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THE
STORY

of

ON FEBRUARY 27, 1951...

...Bernie and Mickey Hanula founded the institution known as the Players Retreat. Less of a bar and restaurant, and more of a family, the PR remains a popular respite for the young and the old, the rich and the poor. It is a place where people from all walks of life rub elbows, share toasts, good times, and laughs. At 68 years old, very little has changed since its humble beginnings. In 1994 Pete Jarrell took over the PR and continued the tradition. Our friends Bernie and Mickey passed away several years ago. In their honor, our staff and our guests strive to keep the PR the way that it has always been and as it should always be. Thank you for your patronage and support over the years, and may the PR continue for another 68 years.

- Gus Gusler, Proprietor/Owner

AN OLD FAVORITE WITH A FEW NICE UPGRADES


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). Fried oysters are plump and succulent. I confess I'd happily eat those house-made meatballs by themselves. 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.

BROADENING FLAVORS IN A FAMILIAR PLACE


The Players' Retreat was already a local institution by 1971, when Richard "Gus" Gusler, then a senior at N.C. State, began working there to help pay his way through college. Twenty years' worth of students (including the basketball team, back in the days when the legendary Everett Case was coach), faculty and Wolfpack fans of every stripe had already passed through its doors. Even a move in 1961 from Hillsborough Street to its current location on Oberlin Road hadn't dampened enthusiasm for the PR - as it came to be known affectionately.

Gusler went on to become a lawyer. Meanwhile, new team photos took their place beside the old ones (some dating to the days of leather football helmets) on the PR's wood-paneled walls, which acquired a dark patina with time. But for the most part, the college town tavern remained unchanged for the next three decades.

And therein lay the seeds of its near-demise. A new generation of sports bars began cropping up, boasting extensive draft beer selections, "gastropub" menus, and plasma screens by the dozen. In 2005, the PR came within days of closing in the face of the competition.

That's when Gusler came to the rescue, heading up a partnership that bought the PR. He immediately set about the challenging task of bringing the tavern into the 21st century, while preserving its original spirit and timeworn charm.

Gusler had made considerable progress by the time I reviewed the restaurant in 2009. The bar offering now included draft beer, 100 wines by the glass (part of a cellar that would go on to win a Wine Spectator award), and the largest collection of single-malt Scotch whiskies in the state. Four antiquated TV sets were replaced by 13 large flat screens.

Changes to the menu were less obvious, and for the most part reflected an increased emphasis on quality ingredients. Basic pub fare was still the order of the day. But the food - especially house-ground, grilled-to-order burgers - was a notch above the sports pub norm. Tables and barstools were filling up again, and it appeared that Gusler had done what he needed to save the PR.

Turns out he wasn't finished with the changes. He'd saved the best for last, in fact, from a foodie's perspective. Last year, Gusler hired Jean Paul Fontaine, erstwhile chef-proprietor of the excellent (and sadly, now closed) Bistro 607, to take charge of the kitchen. Fontaine's presence was soon evident across the menu, from the fresh cod in the exemplary fish and chips to the locally made sausage in the addictive sausage dip.

But by far the most noticeable change - the gourmet icing, you might say, on this homespun cake - comes on Friday and Saturday nights. That's when Fontaine offers a list of specials that wouldn't have looked out of place on his French-inspired menu at Bistro 607.

Last summer, highlights of a memorable meal included a Caprese salad of heirloom tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella; irreproachably fresh and expertly cooked reef-caught sheepshead with a mango-pineapple-smoked chile salsa; and blackberry peach crumble with homemade peach ice cream.

More recently, patrons have been lured away from the regular menu by the likes of Brazilian shrimp stew over basmati rice, blackened Scottish salmon with crayfish andouille butter, and lamb lollypop with an eggplant, potato and ground lamb lasagna. A late December feature of tournedos Rossini with foie gras and a truffle red wine reduction no doubt evoked fond memories for fans of Fontaine's signature daily foie gras special at Bistro 607.

The first weekend of each month, Fontaine heads South of the Border for inspiration. Figuratively speaking, of course. In fact, the Mexican Night menu was inspired by staff meals prepared by two of the PR's line cooks, both natives of Mexico.

Recent offerings have included traditional lamb barbacoa, trigger fish tacos on homemade corn tortillas, and pork carnitas, slow-cooked to fork-tender succulence in their rendered fat. Chiles rellenos, fresh-made guacamole and authentic tamales (cheese, chicken or pork) are usually available. Regardless of what you order, you may be surprised to look up and realize you're not eating it in one of the area's best Mexican restaurants.

When you do look up, you'll find yourself ensconced in pretty much the same surroundings that have welcomed generations of Wolfpack fans. Now, thanks to the vision of Gus Gusler and the culinary talents of Jean Paul Fontaine and his kitchen crew, the PR is widening its embrace.

HOURS

SUN-MON 11:30AM–12AM
TUES CLOSED
WED-THURS 11:30AM–12AM
FRI-SAT 11:30AM–2AM

WEB DESIGN & DEV BY JOSH GAJOWNIK + LIMBO SOCIETY