Someday soon, I will open a long-neglected drawer and discover a gift certificate I will never use.
The credit—written, I believe, in blue ball-point on a pale green server's slip in the amount of $25—came from Brewmasters Bar & Grill, a beer-burger-and-ball haven at one of the busiest commuter intersections in downtown Raleigh. For nearly two years, the slip languished in some corner of some drawer or another, waiting to be found and redeemed during my next visit.
But I never actually intended for that visit to come. Not long after Brewmasters opened in mid-2011, I became something of a regular. Drawn by a strong selection of North Carolina taps and interesting updates on bar-food fare (vegetarian options included and on target) and a Sunday brunch, I also came for the ring of high-definition televisions wrapping above the cherry red bar. They gave the place the feeling of a small, comfortable, hometown sports bar.
In its abbreviated life, though, Brewmasters practically sailed downhill, with the food generously described as inconsistent and the atmosphere graciously dubbed awkward. The night I settled for the credit, and the last time I ever went, I don't think I ever ate, giving up after a long wait in an empty restaurant and three failed attempts by the kitchen to ace a simple order for two. By the time Brewmasters finally shuttered for good in the middle of December, the place—once so full of promise, the floor of its entrance painted with a map of North Carolina that pinpointed the state's every brewery—had become a social media and service-industry punch line.
"It's pretty disappointing," says Mark Cook, the owner of Brewmasters and a pair of area homebrew-supply stores.
Two days after the start of 2016, Cook rests his elbows on the empty bar and cups his chin with the palm of his hand. The coolers still buzz, and the tap handles stand at attention, waiting to be pulled. But Cook closed Brewmasters a month ago, a decision he says he made two years too late. Now, a passel of black-and-yellow real estate signs laminating the windows distorts the mid-morning light.
"I try not to read reviews, but I hear about them. When you hear things like 'I'd rather eat in front of a porno shop out of a trash can,' well, that's disappointing," he says, pausing to frown and sigh. "This place could have been great. I thought we were going to make money."
Instead, after opening and closing two restaurants at the same intersection, Cook says he is in significant debt from what once seemed a no-brains venture. He shoulders most of the blame, too. Though he was a server and prep cook for brief spells before and after college, he never worked in many restaurants before owning one. He didn't understand how to manage Brewmasters himself, or, as he admits now, even hire people who did.
"I kept hoping Greg Hatem or G Patel would come in here and turn this place around. That was my fantasy," Cook says, referring to two successful downtown Raleigh restaurateurs. "But people have been in worse positions than this."
Still, there appears to be more at work inside Brewmasters' demise than Cook's inefficacy as an owner or organizer. Just three weeks before Cook hung the place's farewell memo in the window, Tyler's Restaurant & Taproom—essentially, Brewmasters with more than twice the square footage and its own bottle shop—closed its doors, too. Tyler Huntington, the restaurant's owner and namesake, says other Raleigh restaurants that offer a high-alcohol, high-fat combination of food, beer and sports aren't hitting their marks, either. In fact, a business day later, The Oxford—a modest "English pub" owned by Patel's Eschelon Experiences in the city center—announced it would finish its eight-year run by the end of the month, too.
So is it getting harder to balance booze and bar food in downtown Raleigh? Maybe, says Huntington.
"For the first three years, we were making really good money," he says, sitting at a circular table in The Rickhouse, the rustic events space that overlooks the Durham Athletic Park. He opened it last year. Through glass walls to his left, he can see the distillery he will launch as soon as the proper parts and permits arrive. The distillery will be his third Durham business, with another one imminent.
Since launching as the state's first completely craft beer bar in 1998 in Carrboro, Tyler's has become one of the most successful and seemingly stable chains in the Triangle. The group's downtown Durham restaurant is an anchor of American Tobacco Campus, its enormous space often overflowing during baseball games at Durham's newer ballpark. But Huntington has no plans to return to the Raleigh market.
"When we opened in Raleigh four years ago, there weren't a lot of taprooms," Huntington says. "But in Raleigh now, you kick a cap and hit a taproom. And as that competition opened up, we started to see a thinning in our business."
Tyler's opened in Raleigh's Seaboard Station in December 2011, just months after Brewmasters. Since then, nearly a dozen breweries or bottle shops have launched in or around the downtown core. Restaurants have multiplied, too, including another burger joint in the same shopping center as Tyler's. Despite the arrival of apartment-and-condo complexes throughout downtown, including a few hundred yards from Tyler's front door, the residential density and demand simply weren't sufficient to offset the competition or the extreme overhead of an 11,000-square-foot space, at least not yet.
Huntington was close, he says; with a quarter less room and rent, Tyler's would have been highly profitable in Raleigh.
In fact, Huntington designed a plan to salvage the space when he began to end some months in the red. He decided to give downtown Raleigh a new option—a true-to-name brewpub, where the beer brewing process surrounds diners and drinkers on all sides. This would have differentiated Tyler's from the crowded brewery-and-restaurant scenes and given it a way to turn that excess space into extra money. He even found a potential partner, began imagining construction logistics and negotiating a consolidated deal. Before making it official, however, he opted out of his lease, turning the space over to the brewers he had recruited.
Though the new team has yet to finalize the agreement, the Wisconsin transplants plan to open a 10-barrel brewpub in early May with a model much like the one Huntington envisioned. One of the partners, who cannot be named until the lease is finalized, says he selected Raleigh three years ago because the market offered competitive food and craft beer scenes but not a true brewpub. He's confident his concept will be distinct enough to sustain the footprint.
"I'm not worried about the location," he says. "The size and space were different in the market for what Tyler was doing, and the timing and context are completely different now. We're going to knock it out of the park."
Huntington had a fallback plan for Tyler's, then, a sensible option for divesting the property before it weighed on his whole enterprise. But back at Brewmasters—where the chalkboard advertising special seasonal burgers still sadly promotes a "Holidaze" burger with ham and pineapple—Cook doesn't know just what he'll do.
His real estate agent says he might be forced to sit on the property for the next 18 months. A nearby restaurant owner has mentioned taking it over as a second project or even a commissary kitchen. And he still holds the food-preparation permits through March, so he's considering throwing a final Super Bowl party for the customers of his homebrew stores, the businesses he actually knows how to run.
Maybe, then, Brewmasters will have one last stand as intended—a low-key restaurant that, as Cook puts it, "celebrates the beer in this state and the people who make it happen."
Even if that same surging industry is, to some extent, the reason his restaurant and bar never worked for very long.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Flight night"