In November 2008, brewmaster and hobby pilot Mark Doble combined his two great passions by tapping his first keg for public consumption in the modest brewery he'd installed in a hanger at the Triple W Airport in Fuquay-Varina.
Aviator Brewing Company was an instant success, and sales took off.
Barely a year after tapping that first keg, Doble opened Aviator Tap House in the old train depot in the historic Varina district. A few months later, he moved the brewing operation to a larger building nearby.
The Aviator fleet grew again in March, when Aviator Smokehouse was cleared for takeoff across the street from the Tap Room. The restaurant serves barbecue and pub fare to go with Aviator's beers, with daily departures throughout the lunch and dinner hours.
Rev the engines
Pictures of World War II aircraft, aviator jumpsuits and other aeronautical memorabilia set a suitable mood in the sprawling, pub-casual dining room. Service is generally as solicitous as a well-trained flight attendant, though when the place gets busy you may wish you had a call button to summon your server for a refill.
You won't be advised to return your seatback tray table to its upright position for this flight. From takeoff to landing, you'll need a place to set one of Aviator's excellent brews. The award-winning HotRod Irish ale, say, or the hoppy HogWild India Pale, or Devil's Tramping Ground Tripel, a Belgian ale as potent as jet fuel (but infinitely more palatable). Or you might opt for the seasonal offering, such as the Märzen-style Oktoberbeast that's currently taxiing on the runway for an early September takeoff.
But it's a good idea to leave your (metaphorical) seatbelt fastened. While Aviator's brews are smooth sailing across the board, the food can be a bumpy ride.
HogWild hushpuppies, whose batter is spiked with beer and bits of barbecued pork, have the potential to be a signature starter. Unfortunately, they're as wildly inconsistent as their name: just right one time, overcooked and leaden the next.
Beer-battered onion rings, greasy but good, are less risky. Better still are chicken wings, which are smoked before being fried. They're available with your choice of four house-made sauces, including the Monster, a habanero-amped blend that's not as scary as it sounds.
Watch your step
Don't be fooled by the "North State" moniker that's affixed to the name of the chopped pork barbecue, which is offered as a sandwich or plate. No native of these parts would recognize the slightly sweet sauce that the menu claims is "Eastern North Carolina style." The chopped barbecue, smoked over hickory and applewood in a gas-fired smoker, is respectable on its own. But the sauce is a better match for the coarse texture of the pulled pork, which is also available.
Steer clear of the smoked chicken, which tends to be dry even though the menu claims it's "marinated in our secret beer brine for days." Beef brisket, served open-faced on locally baked sourdough bread, is a better bet.
St. Louis style ribs are better still, with one caveat. The menu describes them as dry-rubbed, which is how they were initially served. No mention is made of the thick, spicy-sweet Midwestern sauce that the kitchen has taken to slathering them with. The next menu printing should reflect the change, but in the meantime if you prefer them dry, let your server know.
Entrees come with your choice of two sides, ranging from collard greens to mac and cheese to baked beans seasoned with barbecued pork (and a splash of beer, naturally). If you prefer, you can substitute a beer, which counts as two sides - evidence of just how seriously they take their beer here, and a bargain to boot.
The turbulence in the kitchen is no doubt attributable to the fact that three executive chefs have passed through its doors. Now at the helm is Caroline Gibbens, who took over in July and is clearly still getting the feel of the rudder. Until she does, as long as you lubricate your meal with one of Aviator's fine brews, you can be reasonably assured of a happy landing.