Venue Review: The Players' Retreat
Team photos dating back to the days of leather football helmets hang so close together on the walls of the Players' Retreat that you can barely see the age-darkened wood paneling behind them. Hundreds of beer cans, some of them brands that haven't been brewed in decades, stand in neat rows on high, narrow shelves. Beer steins and mugs belonging to longtime regulars hang over the timeworn bar, where customers alternately chew the fat and watch the action on a couple of overhead TV screens.
You get the feeling that the PR (as it has come to be known affectionately) has changed very little since the late Bernie Hanula, a former Wake Forest football player, opened it with his wife, Mickey, in 1951. Beneath the timeworn patina, though, the place has undergone a number of substantial changes in recent years.
In 2005, the PR nearly closed in the face of increasing competition from modern sports bars boasting gastropub menus and plasma screens by the dozen.
Richard "Gus" Gusler, a Raleigh lawyer and loyal fan of what had by then become a local institution, came to the rescue. While preserving the original spirit of the pub, Gusler has boosted its appeal to a 21st century fan base in a number of ways.
He installed a computer, for starters, which is available to all customers (and, with the aid of Google, has been known to settle more than one bar bet). He has assembled the largest collection of single malt scotch whiskeys in the state, including a few rare gems he discovered on annual trips to Scotland. More recently, Gusler bought a state-of-the-art wine preservation system that dispenses more than 100 by-the-glass offerings. Meanwhile, the selection of draft microbrews and bottled beers more than lives up to the pub's sudsy heritage.
Changes to the menu are less obvious and, for the most part, reflect an increased emphasis on quality ingredients. Certified Angus beef is used exclusively in everything from the 12-ounce New York strip steak to the meat sauce for pasta. That includes the burgers, too, which have always been a PR staple and, now that they're ground fresh daily and can be flame-grilled to order, are better than ever. Several burger variations are available (the Bernie, with bacon, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo is popular), as well as an assortment of sandwiches ranging from chicken salad to a jaw-stretching overstuffed corned beef and Swiss on rye.
The appetizer list rounds up the usual pub nosh suspects, and throws in a couple of offbeat options such as Brunswick stew and sausage dip with chips to keep things interesting. I'm partial to the cheese fries, especially when they're topped with the PR's chunky chili (homemade with an ample portion of beef - Angus, naturally). Grilled shrimp are sometimes overcooked and on the small side, but fried oysters are plump and succulent.
Navigating the entree offering can be tricky, too. Pizza and pasta dishes are OK by pub standards, but not on a par with what you'd get at a good Italian restaurant (though I confess I'd happily eat those house-made meatballs by themselves). Stir-fried veggies and marinated chicken breast strips, served over rice or pasta, are overcooked and heavy with soy sauce. The New York strip is flavorful and juicy, though it isn't always cooked precisely as ordered and can be a bit chewy. For my money, the pick of the entree list is the baby back ribs, whose toothsome rewards aren't smothered under a blanket of thick sauce.
The PR is due for a couple more changes in the near future. Construction on Hillsborough Street, which has hurt business for several weeks, should be complete any day now. And on Jan. 2, the statewide smoking ban will mean that those overworked Smoke Eaters in the bar can be retired.
Still, for all its changes, the Players' Retreat remains at heart a college town tavern of the old school. I, for one, am happy to toast another 50 years of its continued success. A glass of Laphroaig Quarter Cask single malt ought to do nicely.