the century (this century!!!), the town is close to everywhere. Ten minutes from Raleigh and Cary and twenty minutes from Chapel Hill and Durham, it is not surprising that Apex has such a cool downtown. What is surprising is how many people from around here have never been to it. Take a poll of your friends and ask them if they have ever been to Apex and most people will tell you they think they went to a party there once or to someone's house to buy a car. If you tell them there is an historic downtown with antique shops and bars with live music and even an independently owned bookstore they will put down their beer, look away from the TV and ask "Really?" Then they will mumble something about having to go and check it out and then forget about it for the rest of their lives.

Apex trainCentral North Carolina has a history with trains. With no large rivers to navigate they had to rely on the railroads and Apex is one of those railroad towns. Think of the railroad the way you would think of a river and towns like Apex as a port on this steel river. The town was named Apex because the community was the highest point on the Chatham Railroad between Richmond, Virginia and Jacksonville, Florida or because water which falls on one side of Salem Street flows to the Neuse River, while water falling on the other side of the street flows to the Cape Fear River. Take your pick. The old train station which was built in 1854 is now the visitors center with a real caboose that doubles as an historical center or a railway museum and on the tracks the trains still go by carrying whatever it is that trains carry in cars that can stretch half a mile or more. While I was there a train at least that long was moving at about one mile an hour stopping traffic at the railroad crossing. Do the math; How long will the cars have to wait at the crossing for the entire train to pass? Answer; A lot longer than I did.

Take a walk down Apex's Main Street on any sunny spring afternoon and you will see attractive young mom's taking their young children for ice-cream and a ride on the mechanical horse while their husbands who are supposed to be slaving away in front of their computer in a cubicle at one of the nearby office parks are actually just around the corner having a few beers with the guys who may or may not find their way back to work. Tourists who look like they were just dropped off from their assisted living retirement homes hobble slowly around from antique shop to gallery and finally end up at the closest restaurant to their last stop. And young couples who walk slowly up and down N Salem Street and wonder if this will be the place where they begin the next phase of their lives?

Shops and Art on North Salem Street

All Booked Up, ApexRunning an independent book store anywhere is not an easy job. But running an independent book store in a small town is more like a hobby or an art or playing a musical instrument that nobody else plays and only the wise or most curious have an interest in listening to. Such is the case with the All Booked Up bookstore at 104-B N. Salem Street  in Apex which is one of the most well organized, tastefully decorated, comfortable book shops you will find anywhere in America. As Janice Monaco, the attractive owner explained to me, the only way to survive as a book dealer is to keep one step ahead of the trends so when people tire of the last big thing you have already moved on and established yourself in what will be the next big thing, sort of like David Bowie in his heyday. (The Bowie analogy was mine, not her's.) In the meantime you remain true to your roots and assume that most people are not going to want to read Tolstoy or Melville on a Kindle or their iPad. All Booked Up offers competitive pricing for buying used books in either cash or store credit. They carry a large selection of different books, including children's, pre-teen, young adult, nonfiction, historical and Christian genres. All Booked Up carries not only books but also DVDs, Blu-rays, audio books and interior decor. It is the kind of bookstore that looks so comfortable that I imagine they have to chase people out at closing time.

Rusty Bucket, ApexThe Rusty Bucket at 104-A North Salem Street occupies part of a restored 1925 building and sells stylish and affordable decorations for the home and items of interest representing the local community and its history. The building was previously home  to the old "Popes Five and Dime" store in the mid-1950s. The Rusty Bucket is the result of a long time dream of the shopkeeper. The owners had a vision of an old country store from long ago one which you would walk into and feel welcome and comfortable - as the sign reads when you enter the door-"Enter as Strangers , Leave as Friends". Across the street the Apex Gallery offers custom framing and elegant art  at 125 North Salem Street. Next door Impressionist painter Catherine C. Martin paints, displays her work, and teaches painting at the The Red Canvas. Apex is the type of community that attracts artists, usually older, who have retired from whatever they had to do to make money, and are now focusing on just making art. The Apex Arts Council (AAC) is a nonprofit organization supporting all artistic disciplines, including visual art, music, dance, theatre, literary arts, and others and enables these artists to connect with each other. The AAC works with businesses, the community, and artists to coordinate and provide public art settings, as well as stimulate and encourage the development of arts and cultural projects and activities, distribute information on arts and cultural programs and activities in the local community, and support local and emerging artists and arts organizations by providing opportunities for them to show or perform their work.

Apex Beer DispensaryNorth Carolina is THE beer state. Other states may disagree but while they are merely treading water, or beer, NC has emersed itself and for that reason a town the size of Apex can support a beer store like The Beer Dispensary of Apex. Walk into this small shop and you are instantly surrounded by shelves and row after row of craft beer from North Carolina and the rest of the beer making states as well as shelve upon shelve of Belgian Trappist Ales, some of which you may have only heard about and never seen. The Beer Dispensary is a unique craft beer store that opened in December 2010 in Historic Downtown Apex, NC. Stocked with the best craft beer available in NC, all over the US and around the world in a "tavern-esque" atmosphere! They offer classes on beer-making, they have beer tastings and you can go to their web site to see what new beers have arrived. Stop in for a cold beer and then go out and explore the rest of historic Apex. The Beer Dispensary is located at 112 N Salem Street St and is open Tues/Wed 11-6, Thurs 11-7, Fri/Sat 11-8:30.

