By Anne Tate
Longtime Linda’s Bar and Grill customer Lisa Reichle will never forget when owner Christopher Carini hurdled over the Linda’s Downbar to greet her.
“He came swinging around the bar and jumped over it in this way that told me he had been practicing,” Reichle said. “The bar was his, the space was his. Everything was Chris’ in that moment, and it was amazingly funny.”
Reichle has been a regular at Linda’s for nearly 30 years. The bartenders know her name, and when she places orders over the phone, they always know it’s her. Her giveaway, she said, is that she’s the only one who orders apples as a side. She calls Linda’s Instagram posts “Lisa bait” because a picture of Paco’s fish tacos is all it takes for her to think, “damn it, now I have to go.”
When Carini, 35, took over the bar in 2011, Reichle knew there was something different about the way he would do things.
“Chris is manic in the best way,” she said. “He gets ideas and he goes with them and he’s excited.”
Carini discovered Linda’s at just the right time, with just the right drive to restore the Chapel Hill treasure and make it his own.
“I was 22 with my hair on fire,” he said.
It was the glowing red, scripted Yuengling sign that drew Carini into Linda’s for the first time in 2008. He was homesick, and the beer made in Pennsylvania, close to where he grew up in Hollidaysburg and attended college at Penn State, reminded him of home. The interior looked like the type of place you would carve your name into the molding and sit with your friends for six hours drinking on a Friday.
“It was a s—hole,” Carini said.
But he was in love – Linda’s was dirty, not broken.
“Dad, I’m going to buy this place,” Carini said four months later at Linda’s Tuesday night trivia.
Three years later, Carini sold his house, sold his Porsche, cashed out all of his belongings, and did.
Chapel Hill has other bars, but Linda’s – the loud enough to have a good time but quiet enough to have a conversation gathering hub – has been a Chapel Hill staple since 1976.
When loyal customer Evan Markfield, who has visited Linda’s once a week since 1997, heard that Linda’s had been sold, he was “kind of freaked out.”
“What if everything changes?” he thought. “What if they don’t have the cheese fries?”
After meeting Carini, who he describes as a ball of energy, Markfield quickly learned that Linda’s would stay Linda’s.
The day he acquired Linda’s, Carini deep-cleaned the restaurant and bar for 10 days straight. His goal was not to transform it, but to make it cleaner and nicer. He wanted to keep the good parts, even the Linda’s ghost, who allegedly likes to toss things around. He worked 100 to 120 hours a week and didn’t sleep much. At the end of each day, he looked and smelled like he had been dipped in beer.
He wanted to create an atmosphere of camaraderie.
“It’s about friendship and getting together and sitting there with four or five of your friends and telling stories and lies and flirting with the bartenders,” Carini said.
UNC-Chapel Hill basketball games, Super Bowls, trivia nights and other events hosted by Linda’s brings locals to the door. And Carini does not hesitate to jump over the bar to join the action.
For four years, Markfield hosted an open mic night in the Downbar. Carini would never fail to accompany Markfield on stage to sing a duet of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.”
Carini contributes to the atmosphere and is a part of Linda’s core.
“He’s a presence,” Markfield said.
Fear and Doubt
When COVID-19 hit, Carini transformed Linda’s again. But it looked more like an impenetrable fortress than a restaurant. He and his staff gave away around $6,000 worth of food, locked up the beer and liquor, changed the locks, reinforced the doors and updated the security protocols.
Linda’s closed on March 19, tried to reopen on June 6, but closed again on August 23.
“Linda’s is boarded up,” Carini wrote in his journal. “Breaks my f—— heart.”
He wasn’t sure if closing Linda’s was the right choice and he didn’t know when, or if, Linda’s would open again.
He felt like everything he had worked for over the past 10 years was ending.
The day after closing, he set out on the three-week-long road trip out West he had been planning for 20 years with his Australian cattle dog Bullet. He drove for 29 hours and 45 minutes from Chapel Hill to Colorado Springs and didn’t stop for more than a half-hour at a time.
It was north of Moab, Utah, surrounded by vast spans of burnt orange rocks and desert at Arches National Park, where Carini found the perfect place to clear his head.
“Somewhere in the middle of the Arches, I decided to leave behind all of my doubt, fear, guilt and sadness,” he said. “I drove out into the middle of the desert and left it there.”
He stood on top of his white four-door Toyota Tacoma and watched the sun set to his left and the moon rise to his right. It looked like you could take a knife and cut the sky where the light was different.
“I had this moment where I looked up and was like, ‘OK I get it, I get it! Balance.’”
There, on top of his truck in the middle of Utah, he decided that closing Linda’s was the right thing to do.
He missed interacting with people. But he had to be patient.
He felt healed.
A Fresh Start
Now, Carini is back to work. He’s tweaking the Linda’s menu and finishing renovation projects around the restaurant. In the next two years, he will search for UNC alumni to purchase the restaurant and bar. His biggest condition: it will always be Linda’s.
“There’s no place quite like Linda’s,” Carini said. “I know Linda’s will survive and I’ll make sure that it does.”
He’s not the only one who wants to preserve Linda’s. Reichle calculated how much she would tip at Linda’s every week and donates $50 monthly to a GoFundMe page supporting its unemployed staff. So far, the page has raised over $22,000.
“When it comes to Linda’s, it’s a community,” Reichle said. “Linda’s was there when we needed comfort.”
She looks forward to when she can hug Carini and order the homemade pimento-cheese-topped Danny Boy burger with a Linda’s 76 cocktail again.
“Linda’s is all of the sort of best social things that we experience rolled into one place,” Markfield said.
He describes it as the “perfect encapsulation” of what people are missing during the pandemic.
Linda’s looks the same inside as it did before it closed. Everything is in its place, except for a few boxes scattered about and a few less chairs. The most action Linda’s sees these days is probably its ghost, flinging things around from time to time, probably wondering where everyone is and where the smell of baked macaroni and cheese went. But Carini will soon welcome back the staff and customers that make Linda’s feel like home.
Edited by Ryan Heller