When I call the Texas home office for the Flying Saucer restaurant-pub chain in mid-February to check on the status of their new Raleigh location, a secretary informs me it will be opening in one more week. I had just driven up to their building on the corner of West Morgan and Harrington streets, parked illegally, jumped out and snuck a peak inside: pitch darkness, wires hanging from the ceiling, sawdust everywhere, no tables or chairs to be seen. This place is going to open in a week?
I'm put through to the owner, Shannon Wynne. I'm curious whether it will be open in time for me to meet my deadline, and Wynne assures me he will make it so or die trying. "Dealing with the city of Raleigh has been like dealing with Cuernavaca," he huffs. I've heard similar complaints from other Raleigh restaurant and club owners--you'd think the city wasn't struggling to revive the downtown area, as difficult as it can be to open a new eatery, bar or nightclub. But Cuernavaca is a new comparison, and one I like--associating Raleigh officialdom with the legendary Byzantine bureaucracy of a Mexican city suits my taste for hyperbole. I may forever think of Raleigh as Cuernavaca's sister city to the north.
There's another reason I like this allusion. The greatest novel ever written about a drunk, Under the Volcano, is set in Mexico. Its protagonist stumbles about the novel in an existential haze of apéritifs and cerveza, dropping into one cantina after another, getting "perfectamente borracho." (Eventually, he loses himself in the jungle and dies.) Flying Saucer is calling itself a "draught emporium." When I call the phone number before the opening, I get a message that promises 75 beers on tap and 125 varieties bottled. The phone message ends by inviting the caller to come down for some "serious cerveza." I can't help but feel a little tingle, a shot-glass full of Under the Volcano existential dread.
Wynne invites me to come to their new location the following Monday. "I'm going to be there hanging the plates," he says. Hanging the plates? I picture an Alice in Wonderland-like scene, with patrons eating off the walls. I can't imagine what this means, but assume it's some standard restaurant-biz term. Since my one gig in a restaurant ended ignominiously before I learned anything about the business (I was fired for not being "gregarious" enough), I make a date with Wynne to witness the hanging of the plates. He sounds really proud of his plates--the man obviously needs a fresh audience.
The plates turn out to be 2,000 commemorative platters from around the world that Wynne has been collecting for some time, like some mad Home Shopping Network addict. By the time Flying Saucer opens, they will cover not only the walls, but the ceiling as well. When I first see Wynne, he's already up on a ladder. Tall and lanky, he's the perfect person to oversee the hanging. A manager later informs me that Wynne has personally decorated the interiors of the other seven Flying Saucer draught emporiums. (There are two in Dallas; the others are in Fort Worth, Arlington, Little Rock, Memphis and Nashville, with one coming soon to Houston).
Wynne points to an area to the left of the front doors, where several brass platters hang underneath a banner designating it the "Ring of Honor." The platters represent one of Flying Saucer's unique features, he says: Anyone who tries 200 different beers will have his or her name engraved on a brass plate, to be hung on the wall to commemorate achievement of such a high level of beer connoisseurship. For $10, any customer can join the UFO Club, for which he will receive a free "Beer Knurd" T-shirt and a magnetic card that will be swiped every time a new beer is ordered. (I recommend removing this card from your wallet if stopped by the police.) I ask Wynne if this is all you get for killing 10,000 brain cells: a brass plate that you can't even take home and a T-shirt. Wynne, perhaps intuiting that I'm a total lightweight, doesn't offer to inaugurate me into the UFO Club.
He even performs a little bit of mind reading while watching me fumble with "The Fly Paper," the pub's newsletter, which spells out the rules of the club. I'm wondering why in God's name there's a picture of a giant fly on the newsletter and what this has to do with the name of the pub. Wynne patiently explains that fly + saucer = flying saucer. Well, of course. What kind of idiot am I? I thought the name had something to do with spaceships! I helpfully suggest dispensing various kinds of sauce in bowls with wings. Wings + sauce = flying saucer. Sort of. "Go ahead and make fun of it if you want to," Wynne says with a wry smile. "Write what you want, run with it," he says good-naturedly. The man is doing quite well for himself--he can afford to have a sense of humor. Later, it occurs to me that beer is also known as "sauce," opening up even more possible (and absurd) combinations.
I come back a week later, when Flying Saucer is finally open and serving food. It's about 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday, but I figure this is what the Saucer is all about: Very few places in Raleigh are still serving food this late. This evening, they're serving until midnight, although I'm told that most nights they'll serve until 2 a.m. It's obvious when you walk in that it's a new place--it doesn't yet have that smoky, dust-on-the-fixtures, been-there-done-that disaffected attitude that old pubs have. There's no surly drunk in the corner, barely hanging on, nor are there any strange stains on the floor or funky odors emanating from the bathrooms. This place is well-scrubbed and shiny and proud of it.