Restaurants and Cigars

Peak City Bar and Grill, Apex, NCThe Peak City Grill and Bar was opened by mortgage banker and visionary Steve Adams in 2005 in the days when you would have had to be crazy to spend a lot of money to open a really nice restaurant bar in Apex. But if you want to find a beautiful old historical building to put your dream restaurant in then you have to get there before the crowds do and that is what Steve did. The building itself had been a hardware store, general store and feed and mill store over the years but its current incarnation, which will hopefully be forever, has to be the most spectacular, with high ceilings with exposed beams, a granite counter, lots of dark wood and a friendly bistro-style atmosphere. (OK it was empty when I took the photo but you have to take my word for it that I was there between lunch and dinner) When Adams left the high taxes of New Jersey and moved to Apex he almost single handedly awakened a town which might have otherwise just drifted into obscurity, bringing good food, indoor and outdoor patio dining, live jazz and blues and more importantly life to downtown. On weekends when there are lines for tables you are handed a beeper which enables you to wander around the shops in town and when your table is ready they buzz you. This allowed the shops to stay open later and create what you might call a scene in quiet little Apex. As the Raleigh N&O wrote “Peak City Grill backs up style with substance -- in the form of good food -- to keep them coming back.... Peak City Grill and Bar is the hottest thing to hit downtown in a long time”.
Yes. Probably ever.

Anna's Pizzaria, ApexOf course when one restaurant in a small town becomes successful that opens the door to other enterprising individuals to open restaurants and before you know it you have a whole nightlife scene going on and people from Raleigh leaving the big city to walk the streets of Apex visiting the shops and enjoying the small town atmosphere before going to dinner or drinks at one of several restaurants in town. Anna's Pizzeria, is a family-friendly restaurant serving up authentic New York style pizzas and Italian dishes with nice outdoor seating right on the street at the intersection of Salem and West Chatham Streets which has been open since 1986. Named after owner Yuri Rojas' Aunt Anna who helped the family come to America and instilled many values in the close-knit family - like the art of cooking, the importance of the family meal and the meaning of hard work, Anna's family recipes have been passed down for generations, and they use only the freshest ingredients to create their Italian specialties. Every dish is prepared fresh-to-order, starting with their famous garlic knots (Pizza dough bread knots topped with fresh garlic, parmesan cheese and herbs) - to their extensive list of pizza pies and Italian dinners and deserts. Like any good Italian restaurant they serve wine and beer. From 1940 to 1970 the building was the Apex Rexall Drugstore which contained a luncheonette like many of the old pharmacies and was a popular gathering place for young people.

Rock harbor Grill, Apex NCRock Harbor Grill is a seafood restaurant and full service bar which opened in 2013 is owned by David Vance and his wife Chandra. After moving to the area they became great friends with one of the best cooks in the Triangle, Chef James Lee who they discovered, shared their vision of what a great restaurant should be. The decor is a classic rock and roll motif with black and white photographs of rock legends lining the walls. Ther menu is packed full of delicious seafood dishes and great steak, chicken, and duck dishes and is not the type of place you would expect to find in a small southern town, unless like Apex it happens to be a few miles from Raleigh. Even more rare for small towns in NC is their extensive vegetarian menu, since Chandra is a vegetarian herself. Their downstairs bar has a large selection of wines and North Carolina craft beers as well as hard stuff. In his last job, Vance worked as an area sales rep for distributor Sysco. Now he’s host and general manager at Rock Harbor Grill, while his wife maintains the books leaving Lee to run the kitchen though some of the entrees are actually the vision of Vance who has a history in restaurants, both working at and eating in, since he was 14 years old. He would like to see a chain of Rock Harbor Grills but people in the area are just happy to have this one. With entres like  Breaded Shrimp fried to a golden brown, served with French Fries and Cole Slaw, or Seared Scallops paired with Bacon studded Grit Cake and Grilled Asparagus finished with a Tangy Sweet Onion Relish or Cajun Seared Flounder served with Parmesan Risotto and Sautéed Green Beans over a Roasted Garlic-Tomato Sauce, or Boneless Short Ribs served over Yukon Mashed Potatoes, Fingerling Baby Carrots & Pearl Onions with a Rich Demi-Glace it is obvious that Rock Harbor Grill is not one of those North Carolina Calabash style restaurant that have been clogging up our arteries for the last fifty years. Rock Harbor Grill is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. They also have live music including their popular Wednesday night jam on featuring local hero Joel Sugarman and other Triangle musicians.

