patrick egan.1

Patrick Egan freelancer for Go Triad, Aug. 9, 2006.

The Swank Key At Marisol

5834 High Point Road

Greensboro

The skinny: I went to a piano bar once. It was in Florida, some manufactured city within the real city of Orlando. Many people had packed into a room that couldn’t hold them all. Such overcrowding often leads to random yelling and accelerated beer consumption, and this place — the name of which had something to do with wolves — was no exception.

Call me naïve, but I always thought piano bars should possess the same aura you get from the movie “Casablanca.” An order for a vodka gimlet would fall naturally out of your mouth even if you’d never had one before. The place would be chock full of private eyes. You would keep a couple of singles handy to tip the restroom attendant.

The Swank Key has no such attendant, but I was very impressed with its bathroom all the same. In fact, everything about this piano bar is striking. Opened two years ago, an expansion to the 7-year-old Marisol restaurant, The Swank Key offers live music every Friday and Saturday night.

“We both grew up in Chicago,” said Stephen Schneider, referring to his wife and business partner, Gretchen, “and we wanted to bring something very different to Greensboro.”

Gretchen Schneider, a classically trained pianist before she became a restaurateur, says she and her husband didn’t want The Swank Key to become a karaoke bar. And believe me, it isn’t.

Décor: One word thumped into my head as I walked into this room: wow. Red wine-colored walls only begin to make this feel like an ultra-luxurious den. Soft leather sofas peppered with throw pillows form conversation pits. Ottomans ensure maximum relaxation for those relegated to armchairs. African art mixes naturally with distressed country shutters hanging on the wall or blocking the view of the parking lot. Not one detail has been left untended.

Around the glass-topped Young Chang piano — a beauty — are a handful of stools that get scarcer as the night goes on. In warmer times, I imagine the palmetto ceiling fans help cool down the all-volunteer backup singers.

Music and entertainment: OK, so it most definitely is not a karaoke bar, but that doesn’t mean The Swank Key’s patrons, many of whom I’m told are regulars, don’t like to belt out a few verses now and then.

Mike Evans is the musical master of ceremonies here, dazzling customers with his playing for more than a year. Ask him for a song that isn’t on his roster of hundreds, and he will more than likely have it down by the next weekend.

Evans covers wide terrain, sprinkling instrumental jazz into his library of pop songs that starts at Aerosmith and stretches all the way to the Zombies. Billy Joel and Elton John, whose songs occupy the largest chunk of his playlist, suit Evans’s voice best.

And the most requested song?

“I’d have to go with ‘All by Myself,’ ” he said, referring to the romantic classic by Eric Carmen.

But would Humphrey Bogart dig that or no?

House drinks: You’re probably thinking, with leather sofas, fancy fans and swank oozing from every nook and cranny, this place has to be expensive. Well, I have news for you: You’re totally right. I can count the beers it serves on two hands, but the wine list spans a few pages. Few selections are available by the glass, and those were in the $8 to $10 range.

Sadly, I did not have my first-ever vodka gimlet, but I did leave my flannel-shirt sensibility (and my flannel shirt) at home by stepping up to the plate for a tasty highball.

If you’re bringing home the bacon, The Swank Key should be no problem for you. If you’re a writer or someone who gets paid like one, this piano bar is perfect for a special occasion.

People: It’s one thing to have money and quite another to act like it. Yes, there was a knucklehead who made it known loud and clear that he’d thrown $100 in Evans’ tip jar, but even that move couldn’t smother the good vibes I got from the Schneiders, Evans and all the staff.

There is more to class than making everything look pretty, and The Swank Key has it.

Patrick Egan, a freelance writer from Greensboro, is the nightlife columnist for Go Triad. Got a place he needs to visit, or want him to comment on the Triad’s nightlife scene or sound off on something? Contact him at pcegan@gmail.com.

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