Venue Review: The Raleigh Times Bar
Brittle and yellow with age, newspaper front pages spanning much of the last century hang on the timeworn brick and peeled plaster walls of The Raleigh Times Bar. They're the finishing touches, along with an assortment of other vintage newspaper memorabilia, of a carefully researched restoration of the 1906 building that once housed the paper for which the bar is named. They also give the bar, which opened in 2006, an instant pedigree. The place feels like it has been around for decades.
But don't let looks fool you. This is most emphatically not your father's bar. For starters, when dear old Dad hoisted a brew at his favorite watering hole, it's highly unlikely that he had dozens of imports and microbrews to choose from, including 50 or so Belgians. And when he ordered a burger, I'm willing to bet it wasn't made with half a pound of certified Angus beef, hand-patted fresh daily and grilled to order. Make it a cheeseburger? Do you think Dad's choices included gruyere, gorgonzola, cheddar, jack and crumbled queso fresco?
How about a shrimp burger instead? Raleigh Times' oversize bun is piled with so many of the delicately crusted crustaceans that it's impossible to pick the sandwich up without a dozen of them spilling out onto your plate.
Granted, if Pop was a New Yorker, he might have been able to nosh on a Reuben sandwich at his favorite corner bar. But I'll wager it wouldn't hold a candle to the Reuben at Raleigh Times Bar. Made with thick, succulent slices of house-cured corned beef and house-made sauerkraut, it's the best Reuben I've had this side of the Carnegie Deli.
If Daddy was a Southerner, it's possible that a pimento cheese sandwich was among the options at his local hooch joint. But the pimento cheese probably wasn't made from scratch, and it almost certainly wasn't made with homemade mayonnaise.
For a real treat, you can get that mayo instead of ketchup with Raleigh Times' house-cut fries. In fact, you might even take the bistro plunge all the way and order steak frites, which pairs the fries with a char-grilled hanger steak. The cut lives up to its reputation of being chewier than, say, a rib-eye, but it makes ample amends with a deeply beefy flavor and a $9.50 price tag. Add an arugula salad, impeccably dressed with a light lemon vinaigrette and showered with parmesan shavings, and you'll swear you're in Paris.
A little closer to home, BBQ pork nachos have justifiably become a favorite among regular patrons. Featuring juicy shreds of pulled pork, fresh jalapeno slices, cilantro and queso fresco piled atop a small mountain of tortilla chips (fried in house, naturally), they're a peerless companion for beer-drinking sessions with friends. So too the mashed-to-order guacamole and chicken fried pickles, with a crunchy, batter-fried tartness that cries out for another sip of Trappist ale with every bite.
The weak link at The Raleigh Times Bar is service, which is pleasant but erratic -- especially when the bar is busy, as it frequently is. The bar can get noisy and smoky; it's a bar, after all. You can escape the cigarette smoke, if not the noise, in a narrow adjoining room that serves as the nonsmoking section.
Why, you're probably asking yourself about now, would an establishment that bills itself as a bar go to such lengths to serve gourmet quality food? Actually, the question to ask isn't "Why?" but "Who?" -- and the answer has two parts. The first is chef Ashley Christensen, whose work as executive chef at Enoteca Vin has earned national praise, and who developed the menu for The Raleigh Times Bar. Christensen is leaving Raleigh Times to devote her full attention to Vin, but she leaves the kitchen in the hands of a well-trained staff.
The second "who" is owner Greg Hatem, a developer who specializes in buying historic buildings in downtown Raleigh and restoring them to their original glory. With The Raleigh Times Bar, he has outdone himself. And that, in my opinion, is worthy of a headline of its own.