“The neighborhood has been incredibly welcoming to us,” Al Bowers says.
It’s April 17, a Wednesday evening, two days after Bowers’s third Chapel Hill restaurant opened in a tucked-away corner of Governors Village. Like his other shacks, it’s eponymous—“Al’s,” though he co-owns it with his wife, Melanie. Unlike the shacks on Franklin Street and in Southern Village, however, this one isn’t a just burger shack.
This is Al’s Pub Shack.
Here you won’t find the Bobo Chili Cheeseburger—the one TripAdvisor called the best burger in America last year, which shined a national spotlight on the townie gem. But you will find a dizzying array of sports memorabilia and eighties hair-band photography adorning the walls, alongside framed relics from Bowers’s past: family photos, a vintage Yuengling & Son poster with puppies smiling over pints of beer, a framed picture of an exotic elephant.
The high tin ceilings reflect the natural light that floods in from the large windowed walls, and frosted turquoise glass chandeliers with Edison-style bulbs complement the bartenders and waitstaff in smart white aprons, crisp blue shirts, and matching ties. Four-tops of sleek, dark-wooded banquettes with soft leather backing invite guests to linger and perhaps commune with strangers.
That’s important: The Pub Shack was designed to be a well-curated neighborhood joint—the kind of place where you might run into someone you know, if not where everybody knows your name.
And as you might expect of a place with “pub” in the name, there’s a plethora of beers on tap and in bottles—in keeping with Bowers’s commitment to local sourcing, they’re all (save one cider) from the Triangle, Wilmington, or Asheville—including standouts like the cloudy haze of a Tilt, a New England-style IPA from Durham’s Starpoint Brewing, and Tropical Lightning, the slightly bitter West Coast-style IPA by Wilmington Brewing Co.
There’s traditional pub fare, too: the popular fish and chips, all-pork hot dogs, and, of course, burgers.
The local-pasture-raised beef that had made Al’s the most talked about burger in Chapel Hill remains exclusive to the Burger Shack. But Bowers nonetheless swears by the Pub Shack’s meat. The chuck-and-short-rib blend comes from the same New Jersey butcher, Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, that fashions the burger blend for New York’s renowned Shake Shack.
But the Pub Shack goes beyond the bun. The menu, developed by executive chef Taylor Halley, is bold and witty, leaning more upscale than the cheeseburgers and rosemary fries that have kept undergrads queued up down West Franklin Street since 2013.
The Kale Waldorf Salad with roasted butternut squash, apple, and dried cranberries, could convert a kale hater. Even jackfruit, the frequent pulled-pork substitute, makes several appearances: cleverly concealed in a bowl of vegan Jack’d Chili for the jackfruit-averse; as a protein option for the jackfruit-curious in the (gluten-free) “Super” Bowl; as an adventurous sandwich for the jackfruit connoisseur on the (also vegan) Brody Son, a banh mi with pickled vegetables and “yummy sauce.”
Heather Kumnick, Bowers’s director of development (and a vegan), says the pub created the smoked jackfruit bahn mi to give vegan patrons a sandwich of substance.
“Because it’s Al,” she says, “people automatically associate with the burger. But we definitely want people to come in and take a look at all the other sandwiches.”
Unsurprisingly, the Pub Shack burger was excellent: thick, juicy, perfectly pink in the middle, enhanced with a thin slice of bacon. The Brody Son, however, was less satisfying—perhaps the jackfruit could have used more seasoning or benefited from more pickled vegetables or cilantro.
But—let’s be honest—nobody was here for the jackfruit. By six o’clock, the pub’s modest dining area was nearly full. Just a stone’s throw from the rows of hackneyed silver-screen-era townhouses that line Governors Village, Al’s looked well on its way to becoming a neighborhood destination.
Contact food and digital editor Andrea Rice by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @AndreaLRice.