Cheap Eats - The Rusty Nail Pub

The Buford Highway dive and its devotees

The Rusty Nail Pub, or just "the Nail" to its regulars, belongs to that strange group of restaurants and bars on and around Cheshire Bridge Road that seem to reside in a bygone era — familiar names like the Colonnade, the Red Snapper, Nino's, and Alfredo's. These places are old, especially in this town where new restaurants have a half-life measured in months rather than years. The Nail's longevity alone would seem to be some kind of stamp of approval — if it can last this long, it must be doing something right. Right?

Well, if you spend some time at the Nail on Buford Highway (or its sister pub out on Roswell Road), you'll notice that it has gotten a lot of things right over the course of its 38 years. The Nail is a dive bar without pretense. Regulars reach for nightly specials like cold PBR tall boys for $2.50 (no retro badge value here) or solidly made cocktails for $3.75 while they sing along to the diverse jukebox or throw darts toward dingy walls. Pink Floyd trails off and on comes, dear lord, LMFAO. Here, it doesn't matter.

But I think the Nail is less a dive bar and more a dive restaurant — a dark, wooded, smoky space with a worn-in comfort fueled not just by the drinks but by a menu that casually veers from wings to lasagna to barbecue to spinach soufflé. Owner Nick Cardellino simply calls it "quality food at a fair price." And, from groups of businessmen and old folks at lunch to an unabashedly blue-collar crowd at night, the regulars seem to agree that there's value in coming to the Nail.

From the outside, the Nail is most recognizable for its 18-foot-long pistol-shaped smoker — a curiosity that seems custom-made for monthly meetings of the Unusual Barbecue Smoker Enthusiasts subchapter of the NRA. On the inside, your eyes might struggle to adjust to the harsh light in the entryway, which thankfully dissolves into a dark haze once you step a few feet further in. What you might see once you're inside is that the Nail is a cranky old man of a pub, content with his wings and burgers and PBR, a game of trivia, a square of lasagna when the feeling's right.

The lasagna, a house specialty, is indeed one of the hits on the menu. It comes across as unblushingly old-school, a thick slab packed with cheese, thick crumbles of beef, and ridged sheets of noodle with just enough sauce to add some zing. For your side salad, be sure to order the W.O.P. dressing (Nick is sure to explain that W.O.P. stands for "without papers" — not a derogatory term at all!), a house original for 38 years that manages to delightfully blend French dressing, blue cheese, and what I swear must be bits of hard boiled-egg and sweet pickles. I love it.

I also love the fact that the daily side specials are so diverse — ranging from Tater Tots to a spinach soufflé that is so light and fluffy it could float away (alas, my dining companion could only think of mushy baby food) to some expertly prepared red kale and mustard greens that would do any soul food spot proud. You also can't go wrong with the perfectly addictive hot wings and drummies (half price from 4-6 p.m. and 9-11 p.m., holler!) or the lemon pepper wings, wonderfully salty and oily and citrusy, all the better to accompany a cold beer.

So what's the rub? Well, not everything at the Nail has aged so well. The barbecue may be a house hallmark, but I found it mediocre at best (the pork, the brisket, and the chicken), managing to be both dry (on the inside) and wet (as in doused in a thin sauce) at the same time. I've heard raves about the burgers and chicken sandwiches, and while they may satisfy just fine, for $7.50-$10 there are much better and more interesting options to be had all around town.

The thing is, the Nail is not trying to keep up with the burger craze or training to compete for the city's barbecue crown. There's no artifice or attempt to dress the place up more than what it is. Heck, even the ranch dressing arrives in its little sealed cup straight from Ken's. The Nail simply keeps on churning out solid food, stiff drinks, and a jukebox full of whatever pleases the regulars, just as it has for 38 years now. By the way, no kids allowed, what else would you expect from a grumpy old man of a pub?

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