Go into any bar in Asheville, and you’ll encounter all sorts of regulars. There are the early birds, the after-work crowd, the after-dinner bunch and the late-night few who close it down. Those who frequent Mack Kells Pub & Grill on Tunnel Road, however, could end up feeling as if they’ve been adopted into a big family — many of whose members have been hanging out there since the place opened in 1981.
On Friday, May 13, Mack Kells celebrates its 35th year in business, and everyone is welcome to the party. North Carolina liquor laws require the bar to charge a membership fee — normally $1 — which will be temporarily reduced to 35 cents, and throwback specials on select menu items will be offered throughout the day. Door-prize drawings will also be part of the fun, along with a disc jockey starting at 8 p.m. and karaoke beginning a couple of hours later.
Owner Danny Eller reminisces about Mack Kells’ opening day — back when he was just a customer and a musician, not the guy in charge. Darryl and Jeff Burleson, he says, opened the bar, which had previously been a Lum’s chain restaurant. “I went to high school with both of them,” he says. “They opened on a Sunday, and at that time you couldn’t open on a Sunday until 1 p.m. My best friend and I came in about 1:30 that afternoon, so I was probably the fourth or fifth person to come in here their first day, and I never stopped. It’s got to be getting close to being one of the oldest bars in Asheville.“
Although Eller describes himself as “a musician first and foremost” (he began performing as a drummer at East Asheville’s old Sky Club when he was 15 and later toured with big bands for about 14 years), he has served plenty of time in the kitchen. He worked for many years at Fine Friends in North Asheville and at the now-closed McGuffey’s before he joined Mack Kells as a bartender and cook. “I was real happy to get in here,” he says of his move to buy the business three years ago.
Since Eller bought the business, he has put a strong focus on offering high-quality food. “We try some neat stuff with our daily specials that you don’t see at most bars,” he says. “Everything here, except for a few appetizers, is made from scratch. Our big night is wing night — every Thursday — which has been going on for 30 years. It’s usually a huge crowd.” In recognition of that, as part of the anniversary celebration, Eller will offer the bar’s popular wings for the throwback price of 10 cents each.
“He’s a sauce master,” chimes in assistant manager Leslie Maxwell. She notes that the bar “had special T-shirts made up for the anniversary that say, ‘Mack Kells – Proudly Serving Asheville’s Idiots for 35 Years,’ because I figured I could sell those,” she explains.
But the word idiots is meant in a playfully teasing way. “This is one of the friendliest places you’ll ever come in,” she says. “The reason we don’t have fights in here isn’t because of our bouncer, it’s because of our customers.”
Eller estimates that 70 percent of the customers consider themselves regulars and come in several times a week, if not every day, to eat, drink and socialize. “They all are looking forward to helping us celebrate our 35th anniversary,” he says. “We have such a diverse crowd that comes in here on any given day. We have a group of retirees who come in early to talk and hang out together.”
“Once in a while tourists will come in, and they have this moment where you can see they’re asking themselves, ‘Do I really want to become a member?’ even though it’s only a dollar,” says Dulcie Williams, who’s been a regular at Mack Kells for about four years. “We see this as a very family-style place, so if the bartender or the bouncer is busy when they come in, I’ll tell them they have to sign in. I’ve often suggested that people sign in next to me as my guest for the evening so they can come in and see for themselves what a great place this is. All of the regulars do that. We recommend things on the menu, since we know it well, and we make sure people feel welcome.”
Eller mentions that Mack Kells is active with the local motorcycle community, acting as a stop on poker runs and hosting fundraisers. But he points out that the place is not exclusively a motorcycle bar. “You could come in on a Saturday afternoon and see six golfers sitting with five bikers and a hippie all at the same table having a great time together,” he says.
“It’s home,” says Fred Clark, who, until recently, had been a manager for 16 years and has been a regular customer since the beginning. “Back when the bar first started, there were only three or four bars in Asheville, and now there’s what, 403? People change, people go. Downtown as the brew city is popular now, so your average blue-collar bar is harder to find. But that’s the cool thing about here — you know, you got office workers next to construction guys next to people who don’t do a thing; it’s a great mix, and it’s all family. You’ll find the worst cousin and the best brother you ever had in here.”