Triangle Spotlight: Team Isaac Hunter's

Published Fri, Aug 13, 2010 02:02 PM
Bookmark and Share
Zack Medford, left, and Ben Yannessa of Isaac Hunter's Oak City Tavern. John Rottet -

Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent

As locals to a cap city in constant limbo, teetering on the edge of a humble history and a booming up-build, sometimes we crave a relic of our roots—a regard for that space from where we came. And sometimes, we really do just wanna go where everybody knows our name.

Enter quintessential Raleigh sip spot Isaac Hunter’s Oak City Tavern, etched faithfully on the Capitol-end of Fayetteville Street by a trio of self-made late-twenty to early-thirty-somethings—Ben Yannessa, Zack Medford and Brad Bowles—who built their bar on a dream, a hard-earned dollar and a decade-plus of tavern-esque training, from pounding the pavement at local poolside snack bars to cookin’ up cocktails at cross-coast pubs.

Florida-born, 31-year-old Yannessa shaped his heady hospitality know-how hocking lemonade and turkey legs at a Florida renaissance fest at the ripe age of 13, before making the move to Raleigh two years later. Traversing his new turf’s terrain, he went to Appalachian State University in Boone, before trekking eastward and back westward again. In Wilmington, he began to wrangle the rotgut ropes at a Hilton with basics like vodka tonics, before bouncing back to Boone for a few years and earning his bar-biz stripes at Blowing Rock's Six Pence Pub. He then made the fortuitous return to Raleigh in 2003, landing at Fox & Hound, where he doled drinks to sport-savvy fans for more than five years, until meeting Medford.

Having plodded a parallel path, 27-year-old Medford got his tender start slingin’ sodas at Raleigh Racquet’s snack bar, where he mixed his first drink, sans spirits, of course—a little Sprite and Pink Lemonade. “They called it a fruity Zack,” Yannessa jabs. A Raleigh native and N.C. State grad, his boyish snack-bar stripes yielded years of tipple ‘tending, beginning with his first run behind the bar at XIOS Authentic Greek Cuisine in Apex. The manager at the time—a bar vet from Foxy Lady—mentored him into mixology mastery. Wettin’ whistles from trad Greek nosh spots to natty nightspots (BuckHead Raleigh) to old city saloons (Old Bar), Medford had been around the town tavern block.

In 2009, the pair’s paths crossed, and pub-permeated pasts and piggy banks primed with late nights and last calls melded to answer Raleigh’s call for a true-to-town public house. Merging with the brainy biz savvy of partner Bowles and the crafty construction of contractor-friend Ben Vogel, the concept of a few inspired Raleigh-bred innovators was born. The tandem’s training then tangled with city consciousness, chance and a serendipitous space perched on proximal Capitol grounds—where a closed Capital Room pub now sat good for the gutting on a downtown strip knee-deep in revival. The timing and vacant space yielded them the opportunity to build a bar that would quite literally reconstruct Raleigh's history by calling on its past to define its future.

“Until Isaac Hunter’s, it’s been hard to find a spot that’s really just a Raleigh bar built for Raleigh folks, and that’s what we wanted to capture here,” says Yannessa. Adds Medford, “We want to be the exact opposite of a faceless corporation, and we want to fill the space with a concept that’s unique to Raleigh’s history.” And since that history is hinged on a storied saloon, it only made sense to reconstruct it.

For, the birth of our capital wasn’t conceived on terrain, topography or temperature, it’s born of love of a bar—as Raleigh’s cap-city reckoning actually rests on its distance from a popular Piedmont-positioned roadside tavern owned by Isaac Hunter. So endeared was this sudsy spot to the heart of locals and passersby alike, that at a 1788 Constitutional Convention held there, the statesmen mandated that the new “State Capital [be] located within 10 miles by order N.C. Convention,” as reads the “Isaac Hunter’s Tavern stood nearby” plaque now poised in its place on Wake Forest Road just north of the beltline.

So, etched in a nascent nook on Fayetteville Street’s edge, set squarely at the intersection of the ageless and avant-garde, is the reconstruction of the token tavern of our capitalhood. Where now, Medford quips, our legacy is legit again: “Technically, the state of North Carolina has been in violation of the law up until November 2009 when we were able to resurrect Isaac Hunter’s legend and bring this place into being,” he says laughing.

A bona fide replica, beyond its moniker, the mod Isaac Hunter’s is handcrafted by its owners from the ground up, from spirit to spirits. Fashioned almost entirely from the reclaimed wood of an old Guilford County tobacco farm, the tavern is authentic in its replication, even down to the housemade Cherry Bounce booze, Raleigh’s signature sipper first served up by (and a personal favorite of) Hunter himself —ranking this legendary-landmark rendering at once a throwback to our capital’s celebrated character and a nod to our boom town’s flourishing future.

“We want to be authentically North Carolina. Authentically Raleigh. We’re here to build locals and regulars—local people just looking to have a place to hang out, and we thought what better location than right next to the Capitol to really showcase all that Raleigh has to offer. And, we want to fill it with a concept that’s unique to Raleigh,” says Medford. And they are. It is, after all, made almost entirely of “old,” on arguably, the city’s central battleground between its hackneyed history and its most forward-facing scape.

Capitol-closeness aside, the Fayetteville Street location is, by design, devised for a town in need of reminding just as much of who we are and where we come from as who we’re becoming and where we’re headed. A far cry from the trendy international treats thriving all around it, Isaac Hunter’s downtown digs are intended as an alternative to the sometimes-intense pace of the Glenwood strip. They wanted to create a more local feel, a place where turned-up tunes don’t trample audible conversation, and a place where the people you talk to, you get to know them. “We wanted to create a place where everyone just feels comfortable,” says Yannessa. “When you come in, we want to walk up to you and shake your hand; we want to know our regulars; and we want to cater to everyone.”

Because it’s not just a bar, it’s a story. History. And they’re making it. From the famed watering hole to the carousing capital re-creation, these comrades craved to create a spot about the community, for the community. As locals who love their city— who put their souls and savings into preserving and reconstructing it and telling its story—they want to raise it up. So, they aren’t just sitting on their history-heartening haunches. They’re lending a hand anywhere they can. “We’re always looking to do events to raise money for great causes,” says Yannessa.

And fund fetching, they do. June’s Cornhole Tourney, in partnership with close friend of the bar Triangle Breakfast Club, saw a huge turnout, when tosses turned thousands for Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. And they’re hoping to lend just as heavy a hand in the coming weeks, when they shut down Fayetteville Street for a wet-and-wild summer send-off to benefit a local children’s charity. Isaac Hunter’s Water Wars (the name itself a nod to the tavern’s intro to the city as the venue for last fall’s third annual Raleigh Wars Assassin’s Ball) will plunge the Capitol periphery into a pouring playground of soggy balloon tosses, dousing dodgeball and pools for dipping, culminating in a massive balloon-fight finale, the biggest North Carolina’s ever seen.

So, beyond resurrecting a landmark, playing a revolutionary role in downtown revival, sating a city’s thirst and helping keep kids fed— what else do these cap-city crusaders have in store? Guess we’ll just have to stay tuned. “Cheers,” to that.

Isaac Hunter's Oak City Tavern

112 Fayetteville Street

Raleigh, NC, 27601

Phone: 919.526.0060

Facebook: click here

Twitter: @Huntersoakcity

Find out the latest events happening today in your area.


Check for showtimes of the newest releases.


Search local eateries by location, price and cuisine.