Twain's Brewpub & Billiards has seen much over its 20 years, having opened before the age of food bloggers and Yelp, weathering not one but two recessions, and getting in on the craft beer and local food movements before most of their recent champions were barely out of high school. Locating itself in the forward-thinking community of Decatur in 1996 was a key move for the then-fledgling bar and pool hall. Growing up in the "dark ages" of the Internet allowed Twain's time to make and correct its mistakes beyond the prying eyes of Big Brother. But with so many restaurants closing this past year, how is it that Twain's has remained a successful fixture in the competitive Atlanta market?
Eater Atlanta sat down with owner Ethan Wurtzel, along with head brewer Chase Medlin and executive chef Savannah Haseler, to talk about 20 years of Twain's and how not taking themselves too seriously — and a few savvy moments — has helped them to weather the stormy seas of Atlanta's restaurant scene.
What was your vision for opening Twain's in 1996?
Ethan Wurtzel: My family owned a pool hall in Philadelphia. When I moved to Atlanta in 1995, I wanted to open my own place with a focus on beer and games — a place I could hang out with my friends. We settled on Decatur because it had a plan in place to revitalize its downtown, which included restaurants. We chose this building because it could hold 20 pool tables, a bar, and small kitchen. We wanted to be part of Decatur's new vision.
What was it like opening Twain's in an age before Yelp and social media?
EW: I definitely think Twain's opening would have been a lot different had Yelp and social media been around. Cutting your teeth in the Internet age is brutal. Not having social media in the ‘90s afforded us time to work out kinks without feeling pressure. Restaurants opening today have it much tougher. People are quick to trash, and it spreads like wildfire on the web. You have to be ready to act and change quickly, maybe too quickly. Twain's definitely benefited from being able to grow up in the "dark ages" before social media.
What's in a name?
EW: Mark Twain was an avid billiards player. We were toying with a book and billiards theme at the time. Twain is a wholly American, iconic writer. I like that he's a bit irreverent too. We don't take ourselves too seriously. The whole building is sort of a shrine to him. He rarely spoke about his love of billiards because he played to relax and think. I feel like that spirit is still here at Twain's — you come here to step back from the rat race, relax, drink beer, and shoot pool.
Talk about the transformation from pool hall to craft beer and local food.
EW: I'm not afraid to say we felt the pressure to up our game on both counts 10 years ago. Atlanta was just starting to get into local food and craft beer, and people were looking for those experiences. We probably lost business because we weren't offering those experiences. When I first opened Twain's in ‘96, I knew brewing our own beer was in the cards. That became our focus in 2006.
Why do you think 2006 was a pivotal year for Twain's and Atlanta's beer scene?
EW: For the first few years, it didn't make sense to brew our own beer. The demand wasn't there yet. Georgia changed its beer laws around 2006. Knowing we always wanted to brew beer, it was the right moment. Twain's had a tiny back of house then. It was nearing its shelf life. This coupled with the new laws and so much competition from other bars trying to purchase craft beer, it made sense to start brewing our own.
Getting a handle on brewing took time. Making beer is easy. Making good beer takes skill. We hired an experienced brewer because I'm not a brewer. Business expanded quickly once we had our brewery installed and were making great beer. We knew right away becoming a brewpub with billiards was the right move. Today we change our taps out frequently with new beers we brew. Our beer menu is updated weekly.
How was it working under Twain's former head brewer, David Stein (now of Creature Comforts), and how have you evolved the program since his departure?
Chase Medlin: David and I had a lot of fun working together. I think we learned a lot from each other. We brewed many fun and interesting beers, even one with tropical fruit Starbursts. We both liked keeping styles fresh and new. After David left, I started fresh with all new recipes of my own to present my brewing style, but I still carry on the creative tradition we started here together.
Talk about the change to a chef-driven menu and hiring chef Savannah Haseler.
EW: About six years ago, after the brewery was up and running, we knew we had to do something about our food and small kitchen. We had to expand and offer fresh, local options or risk losing business. Under Savannah's leadership, we've definitely gained some new customers who are here for the beer and games as well as good food.
Our dinner crowd is the biggest change from before our kitchen overhaul. We now see a full dining room most nights of families, couples, and friends. It's a real cross section of Decatur before 9 p.m. They eat, shoot pool with their kids, and head home. It's a whole new generation of Twain's customers.
How have you elevated the food at Twain's yet still maintained the pub vibe?
Savannah Haseler: We do things from scratch, which makes it very easy to use local products and keep classic pub fare, with a little twist. Our reuben is made with our own corned beef from White Oak Pastures. We make pickled cabbage instead of buying pre-made sauerkraut. All of our burgers are made with Brasstown Beef and we put them on sesame buns from Decatur's Ratio Bakeshop. I am committed to sourcing our proteins locally, and I try to stay seasonal with fruits and vegetables that are locally grown.
After all of these changes through the years, what's gone through your mind leading up to the 20th anniversary?
EW: Names, faces, events, moments I thought I'd never revisit again, yet there they are. A lot of people helped build Twain's, not just employees but customers both past and present. A lot of moments for me, for my friends and family, for our regulars have happened in this building. It's been cool reflecting on that.
I've also been thinking a lot about the future, not just of Twain's but of our new bowling alley, The Comet. Twain's was born pre-social media. The Comet will be a new experience for us opening in the age of Yelp and Twitter. I think about how different the openings of these two places will compare.
What do you think has been Twain's key to success?
EW: I think what has helped us succeed, honestly, is just our willingness to be humble and change when we see the need. There's no secret formula to Twain's. We've taken somewhat calculated risks too that have really paid off. Running a restaurant is 24/7. Also, we are a social place. We go beyond just a bar and restaurant. This is a gathering point for the community. That has always been at the center of Twain's, and will remain so. Keeping that in mind has helped us make decisions on new directions.
Did you think you'd still be here in 20 years?
EW: I was 28 when I opened Twain's in ‘96, so I wasn't thinking about time in those terms. I was in a different place in my life then — a single guy with the whole world in front of him. I just wanted to open a place like we had in Philly, a place to hang out at, play pool, and drink beer. That has obviously changed as I've gotten older.
We signed a 15-year lease when we opened. When our landlord and his partner liquidated, we were able to buy this place. I think that was the moment that solidified Twain's existence for good in Decatur. We've had some savvy moments over the years, that was another one — buying our building when we had the chance. I also think Decatur is semi-insulated with Agnes Scott, Emory, CDC, and being the county seat of DeKalb. During the various downturns in the economy, Decatur was able to weather them, which meant so were we. A magic combination has helped Twain's stay in business through the years. I'm not sure I could have foreseen that at 28.
What do the next 20 years look like for Twain's?
EW: I would love to get some of these leaks patched up! [laughs] We haven't figured it all out yet. I think that's part of the key to our success. We don't know everything. We don't take ourselves too seriously. I do think we will be looking at another remodel to accommodate more brewing capacity. But mainly, just keep doing what we do and paying attention. I don't want Twain's or me to be that crotchety old man shaking his walking stick at change. Being laid back and allowing Twain's to be Twain's is crucial to our success now, and in the future.