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Chapel Hill’s old Rathskeller finally has a resident: a Raleigh brewery’s new taproom

Nancy and Buz Bowling, of Charlotte, take a picture from the booth situated under Franklin Street. “This is the first time we ever sat at this booth in the 22 eyars I’ve been coming here”, recounts Nancy Bowling. The Rams Head Rathskeller is closing after 59 years of business. The North Carolina Department of Revenue siezed all the properties belonging to the Rathskeller and auctioned them off to cover unpaid taxes. Many are hoping to take a small piece of the Rat home with them as a reminder of all the memories.--Chapel Hill--Saturday, February 2, 2008. Staff Photo by Leslie Barbour
Nancy and Buz Bowling, of Charlotte, take a picture from the booth situated under Franklin Street. “This is the first time we ever sat at this booth in the 22 eyars I’ve been coming here”, recounts Nancy Bowling. The Rams Head Rathskeller is closing after 59 years of business. The North Carolina Department of Revenue siezed all the properties belonging to the Rathskeller and auctioned them off to cover unpaid taxes. Many are hoping to take a small piece of the Rat home with them as a reminder of all the memories.--Chapel Hill--Saturday, February 2, 2008. Staff Photo by Leslie Barbour leslie barbour

Raleigh’s Gizmo Brew Works is opening its second taproom in Chapel Hill and is reviving an old town favorite in the process.

Gizmo has plans to open a new taproom in the former Rathskeller space on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. The news was first reported Monday by Triangle Business Journal.

The Ramshead Rathskeller — known as The Rat — was an iconic Chapel Hill bar and restaurant dating back to the 1948. It closed for good in late 2007.

Gizmo founder Bryan Williams told The News & Observer he hopes to open this spring — ideally May — barring permitting or construction delays.

In an interview with The N&O, Williams said Gizmo has been looking for a new location for about a year, initially a space that could handle increased beer production and expand taproom offerings. Instead he decided to split the project, remaining at Gizmo’s original location near Glenwood Avenue and Umstead Park in Raleigh where production will increase, and open the new Chapel Hill taproom.

The former Rathskeller is a 4,500-square-foot basement space with exposed beams. It is below sidewalk level in an alleyway, across from Bandido’s Mexican Cafe.

It will triple Gizmo’s current 1,200-square-foot taproom off of the brewery.

“We wanted to keep the design minimal, keeping the brewery feel without being at the brewery,” Williams said.

Moving into a space with such a long history, Williams understands the taproom may be known as the former Rathskeller for a while, but Gizmo plans to make it its own. Williams said they’re building a stage for live music and open mics, as well as installing multiple TVs to appeal to Chapel Hill sportsfans.

“The Rathskeller was a staple in Chapel Hill, everyone knows it,” Williams said. “It was renovated and sat empty for a few years, and now we’re really starting with a blank slate. ... Live music has been a staple of ours at the original location, with bands playing on our outdoor stage in the beer garden. And we’re not a sports bar by any means, but we’ll add some TVs so hopefully people can think of us as a good spot to watch basketball and football.”

While the lasagna at The Rat was legendary, Gizmo plans to just serve pre-packaged snacks and form partnerships with neighboring restaurants.

“We are not restaurateurs, so we’ll stick to what we know best, which is the beer,” Williams said.

There was an effort to revive the Rathskeller not long after it closed. Diane Fountain, a UNC graduate, bought the Rathskeller in 2010 with plans to reopen it, according to The News & Observer archives.

Gizmo started canning its beer for the first time in 2018. Williams said that will expand this year with more of its beers showing up on retail shelves. Williams said Gizmo currently brews around 50 different beers a year.

Originally, Williams looked to downtown Raleigh for the new location, but cheap warehouse space isn’t as plentiful as it once was as the capital city continues to see a host of redevelopment projects.

The satellite taproom is one of the current trends in beer, with breweries focusing less on competing for shelf space at the grocery store and instead trying to attract fans with taprooms. Burial Beer Co. just opening in Raleigh’s Transfer Company Food Hall and Hi-Wire Brewing has opened in Durham’s Golden Belt.

“There’s only so much shelf space,” Williams said. “The margins are better when you can sell a pint of fresh beer directly to the consumer. Opening a satellite taproom was a no-brainer. Here we can control the experience and sell beer directly to the customer.”

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.

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