Salem Street Pub BurgerMy beef with burgers (bad pun I know), has always been that they fall apart and just end up being a big mess on my plate that I have to eat with a fork. Maybe that is because of all the stuff I pile on top of the meat, which for me is essential, especially pickles. When I go to a restaurant that serves hamburgers and it comes without a pickle my instinct is to send it back and tell them "there is something wrong with this, there is no pickle". I used to show up at Southern Rail in Carrboro with my own pickles until they got so embarrassed that they finally began serving them on their burgers. But I am getting off the subject. I was talking about the way burgers fall apart. I think it is because of our love affair with the hamburger bun. If there was ever a piece of bread that was not meant to contain meat with lots of sauce and juice it is a round bun made from white flour. Anyway most burgers are unhealthy enough, why do we make them worse by adding white flour into the mix? So when I visited Salem Street Pub with my girlfriend and saw that they were named the Best Hamburger in the Triangle I had to get one. And when I saw you could get it on marbled rye bread, that sealed the deal. Why doesn't everyone serve burgers on marbled rye? It is perfect! It stays together and adds a flavor of its own, unlike your average every day hamburger bun. Andrea got the burger on the normal bun and I have to admit that it did not fall apart, though she does not put half the stuff on that I do. Plus she puts on mustard instead of ketchup. She puts ketchup on hot dogs too which signifies a very confused upbringing in my opinion. Anyway the burgers come with home-cut fries which are healthier than whatever the alternative is, maybe factory cut fries or potato-shaped processed food wedges, or the tater-tots that are so popular with the generation that learned about nutrition from watching television commercials or Tarantino movies. Salem Street Pub is the kind of old style neighborhood bar that you wish you had in your town, with a good choice of local and non-local micro-brews, wine by the glass, hard stuff, and a great menu. Nice for families, on a date, or just to drown your sorrows in beer, baseball and jalapeno poppers.

Common Ground Coffee-ApexCommon Grounds Coffee at 219 North Salem Street is a tastefully decorated and cozy little coffee house in the renovated historic building The Promenade across from the Fire Department. Stop in for great coffees,teas, desserts, soups, sandwiches, & Ice cream as well as live music on Fri & Sat nights.  The Salem Street Promenade and the Tobacco Mule Exchange have interior hallways with more stores inside. A few steps away in a free-standing building at 201 N Salem Street is Empire Cigars: The Vault, the Triangle's upscale cigar store and smoking lounge. Opened by cigar aficionado Hal Rubin who fell in love with Apex because it reminded him of the small towns in upstate New York, the shop feature a spacious smoking lounge with 4 TVs, complete with the NFL Sunday Ticket and the Golf Channel. If outdoor smoking is to your liking, then you will love their 900 sq ft patio open year round with heating towers. With a variety of cigars that rivals any shop in the Triangle or beuond, all at a fair price and excellent client service to boot, not to mention a wonderful relaxed atmosphere to smoke them why wouldn't people come from as far as Chapel Hill to hang out here if they are cigar lovers?

Downtown ApexSo books, food, beer, wine, coffee, cigars, what else do you want? Antiques? Galleries? Interesting gift shops? Boutiques? Home furnishing stores? Yoga and Pilates studios? Massage Therapy? Historic downtown Apex has all of this and more. It also has a couple annual events that are a good excuse for those who need a reason to visit besides just strolling around town.

Peakfest is the annual arts festival held in downtown Apex every year in early May on Salem Street which is closed to automobile traffic and open to venders, musicians and craft people and thousands of people enjoying the food and festivities in a street fair that began thirty years ago in a school parking lot and has grown every year since.

The Apex Artist for Animals Faire is a recent addition to the towns cultural events. Over 100 artists take part an the proceeds go to local animal rescue groups. It is held outside of town at the Cloer Family Vinyards 8624 Castleberry Road and they have a call for artists of all types who want to take part.

Apex CabooseApex has been called the #1 Small Town in North Carolina but that was back in 1994 and probably whoever wrote that has long forgotten why he did. But that has not kept the town from putting it on their sign because it sounds a lot better than the more recent 14th Best Place to live in the USA by Money Magazine in 2007. Actually the original 1994 award was for Best Small Town in NC for Economic Vitality but that does not seem as impressive than simply being the best town even if it was twenty years ago. But in those twenty years the town has revitalized itself and there are few better examples of a turn-of-the-century railroad town (and this time I mean the last century). And maybe it has been almost 24 years since it was called the Best Small Town in NC for whatever reason, but I am willing to bet that Apex is a lot better now than it was back then and who cares if others haven't noticed? The people of Apex are quite aware that they are living somewhere special.

So if you are looking for a small, cool town to live in that is not Carrboro, Chapel Hill or Hillsborough then Apex could be the place. And if you are from one of those three towns or anywhere in the area and you thought Apex was a bunch of shopping centers and some condos then you should take a little trip to historic downtown Apex some nice spring or fall afternoon or a summer evening on a Friday or Saturday. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

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