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.
Updates to the menu
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