WCU students return to new nightlife landscape this year
Western Carolina University students will open their textbooks this year with a livelier Cullowhee awaiting them after the class bell rings, one with more dining options, hangout spots and beer on tap.
Leading the charge are two new restaurant and bar venues within walking distance of campus: Tuck’s Tap and Grille near the entrance on the backside of campus and Cullowings just across N.C. 107 by the front entrance.
For WCU senior Kyle Moser, eating a barbecue sandwich and sipping a cold one at Tuck’s bar last Saturday was worth waiting for.
“It’s been a real long time coming,” he said.
The BBQ-and-a-beer-at-the-bar moment he was having was vastly different than the Cullowhee his father experienced while attending WCU — with not much more than a Taco Bell for dining choices. Moser also imagined what the nearby bar, with sports games on flat screen televisions and live bands, would mean for the social lives of students once classes start.
“It will be huge here,” he said.
Bars — and booze sales in general — are still a novelty in the Cullowhee student scene, following a countywide alcohol referendum that passed last year. Previously, Cullowhee was dry, stifling the university-town atmosphere around campus as most students traveled to bars in Sylva or threw private parties.
Tuck’s is a joint venture of four WCU grads, all friends since college. They had kicked around the idea of opening a restaurant and bar together for a few years. When alcohol sales became legal, they decided to strike.
“We talked about it before and said if it ever came around we would do it,” said Alex Leef, one of the restaurant’s owners. “Just all good timing.”
Leef said he wants Tuck’s to thrive as a restaurant first and foremost. But clearly, with a college population at its doorstep, the bar, live bands, DJs, karaoke night and 2 a.m. closing time will definitely attract folks not just looking to eat. However, Italian-style pizza and the Tuck Daddy burger, or “barbecue on a burger,” as Leef describes it, are not to be overlooked.
Leef only wishes it could have been around when he was a student.
“If I could have walked here, I would have.” he said, thinking back to his university days. “I think it will be awesome.”
For students, no longer having to make the haul into Sylva to drink at a bar or pick up a six-pack will help limit drinking and driving.
Recent WCU graduate Jared Gant said bars a little closer to campus will inevitably make the road between Sylva and Cullowhee safer.
“It should keep a lot of people from making stupid decisions and driving back from Sylva and getting tickets or hurting somebody,” Gant said.
Tuck’s opened last week, with Cullowings close on its heels with promises to be in full swing by the start of fall semester and football season.
Jamie and Dwight Winchester are similar to the owners of Tuck’s in that they had the idea for Cullowings long before it became a reality. As owners of the Catamount Travel Center gas station across from campus, the Bryson City couple had been leasing an adjacent storefront to Huddle House. When the contract expired with the breakfast chain, they decided it was time to open the college sports restaurant.
“It’s been a hope and dream of mine and my husband’s for a couple of years,” Jamie said. “We just looked to do something a little different than what they offered on campus.”
With 25 different kinds of chicken wings, 31 beers on tap and a view of a television from anywhere in the restaurant, it probably won’t be hard to fill the place. And it will be worth the short walk from WCU.
A whole new world
But, what do two new bars with copious amounts of beer on tap mean for the peace of Cullowhee? Not to fret, said Steve Morse, recently hired director of the WCU’s hospitality and tourism program, it doesn’t signal the descent of the community into the depths of eternal party-dom.
“I don’t think you’re going to see Cullowhee on the top 20 university party list,” he said, in reference to the list annual rankings compiled by the Princeton Review.
Instead, he said the addition of places like Cullowings and Tuck’s Tap and Grille will build the college town atmosphere the school is lacking.
“From my experience, it only adds to the variety of things to do,” he said.
Along with the two new bars rolling out the red carpet for students this month, established restaurants in Cullowhee began adding alcohol to their menus last year. Food at the Rolling Stone Burrito is great with a beer on the side and philosophy discussions at the Mad Batter Café are great over a glass of wine.
But owner of the Mexican restaurant, Sazon, Alex Rodriguez likes to remind people that it all began with his place, as far as when the suds actually met the mouth. The first beer was served in his restaurant last June after it became legal to drink in the unincorporated parts of Jackson County.
“We are the pioneers my friend,” Rodriguez said. “We broke the spell.”
Encouraged by the newly opened Tuck’s Tap and Grille down Old Cullowhee Road, he is planning on staying open until midnight this school year so patrons can take advantage of the full bar.
“Starting with tequila and ending up with whiskey,” he says.
He has already had his best year in business yet after the addition of alcohol sales.
And in the future he pictures a full-blown college scene for old Cullowhee, an improvement over the strip of dilapidated properties and abandoned buildings, one invigorated with new life, business and someplace worth sticking around when the sun goes down. The community, he said, is moving forward and not looking back.
“College life and dreams — that’s what I call Cullowhee,” he said. “I think it is the place to be.”