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Talking to The Keys

The sounds of rocking pianos and singing crowds pour out of The Keys every time the door opens.

But the door doesn’t open often enough for the crowd – 30 people and growing at 10:30 p.m. – who are lined up to get into the Person Street bar on a Saturday night. Despite the line and the $5 cover charge, no one seems to mind the wait because they know that the time they spent on the sidewalk will be forgotten as soon as they get inside.

Dozens crowd the large bar, shouting orders to bartenders who can barely hear over the din of the people and the pounding pianos. Even more people crowd around the precious few tables, filling in the gaps between the seats, singing along and providing fodder for the entertainers. It’s Fayetteville’s first piano bar, and people here can’t seem to get enough.

“The first time my friends asked me to go to a piano bar I said no because I thought it would be all classical music and martinis,” said Chrissie Tanner, who owns The Keys with her daughter Aimee Packer. “But when I finally went, I had so much fun that I didn’t sit down all night. I decided that I wanted to open a bar like that here in Fayetteville.”

Tanner’s bar is about as far from breathy lounge singers and serious martinis as a bar can be. The name The Keys is a play on words, meant to evoke both the keys on a piano and the Florida Keys. Inflatable palm trees fill the storefront windows, seafood offerings are all over the menu and a tropical mural covers the wall behind the piano players.

Tanner said that when she decided to open a bar in downtown Fayetteville she wanted to use the dueling pianos concept she had seen at bars like Crocodile Rocks in Myrtle Beach and Rum Runners in Wilmington and she wanted the same laidback vibe found in Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurants. After toying with a few other names, The Keys popped into her head and didn’t leave. It seemed to fit perfectly with what she wanted to do. She found and rented the downtown location, next to the Market House. All that was left was to find someone to play the piano.

Last fall she contacted Tim Buie, who she had seen play at Rum Runners in Wilmington, and invited him to Fayetteville to meet her and see the space she had rented. “Once he saw that we were serious, he agreed to come,” Tanner said. Together with Packer, Assistant Manager Trindalyn Tartt and Kitchen Manager Tara Boswell, Tanner began the process of transforming two empty storefronts into one big bar that would make people want to, as the menu says, “sing along, clap along, stomp along, drink along and have one helluva good time along.” They had everything ready by early January and opened the bar on Jan. 16.

The talented piano players at The Keys have an encyclopedic knowledge of American music. It’s also a job requirement to be a good singer and entertainer, funny and completely uninhibited. At any point during the night, two players sit at opposite pianos trading songs, relying heavily on crowd favorites like “Crocodile Rock” and “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Audience participation is a must and “The Wheel of Destiny,” a Wheel of Fortune-type game, lists a variety of punishments and rewards that can be earned when someone – or their friends – pays to have a customer spin the wheel. The “destinies” range from buying the piano players a beer or doing 10 pushups on top of the piano to performing semi-lewd acts like flashing the piano players. People spin the wheel throughout the night and take their destinies with gusto. The pianists take requests from audience members and encourage the crowd to sing along.They’re not afraid to single out customers who don’t participate.

Buie finds the players for The Keys by searching nationwide and then flying them to Fayetteville for two-week stints. The players travel from piano bar to piano bar to showcase their own individual senses of humor, which often lean toward the bawdy. Tanner says that having an ever-changing cast of entertainers is good for the bar.

“It keeps the show fresh,” she said. “We have some customers who are in here every weekend. This way they never see the same show.”

Tanner said the crowd in The Keys ranges in age from 21 to 90. While 90 might be an exaggeration, people with decades between them stand shoulder-to-shoulder, singing at the tops of their lungs on any given night. Tanner said the comment she gets most often from customers is “thank you.”

“People come up and thank us for opening this place up, for giving them a fun place to go,” Tanner said. “I knew this would go over well in Fayetteville because there was nothing else like it here. But I didn’t know it would go over this well.”

She is considering a second location, possibly in Southern Pines. In the meantime, she would like for more people to sample the food at The Keys, which is open for lunch on Tuesdays and lunch and dinner Wednesday through Saturday. She recommends that anyone who wants to get a table for the nighttime show come a bit earlier, around 7:30, to have dinner at The Keys and then plan on staying put for a few hours. The menu features a variety of seafood entrees, chicken entrees and barbecue ribs, as well as an assortment of panini and wrap sandwiches, flat bread pizzas, salads and a host of appetizers. Prices range from $5.95 to $17.95 for sandwiches and entrees.

For those who can’t make it in for dinner but still want a table, The Keys accepts table reservations over the phone. The reservation fee is $50 and includes the cover charge for five people, the maximum number allowed at a table. Staff will need a credit card number over the phone in order to reserve a table.

Tanner offers this advice for people who haven’t been to The Keys: “If you’re coming on a Friday or Saturday night, come early. Be ready for some mild adult humor. Be ready to clap your hands and sing along. And be ready to have a really good time.”

The piano players perform Wednesday through Saturday nights. The Keys is open Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m. It is closed all day Sunday and Monday. There is no cover charge on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays.