PR at 60: nicer, but same-old

Staff writerFebruary 27, 2011 

On New Year's Eve 1999, John McIntyre was at a Raleigh bar when the owner asked everyone to leave.

"He was panicking that some bad Y2K event would happen while he was away from his family," McIntyre said. "He told me, 'Try Player's Retreat on Oberlin, they'll be open.'"

It was. On the eve of the new Millennium, McIntyre found a "Cheers"-like bar where he's made friends, spotted his landlord and ordered PBR with an eclectic crowd of students, professionals and politicians.

"I love this place," McIntyre said. "Everyone is a friend. The bartenders care about you, and not only because you're ordering drinks."

This weekend, Player's Retreat turns 60 years old.

'Back to 1951' menu

To celebrate, owners of the PR, as patrons know it, planned their own Hall of Fame induction and a $50 per plate cocktail and dinner hour benefiting the Interfaith Food Shuttle for Saturday night. Today, there will be a "back to 1951" menu, with 25-cent hot dogs and Budweiser for 35 cents a pint.

PR sits just east of N.C. State University's bell tower, three low-ceilinged rooms for billiards, bar and dining. Dusty beer cans are stacked around the perimeter of the tavern, and wood-framed pictures of N.C. State players over the years hang cramped and cockeyed on the walls.

Riley Butler has been coming to PR since he was a student in the early 1970s at N.C. State. A few changes have caught his eye over the years.

"They still have bar lights that glow like red toaster ovens," Butler said. "But now they serve cocktails and mixed drinks. When I started coming here, Bernie only served beer."

Bernie Hanula was the original owner of the PR. He and his wife, Mickey, are the first Hall of Fame inductees.

Butler said Hanula, who sold the PR in 1994 and died in 2004, was a gruff but good-natured owner.

"You didn't want to get on his bad side," Butler said. "He'd kick you out if you were getting rowdy."

Unlike many taverns, the PR has managed to introduce a well-reviewed menu and wine list without isolating the loyal beers-after-work crowd. In 2010, the restaurant even received Wine Spectator magazine's award of excellence.

Many of the positive changes came when Raleigh lawyer Richard "Gus" Gusler, bought the PR in 2005. He introduced 42 single-malt Scotches, a computer, a good jukebox and Angus beef to the PR.

"This place is Raleigh history," said Gusler, who sipped red wine Friday night. "We've had sports legends, political deals, everything at this bar."

Telling the stories

Gusler began celebrating the bar's birthday when he bought the place but decided this year to start a Hall of Fame.

"We have all these characters," Gusler said. "And if we don't act quickly we won't have people around who can tell stories about them."

Gusler said that other than trying murder cases, running a successful tavern is the most stressful thing he's ever done. He bought the bar after his friend, Pete Jarrell - the PR's second owner after the Hanulas - told him that without his help, the place was in danger of closing.

"I said to him, 'I know nothing about restaurants. Why are you doing this to me?'" said Gusler. "But I had to do it, I couldn't see this place go."

Jarrell and Jackie Murdock, the All-American former basketball player for Wake Forest, are the only living inductees. The Hanulas, former WRAL sportscaster Nick Pond and Howard Twiggs are the deceased inductees.

Gusler is no longer surprised that the PR means as much to other people as it does to him.

"I started out as a cook here in the '70s," Gusler said. "And this is the real deal. It's not a chain; it's not a cliquey club. It's just a real bar where everyone becomes a regular."

And the regulars keep gathering to drink beer. Or wine. Or single-malt Scotch.

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