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After Dark Critic's Picks 

BEST ROCK CLUBThe RoomThe Room: Used to be a shithole. Isn't anymore. Good combo of indie rock and hip-hop shows most every night. Strong sound guys. Nice couches. No ratty carpet. Good bartenders. Let's see, anything else? Oh, yeah, great inventive booking.

The Room, 1812 Montford Drive. 704-527-4511.

BEST CONCERT VENUEGrady Cole CenterThe perfect place for acts of stature that might be a little too big for Tremont Music Hall and too small for the Coliseum -- think The Darkness and the White Stripes -- The Grady Cole Center fills a nice niche in this town's concert-going scene.

Grady Cole Center, 310 N. Kings Drive. 704-336-2884.

BEST CONCERT OF PAST 12 MONTHSThe ZombiesWhen we say that The Zombies' February show at Amos' SouthEnd was a revelation to those assembled that evening, we don't mean to imply that folks didn't know all the great music made by Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent and Co. over the years. It's just that, jeez, did they bring their "A-game" that evening or what? Most acts -- Three Dog Night, anyone? -- have settled into a formulaic, neutered rut after playing their hits a thousand times. The Zombies showed they were the true living dead, leaving fans -- some of whom had driven from as far as Georgia and Chapel Hill -- babbling with delight as the lights came up. Also big props to the Visulite's Pyramid, Califone, and Clem Snide show last October, the very kind of show this town needs more of to stand up to the Chapel Hills of the world.

BEST PLACE TO HEAR LOCAL MUSICAndrew Webster's Complex Radio Internet ShowThe best (and a little of the worst) of the Charlotte scene, presented without clique-ish bias, every Monday at 10pm on WSGE 91.7. Pal Preston Toney covers Charlotte's musical past and often unearths nuggets heretofore thought lost forever.

BEST LOCAL BENEFITSpread Your WingsBob Graham and Missy Ivie host the yearly roots-oriented event at the Neighborhood Theatre. Besides past guests like the Gourds, Alejandro Escovedo and Richard Buckner, there are raffles, auctions and all manner of other charity to benefit cancer research. Big ups to Bruce Hazel's excellent Drunken Fool's Day celebration at the Room, too.

BEST BLUES/R&B CLUBDouble Door InnWinner, and still champion! The place to go for up-and-coming blues artists, established vets like The Nighthawks and Tinsley Ellis, and for some of the coldest beer you'll ever drink. Heard the phrase "if these walls could talk?" The walls here have sucked up so much music over the last 30 years that they can probably sing.

Double Door Inn, 218 E Independence Boulevard. 704-376-1446.

BEST COUNTRY MUSIC CLUBCoyote Joe'sThe Double Door Inn of country music clubs, Coyote Joe's has won this one for a number of years. If you're into the more Nashville-sounding, "hat country" stuff, this is the place to go.

Coyote Joe's, 4621 Wilkinson Boulevard. 704-399-4946.

BEST DANCE CLUBTonicWith a custom-built sound system you can hear in Pennsylvania, a strong local roster and big-name acts coming through almost every week, Tonic is a great place to dance or while away the evening talking in the Japanese fire pits or Red Room with brand new friends. An elegant interior that belies its humble exterior.

Tonic, 1427 E 4th Street. 704-347-2582.

BEST PLACE FOR A FIRST DATECarpe DiemJust like true love, Carpe Diem has endured its share of heartbreak -- first having to leave its wonderful space to make way for The Ratcliffe, building relationships in a new setting downtown (only to again bid its home adieu), and finally settling down in a comfortable spot on Elizabeth Avenue. Warm wood tones, lilting music, and a quiet ambience make this restaurant a place where you can truly focus on your next great love.

Carpe Diem, 401 E Trade Street. 704-377-7976.

BAR WITH HOTTEST MEMBERS OF OPPOSITE SEXNo WinnerOur panel of critics couldn't come up with a winner in this category, though among the mentions were Connolly's On Fifth and the now-defunct Mythos. Perhaps one staffer put it best when she stated, "Depends on the night and how much I've had to drink."

BEST POOL HALLElizabeth Billiards"EB's," as it's known to locals, is as cool as it is hot. This Central Avenue mainstay is everything a pool hall should be: smoky, dark and unassuming. Perfect for drinking cheap beer with the gang (and maybe work in a bank shot or two).

Elizabeth Billiards, 1400 Central Avenue. 704-342-2663.

