Inside Raleigh’s oldest bar, a watering hole decorated with antique Olympia beer cans, its walls lined with black-and-white photos of crew-cut Wolfpack point guards, the most cherished relic stands behind the bar with a foot-long white goatee: Robert McMillan, the grand old man of beer.
For 21 years, the barkeep known only as “Bert” has slid countless glasses of suds, muddled mountains of sugar with bitters and served as unofficial mascot at Player’s Retreat, the only employee ever to earn the red jacket of membership in the bar’s Hall of Fame.
He has served state Supreme Court justices and carpenters with paint on their shorts. When Gov. Pat McCrory recently dined at “The PR” with his entourage, McMillan called out, “Hey, Pat!”
“He looked at me like, ‘Who the (heck) are you?” said McMillan, 63, using a saltier term. “I got a charge out of it, just referring to him on a first-name basis. You’re in my house now.”
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And now, after nearly 40 years tending various Raleigh bars, McMillan has closed out his last tab, joining the circle of PR folk heroes.
“I’m quitting early, but I’m not quitting everything,” he explained to a fan during his farewell shift Monday night. “Just quitting being here till 4:30 in the morning. Time for me to grow up.”
The PR dates to 1951, and the history there runs so thick that a memorial plaque hangs in memory of Big Red, a beloved pet fish who entertained drinkers by swallowing the rocks in his tank and spitting them out again. On the wall nearby, the pay telephone is dedicated to Rick Riggins, a financial consultant who dispensed wisdom from the end of the bar.
But McMillan’s roots burrow down below the bar’s beer-splashed floor, long enough that he survived the lonely years before flat-screen TVs, patio seating and Carolina Hurricanes fans, when a PR bartender might serve six customers in a night, all of them silver-haired.
He navigated the beer revolution that saw the PR’s on-tap selection explode from three to 20, its staff grow from six to 48 and its outdoor tables swallow the sidewalk on Oberlin Road. As the younger crowd discovered the potato skins and Brunswick stew, he could still spin stories about Bernie Hanula, original owner and namesake of the Bernie Burger that remains on the menu.
“How do you replace the sun if it goes away?” asked Gus Gusler, the PR’s owner since 2005. “I’m not sure anything will work here anymore. Bert came with the building.”
In the late 1970s, Raleigh had only just allowed liquor by-the-drink in its barrooms, and as a young N.C. State University graduate, McMillan saw bartending school as a ripe career path. He passed through a string of legendary Raleigh spots: Mitch’s Tavern, The Pier, Flying Burrito. As a bass player, he relished the chance to hear good music at work, meeting John Prine, Huey Lewis and players from Steppenwolf in his Pier days.
His PR stint began while in a corner booth as a customer, when an employee called in sick and the manager called out, “Bert, what are you doing tonight?”
He replied: “Working here?”
Whether the customer walks in wearing a bow tie or a homeless man’s rags, he always asks, “Are you being served?” In four decades serving alcohol at night, he never laid a hand on a drunken patron, though he once escorted out an overly boisterous customer who spun around trying to throw a punch and instead landed face-first on the pavement.
He recalled another challenging patron who attended a PR special event offering 1951 prices: 35-cent hot dogs and 25-cent beers. “One guy just got a little carried away and did a naked dance on a table,” said McMillan. “We kept him out for a year or two, but I thought it was our fault as much as his.”
As a loyal PR patron since 1996, the year I came to Raleigh, I consider McMillan one of the city’s treasures. For me, the most essential elements of a home town are a good barber (Props here to Erin), a good mechanic (Happy retirement, Pam and Greg), and a bartender who remembers your face.
“There’s not too many of us left,” said Jonathan Ruby, McMillan’s friend and bartender at 42nd Street Oyster Bar since 1989. “It’s a hard job, staying on your feet this long.”
McMillan won’t stay idle. He plays bass in four different bands. And if through nothing but force of habit, he will likely turn up in the place filled with the lifelong friends only a bartender can make.
“People that like that place are people I like,” said McMillan. “If you don’t like the PR, I don’t have much use for you.”