But LittleJohn was never a fan of frozen food anyway.
“I was like, well, we have ONIONS, don’t we? Let’s make onion rings,” she says.
That switch to hand-breaded, fresh onion rings was just one thing that she brings to Raleigh’s Players’ Retreat, a bar and restaurant on Oberlin Road that opened in 1951. Other changes: additional menu items, new chicken marinade and scratch-made honey mustard.
Since she came to PR in June, LittleJohn has prepared specials such as a Korean barbeque kimchi burger, French onion bacon dip and her grandmother’s brisket recipe. She likes comfort food and the challenge of preparing different types of cuisine, such as Mexican dishes that make weekend appearances.
Despite additions, Players’ Retreat isn’t trying to shake any notion that it’s a “State bar.” (Although, really, they prefer the word family to bar.) The Wolfpack memorabilia and original red lights on the ceiling are part of the charm.
New menu items exist to cater to a growing crowd of foodies who crave Raleigh nostalgia and worthwhile eats.
“One of the things about PR is we have a ton of regulars … and we want to give them the things that have always been on the menu,” she says. “But we also want to bring it up a level.”
That “up-a-level” is why LittleJohn, who previously worked at The Carolina Inn and Coquette, was brought in. She’s already introduced line-ups for servers so they can taste specials and educate customers.
Originally from Prospect Hill, just north of Hillsborough, LittleJohn, 34, spent her teen years in Durham. She went to the Carolina Friends School in Chapel Hill, which is known for encouraging creativity and independence. She graduated from Wheaton College (Massachusetts) and the Culinary Institute of America.
“She runs a tight ship back there in the kitchen,” PR proprietor Gus Gusler says. “But everybody loves her. She brings food out, talks to people … she gets the PR.”
When Raleigh Magazine caught up with LittleJohn, she was drinking a can of Diet Coke and laughing about the commonality of people misspelling her last name. “It doesn’t bother me,” she says, with a slight widow’s peak under her black bandana.
When LittleJohn joined the PR team, Gusler’s first purchase for her was a new fry cutter, which she can start using after a planned kitchen remodel and small extension is complete. The current kitchen space, which has only one door, is small by restaurant standards.
“[The design has] been this way for 60 years,” LittleJohn says as she looks around the kitchen. “And we want to make the necessary improvements so it can last another 60.”
Gusler saves Players’ Retreat
Players’ Retreat was a favorite spot when bars and restaurants were like Cheers. But, along the way, people stopped going in the same numbers. Players’ Retreat, by many accounts, had stopped being a hot spot by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And, even though tables were open, some patrons remember that good service was hard to come by.
But things changed. Again.
In November 2005, entertainment and intellectual property attorney Gus Gusler bought the eatery and bar. An N.C. State grad and former PR employee during his college years, Gusler couldn’t stand to see it go. His first order of business was to add a wine list (beyond the old, $1.99-a-bottle white zinfandel) and 60 types of single-malt scotch. He opened on Sundays, which hadn’t been done before but was a necessity for a sports bar. And he extended kitchen hours to 2 a.m.
Gusler went through the old equipment and discovered a well-made meat grinder that needed some care. He had it repaired and fresh-ground burgers (which could be cooked to any specifications) were back on the menu. He got rid of the gallon buckets of pre-made salad dressing and started to make his own.
“Basically, we were paying attention to ingredients,” he says. “I started to buy as much local stuff as I could.”
Today empty tables are an anomaly. Instead, there are board tops that convert pool tables to dining tables when necessary. And, interestingly enough, it’s not uncommon to see pairings such as burgers and fine wine. “When you think about where we were,” Gusler laughs. “To get to $100-a-bottle Silver Oak and hamburgers?” That’s something.