I'm greeted by the general manager, Ken Yowell, who has relocated from Fort Worth. Yowell has brought several other employees with him: another manager, Joseph Lopez; Lopez's girlfriend, Jamie Pogel, who is bartending and waitressing; and a cook. They all live together in a house that was found for them in South Raleigh, before anyone told them anything about South Raleigh. South Raleigh, I tell them, is where we send Texans to get some culture. One of the bartenders from Raleigh, N.C. State student Mike McKee, tells me later that this is one thing he likes about the Saucer--because everyone seems to be friends already, it's like a family affair. And indeed, while I'm chatting with Yowell, several other employees stroll up to listen--they're obviously not as intimidated by their general manager as I was by mine. At one point, Lopez stops to tell me about the new Kawasaki Drifter he just bought at Triangle Motor Sports, which he says he'll be driving to work. I question the wisdom of this. Has he counted the number of SUVs on the roads around here?
While talking with me, Ken Yowell is quick to point out improvements in the Saucer's future. I have parked right outside on the street this evening, but on busy nights this won't be possible. Yowell says he hopes to add valet parking in the future, however. There is also an upstairs lounge that will be opening in a few months and an outside deck that might be open as early as April. Yowell is currently looking for a local bakery to provide cakes, and liquor shots might be available in the future as well. But for now, the Saucer's only accoutrements are a pool room in the back, a dart board and lots and lots of beer.
Oh--and food. At some point, Yowell has several dishes brought out for me to taste. The "Pizza-dilla" is a personal-size, thin-crusted pizza covered with sausage, crushed tomato and herbs. It's very tasty. I'm also force-fed a "MUFOletta Ham" sandwich, with ham, salami and Italian-blend cheese, and a "Turkey Meltdown," with smoked turkey, avocados and cheese. All the sandwiches are served with chips. I also manage to squeeze in some "Beer Cheese Soup," which, for those who don't get enough beer in their beer, has Murphy's Stout mixed into it. In fact, the "soup," which is served in a bowl made of bread (courtesy of Neomonde Bakery), seems to be mainly cheese and beer, which frankly sounds disgusting but which I consume in two minutes flat. Not so disgusting after all. It's not haute cuisine, exactly, but in the words of Ken Yowell, it's "simple but good."
All of this is washed down by--what else?--beer. I try the Rogue Shakespeare Stout and later the Murphy's Irish Stout, my limit on a Sunday night. Both are smooth, dark beers available on tap. The Saucer's motto, to which they seem to be living up, is "No Crap on Tap." But if I were a little short of cash, I could save a little by trying the Fire Sale beer, which is a new beer that has been discounted down to $2.50 (beers go for $3-$12) to encourage people to experiment. There's a Fire Sale going on every day, and the beer chosen, the general manager tells me, depends on the market.
It's a Sunday night and no one knows about the Saucer yet, so the crowd is very thin. In fact, it seems to be made up mostly of friends of the employees. But just when I think I'm going to have to rely on my own observations in writing about the Saucer, in walks someone I know. I recognize Dave Justice as a friend of my best friend and remember him as being a pretty straight talker. Blunt, in fact. He and a fellow bartender from FLEX have stopped in to check out the new bar in town. I can tell he hasn't been here before--he's looking around, sniffing the air, giving the place the once-over. At any moment he might lift his leg to mark his territory. He doesn't recognize me, but I introduce myself, and later, after he and his friend have ordered some food, I slide down the bar to see what he thinks. He doesn't disappoint my memory.
"These guys are monsters!" he bellows. Dave is amazed that Flying Saucer has his favorite beer, Anchor Liberty Ale from San Francisco. He says he can't find it anywhere else in Raleigh. He's eyeing the long row of beers on tap, clearly amazed. "These guys are out of control," he says, shaking his head. "This city isn't ready for them." Later, he says that he's "diggin' this late-night thing," adding, for good measure (and not so facetiously), "This town thrives on alcoholics--these guys are gonna make a killing!"
I ask him if this is really his scene. The Saucer is so clean and shiny, and from my stool I can spit and hit Jillian's, so I figure the Saucer will get some overspill from the Jillian's crowd. I can't picture my grizzled acquaintance hanging out here often. "Oh, they'll be in here soon enough, all the rowdy frat boys and their drunk girlfriends, puking on the floor and smashing things up," he says. He stares into space and smiles at this thought, clearly amused. Down at one end of the bar, I can see my bartender, Mike McKee, and the managers I spoke to, Ken Yowell and Joseph Lopez. At the other end, two waitresses who asked me if I wanted to play darts are recording their scores. Have I ever met nicer people than these? As Dave chuckles to himself, I pray they make a lot of money for what they'll soon have to put up with.
To contact Flying Saucer, call 821-7468.