The Players’ Retreat sits just off of Hillsborough Street on Oberlin Road in Raleigh. Having opened its doors in 1951, the Players’ Retreat, or PR, as regulars call it, is one of Raleigh’s oldest taverns. The PR turns 65 this year and it has become a local haunt frequented by college students, politicians, local families and chefs after hours. It truly has grown to become a hangout spot for all walks of life. Even with its outstanding reputation, owner Richard “Gus” Gusler brought on Chef Beth LittleJohn to help revamp the menu while still maintaining its characteristic “PR-ness.”
Chef Beth LittleJohn is a local North Carolinian, having grown up in Durham. She attended the Carolina Friends School, where she says her curiosity for cooking thrived under the school’s curriculum of volunteering and learning through unconventional education methods. At the age of 12, her continued love of cooking and southern roots sprouted the desire to pursue cooking after graduation. She spent hours at home cooking and trying out new recipes on her friends and family. She wanted to attend the Culinary Institute of America, but she didn’t have the 6 months of culinary experience needed in order to apply when she graduated from the Carolina Friends School. This didn’t deter Chef Beth; she continued on to attend Wheaton College in Massachusetts. While majoring in Sociology, Chef Beth spent time working in the food industry to gain the experience needed to apply to the CIA. As part of her program at the CIA, Chef Beth interned for 5 months at Chef Geoff’s in Washington, D.C. It was during this time that Chef Beth was submerged into the world of fine dining and further honed her culinary skills in this realm of food service.
After graduating from the CIA, Chef Beth moved home to Durham. She worked at the Carolina Inn for 3 years, gaining broad experience while working her way up from garde manger to sous chef. She then moved on to work at Nordstrom’s Café Bistro, operating and cooking within their various restaurant concepts. Ready to branch out and showcase her creativity, Chef Beth worked in Urban Food Group’s Coquette Brasserie in North Hills for 5 years. Starting out as a sous chef, Chef Beth worked her way up to Executive Chef and credits this time as being a very rewarding experience for her culinary career.
Ready to spread her wings and grow further, Chef Beth landed at the Players’ Retreat in June of 2015. She was ready for a fresh start to try something new to help amplify the characteristics and reputation the PR had grown to develop. In just 7 short months, she has worked hard to keep this Raleigh institution the same by embracing its menu with subtle culinary changes to bring it up another level. A small example of this is the onion rings on PR’s menu. Formerly frozen, premade rings, one day during service they ran out of these. Chef Beth simply sliced up some onions and whipped up a beer batter before frying them to golden brown deliciousness. Since then, these crispy rings have become a favorite of many. Chef Beth states, “I’m not trying to change the staples customers have grown to love, I just want to upgrade them by making little changes to make it fresher and taste even better.”
Chef Beth has been able to fuel her creativity with both the weekly specials and fine dining on the weekends. The weekly specials include an appetizer, burger and sandwich that are served Monday through Thursday, but are constantly changing. All the burgers are ground in-house, which is remarkable considering the small space the PR’s kitchen occupies. Chef Beth says the goal of both the weekly specials and fine dining on the weekends is to give people something to talk about and that the regulars love it.
Chef Beth continues on to say, “I want people to be surprised of both the quality and variety of good food we’re cooking here at the PR. People aren’t expecting to see foie gras on the menu, but we feature different ingredients like it on the weekends on our fine dining menu.” Chef Beth also gives credit to both Gus and General Manager Lee Robinson as being a strong support system to try out new items. This working relationship also translates over into the plans to completely renovate the PR’s kitchen this summer. Chef Beth says she’s been part of the renovation process to make sure the kitchen remains functional despite the new equipment and larger kitchen space.
When you drive by the PR, looks aren’t at all what they seem. You expect to be drawn into another college-town bar, but once inside you step back in time a bit and feel at home from the well-worn furniture and sports décor. This is truly a “come as you are” locale and that’s just the feel Chef Beth and her crew are aiming to keep. If you’re ever cruising down Hillsborough and want to catch the game in a laid back atmosphere, but also grab a quality, delicious meal, you have to stop in to the PR to see what everyone’s been talking about since 1951.
Address: 105 Oberlin Rd, Raleigh, NC 27605
Tessa Nguyen is a chef and registered dietitian working in the Triangle area. She is an alumna of Johnson & Wales University and Meredith College. When Tessa isn’t traveling and discovering new food spots, she teaches culinary nutrition cooking classes at Duke and works as a consultant in the health and wellness industry. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter @