by Dean McCord
photographs by Nick Pironio
We go to restaurants for a lot of reasons. We want to be fed something decent, something tasty and nourishing. Sometimes we want to try out a hot new joint so we can tell our friends how great (or disappointing) it was. Or we want to celebrate, perhaps with a romantic dinner for two at a white tablecloth sort of place – or with the boys (or girls) for steaks and martinis. But the place we probably all like the most is the one that makes us feel at home. Where we feel like a regular, even if we don’t go very often. The moment we walk into such a place, we truly can leave our worries behind. In such a place, I exhale, relax, and know I’m around friends, even if I don’t know a soul in the place. This type of place knows how to put its customers at ease.
There may not be any other place in Raleigh that represents this ideal more than The Players Retreat, that institution literally a stone’s throw away from the N.C. State campus. The P.R., as it is generally known, has been a sanctuary for Wolfpack fans for 64 years. Its owner, Richard “Gus” Gusler, is not a mere fan, but a true fanatic – he refuses to attend any sporting events in Chapel Hill. Yet with all that State reverence, the P.R. will still welcome a Tar Heel fan, even when he’s dressed in full UNC garb. As long as he expects a little ribbing.
Wolfpack Red or Carolina Blue. Republican or Democrat. Lawyer, teacher, electrician, or ditch digger. It just doesn’t matter at the P.R., where everyone is a friend. “I just care about the color green,” Gusler joked, which we all know is not the truth. He’s not beholden to the almighty dollar, putting profit ahead of all else. No, Gusler’s motivations are far more basic. It’s about people, tradition, camaraderie – and, of course, good food and drink.
Gusler has been in the people business for a long time. As the student body president of N.C. State in the early ’70s, he led marches of thousands of students to the state capitol building, protesting the Vietnam war. He started a series of campus “coffeehouse parties,” where free beer, not coffee, was dispensed by student government officials.
And it was during his student years that Gusler began his relationship with the P.R. “It’s where I had my first taste of beer in 1967,” he says. During his senior year, Gusler worked in the P.R.’s kitchen. The original owners, Bernie and Mickey Hanula, loved to brag that they had the student body president making pizza in the back.
Over the years, the P.R. continued to be a friendly place to grab something to eat, but the quality of the food – and the beer selection – were nothing to brag about. By 2005, the restaurant had fallen on hard times. It was on the brink of closing or selling out until Gusler – at that point a regular customer – came reluctantly to the rescue. He didn’t want to buy it, but he feared if he didn’t, it would become some corporate-run mega sports bar, losing its soul in the process.
And so Gusler and a few minority partners bought the business and transformed the kitchen and the bar (“The only wine they sold before I took over was white zinfandel – we let them keep that”), and kept the P.R., big heart and all, alive. Now the place has the best Scotch selection in the state, is a Wine Spectator award winner, and arguably has the best burger in town. Heck, a recent Friday dinner special included this dish: “pan-seared foie gras with melted leeks, cornbread, local blackberries, and muscadine gastrique.” This is not your grandfather’s P.R.
And yet, it is.
On a recent Friday at lunch, the place was packed with newspaper writers, real estate developers, high school students, and retirees. Most of them are regulars, or at least, made to feel like regulars. “I’d say about 85 percent of our business comes from regulars, even some who’ve been coming to the P.R. since 1951,” Gusler says. When the P.R. hires a new waitress or general manager or chef, it’s the regulars who make each of them feel welcome. “Of course they do,” Gusler said, “That’s because the regulars feel like they own the place.”
Bob Hughes, perched at the bar with a PBR, is one. A regular since 1961, his affection for the place is uncomplicated: “I like it,” he says. “Why do you go home?”