The scene: North Carolina’s historic Pinehurst Resort has held far more of golf’s biggest tournaments, including this year’s U.S. Amateur Championship in August, than any other place. With extensive sporting facilities, three hotels, a spa and about a dozen bars and restaurants, Pinehurst has been notably lacking only two important things for its visitors: beer and barbecue. A few months ago, that changed with the opening of the Pinehurst Brewing Company.
Since the 2011 restoration and grand reopening of flagship golf course No. 2, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on upgrades that have touched every facet of the resort and will culminate with the reopening of a completely rebuilt hotel, the Manor Inn, this summer. But for me the highlight is the brewery and smokehouse, which has been wildly popular since it opened this past fall.
It was expected to be mainly for resort guests (many of whom are on plans that include dinner at their choice of resort restaurants), but has attracted locals and day visitors in droves. There is routinely an hour-long wait to be seated for dinner on weekdays, and as long as two hours on weekends. It is packed at lunch as well. The 160-seat eatery routinely serves 500-600 guests on busy days, which are frequent.
In this case, the setting is as important as the food. The restaurant is located in the town’s original steam plant, built in 1895 to provide the resort with electricity and heat. It sits on the edge of the quaint downtown, near Pinehurst’s independent bars, restaurants and shops, and had been decommissioned and vacant for decades.
The resort took the same meticulous approach to restoring the grand but crumbling brick edifice that they have applied to their golf courses, and the results are simply spectacular. The brewery perfectly captures the industrial chic feel. The steam turbines have been replaced with stainless steel beer-brewing tanks, visible though a glass wall at one end of the main dining room, which is divided from a glass-enclosed porch by a double-sided bar with eight beers on tap.
Historic black-and-white pictures of the plant dot the walls, and imposing relics have been preserved and repurposed everywhere you look. Heavy pipes, valves, tanks, dials and fittings have been turned into ornaments, wall décor and, most impressively, legs for tables made from the wood of a single enormous tree that had grown in the abandoned industrial space. It’s the kind of setting where you might notice something new every visit.
There’s also a large, pet-friendly outdoor beer garden with its own extensive bar, flat-screen TV and fireplace where guests can have a drink while waiting for their table. There is a small greenhouse where the chef will grow kitchen herbs, and the brewmaster is already growing hops on trellises. The outdoor smoker and smokehouse sit next to the beer garden, filling the air with scent of slow-smoked Southern barbecue. There’s a cornhole lawn, and especially in fair weather, which Pinehurst enjoys much of the year, it is one huge indoor and outdoor party.
Reason to visit: House-brewed beers, brisket, smoked wings, pizza
The food: The new operation recruited Eric Mitchell, former head brewer of Heist Brewery in Charlotte, where he won numerous industry awards (his signature IPA, Citraquench’l, is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 10). The restaurant has been so busy that Mitchell has struggled to keep up with demand, but eventually Pinehurst hopes to offer his beers at other venues throughout the resort as well.
Current offerings start with a light straightforward lager and move up through a fruity German-style Weiss beer, a Belgian pale ale, an amber ale, an unfiltered hefeweizen (wheat) and a double dry hopped IPA. The beers are excellent and each one was impressive in its niche, but the standout that really wowed me was the Malvavisco, an imperial stout rested on Madagascar vanilla beans that is rich and creamy with a velvety texture – and a whopping 12.75% alcohol by volume.
Mitchell is also collaborating with the other two breweries in Moore Country, Southern Pines Brewing Company and Railhouse Brewery, to regularly produce a limited-edition community blend. The one they had when I visited was a fruity beer made from a huge batch of the locally beloved blueberry doughnuts from a nearby bakery.
The master smoker, Chris Dowd, was a human resources executive and avid backyard smoker before he quit and started his own barbecue restaurant about 20 years ago. After that he moved to catering out of his custom trailer smoker. Dowd is now down at the steam plant every morning starting his briskets in the outdoor smoker for “long cooks” (10-plus hours). The smokehouse is for faster-cooking ribs, chicken and sausage. Dowd uses a three-wood blend of local white oak, hickory and pecan.
The most popular barbecue items are the pulled pork, Texas-style beef brisket and smoked chicken, all offered as platters and sandwiches. The brisket was the best of the meats, but while sliced on the platter, it is chopped for sandwiches which is not a serving method I’m a fan of. They make everything from the array of excellent sauces to the sausages from scratch, and you can tell.
The sauces cover all the geographic styles, including the Carolinas’ two distinctive takes, vinegar-based and mustard-based, as well as a more classic tomato version and spicy blueberry habanero. The top appetizer is the unique smoked chicken wings glazed with a sauce made from Cheerwine, a locally popular cherry-flavored soft drink that has been made in North Carolina for more than a century and is a classic barbecue pairing. This was a big surprise for me: excellent wings that are meaty and perfectly cooked with a nice contrast between the smoky flavor and sweet glaze. Finally, the worst-kept secret is the ribs, for which Dowd uses loin back cuts, a bigger take on baby backs. These are a weekend special that always sells out and will likely be added to the menu full-time as soon as Dowd, like Mitchell, can get caught up with the unexpected and unprecedented popularity of the place.
The sides are a classic barbecue lineup, but to me the standouts were the hush puppies and the macaroni and cheese. They also have a full indoor kitchen turning out everything from salads to burgers, with a few Southern specialties like a fried shrimp po’boy and a creative fried green tomato take on a BLT – with house-made pimento cheese for good measure.
But the most popular thing besides barbecue is another beloved and beer-friendly cuisine: pizza. As much as I love smoked meat, which is a lot, there is a good argument to be made for going this route. Made in shallow round pans, the pizza has a crispy bottom and equally crispy outer crust that’s not thin but still not thick enough to overwhelm the toppings, which include both classics and assorted uses of the house-smoked barbecue meats and sauces.
Everything is solidly enjoyable comfort food, so it is really hard to go wrong here, while the ambiance is just amazing. That may explain why so many people keep coming back and why everyone I talked to, from cab drivers to caddies, urged me to go and try the place. I’m glad I did.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but an absolute must-visit of you are in or near Pinehurst.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 300 Magnolia Road, Pinehurst; 910-235-8218; pinehurstbrewing.com
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there’s a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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