BEST DOWNTOWN BARRiRaThe bar and the woodwork have been imported from Ireland, so it's no wonder that this pub feels so authentic. Bartenders know how to pour a perfect pint of Guinness, which you can savor with your Irish potato cakes and bangers and mash. When the live music cranks up -- "specially the Celtic rock -- you'll find yourself wanting to dance a jig of contentedness. We couldn't be luckier to have all this in the heart of downtown.

RiRa, 208 N Tryon Street. 704-333-5001.

BEST BOWLING ALLEYPark LanesThis runaway favorite has been bowling over our critics since time began. And that's just about when pro bowler George Pappas' Park Lanes opened. It retains the energy and atmosphere of a serious bowling alley, offering league play as well as lanes for us amateurs. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the world-famous -- we're not kidding -- onion rings served at the snack area.

Park Lanes, 1700 Montford Drive. 704-523-7633.

BEST JUKEBOXThe PenguinMusic to our ears.

The Penguin, 1921 Commonwealth Avenue. 704-375-6959.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD BARThe PenguinOur critics' votes were all over the map, though this eked out a win. Years ago it was a soda shop; now it's a bar with a jumping jukebox, cold beer, monster burgers and killer sweet potato fries. Here, blue collar meets white collar, singles greet families, back tats share booths with soccer shin guards. And isn't that what "neighborhood" is all about? (Others receiving votes included Brixx on East Boulevard, Comet Grill and The Room.)

The Penguin, 1921 Commonwealth Avenue. 704-375-6959.

BEST LAKEFRONT BARVinnie'sOK, you've gotta drive up to the next county, but it's worth it to get the great Vinnie's raw bar menu as well as the lake view. And if you get drunk enough, the locals can show you how to flip your boat over the interstate.

Vinnie's, 643 Williamson Road. 704-799-2090.

BEST SPORTS BARChampions Sports BarOpen for lunch and dinner in the Charlotte Marriott City Center at the intersection of Trade and Tryon, this cozy spot hosts all sorts of good sports, thanks to well-positioned TVs. Football fans -- whether they're cheering for the home team or rooting for the rivals -- pack the place during NFL weekends. Baseball fans enjoy burgers and beer while watching afternoon doubleheaders. (Runner-up: Jillian's -- either location.)

Champions Sports Bar, 100 W. Trade Street. 704-333-9000.

BEST ACOUSTIC MUSIC CLUBThe Evening MuseThis place is so nice it almost doesn't matter if there's music -- it's just nice to be there. Luckily, Lea Pritchard books a wide-range of talent with an emphasis on folk, non-Music Row country and rock. Crowds are almost always quiet and respectful of the artists -- just another reason you see their names coming through Charlotte as often as they can.

The Evening Muse, 3227 N Davidson Street. 704-376-3737.

BEST BARTENDERJoseph at Giovanni's Italian GrillGiovanni's is a comfortable kind of place -- and bartender Joseph Schuman fits right in. In fact, with 22 years of restaurant management experience, he makes visitors feel right at home. "He's just a nice guy who seems genuinely interested in the folks who come to the restaurant," said one critic. He also offers good advice on wine choices. And really, what more can you ask of a guy who's making your night a little more relaxed? A toast -- to Joseph!

Giovanni's, 311 East Boulevard. 704-344-1007.

BEST STRIP CLUBUptown CabaretWith its see-it-from-the-stadium location and bright neon signs, the Uptown Cabaret beckons men (and women) in to mingle with what they proudly advertise as "the most beautiful women in Charlotte." That's not enough? Check out the Wednesday lunch buffet, The Big Deal Lunch on Fridays, and the upstairs section, which promises "one-on-one time with your favorite entertainer." Ahem. This barely edged out runner-up The Men's Club; the competition was closer than a lap dance.

Uptown Cabaret, 108 E Morehead Street. 704-344-0802.

BEST BEER SELECTIONFlying Saucer Draught EmporiumMore than 200 of said beers, and 80 of those are on tap. That means you could drop in daily for six months -- and still not try "em all. To keep track, get a "UFO Club" card ($14) that you can swipe to record which beers you've quaffed. (Runners-up: Hotel Charlotte; Mellow Mushroom.)

Flying Saucer, 9605 N Tryon Street. 704-717-8179.

BEST GAY AND/OR LESBIAN BARVelocityThe scales were leaning toward Scorpio -- and then an expert "in the know" showed us why Velocity is quickly becoming the best gay bar in town: It has something for everyone. Sure, it has fabulous theme parties, DJs and dancing -- but it also has such neat touches as a non-smoking lounge, two beer tubs, and a game room with pool tables and air hockey. Get your membership quickly!

Velocity, 935 S. Summit Avenue., 704-333-0060.

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