Archive for March, 2012

I have been asked a thousand times if I enjoyed owning a bar and I always answer something to the effect that it was the ultimate love/hate relationship. When I use those two opposing words I am meaning them in their strongest forms. For example, I hated passionately having to work 84 hours a week.
During the week I arrived at 9:30 to do the janitorial, count the money and make up the tills for the day. Next I opened the kitchen for lunch and then worked as one of the cooks for that meal. Then I was off to Costco or URM or Cash & Carry to do my own shopping.(It took a lot of time but I saved 10% by not having a company like Sysco deliver). Beyond restaurant food and supplies, I also picked up the alcohol and pull tabs.
After shopping, it was about time for dinner during which I worked in the kitchen. On slow days I would zip home for maybe an hour just to remind the kids that they still had a father figuratively speaking. Five nights of the week I was back by 8 to get ready to run the karaoke until 1 or 2 in the morning. On Friday and Saturday we were normally packed with a cover band and I was the babysitter doing everything from bar-backing to bouncing.
It was not that I hated the work. I found it light duty and fairly engaging. In fact, if I did not have four young kids at home, I would still be there. It was the time that it took that I hated. It was just wrong not being there for my family, especially when Elaine had to work 54 hours a week at the place. I hated it so badly that when it came time to renew the lease and pay $1,000 more a month, I refused the increase. The landlord eventually gave me an ultimatum and so after four years we walked away. I really hated that part.
But from our opening night Halloween party that was over the top to the Potluck dinner that touched our hearts so deeply on our last day, we had dozens and dozens of the best party nights and days with literally thousands of people. That part I loved and it gave each long hour a purpose.
The Rock Inn was a big place with room for every kind of gathering. While the Gideon’s ate and prayed together in our banquet room, revellers would be drinking and dancing as they celebrated a 21st or 40th or 50th or 60th birthday. Actually, while those milestones attracted the big parties, it seemed there was always someone getting too many rounds bought for them as they celebrated one of the more mundane birthdays that fell in between the decades.
We had a front row seat to every occasion people deemed worthy of a banquet, party or just a toast. Anniversaries, Christmas parties, Super Bowls, bowling banquets, reunions… you name it.
Among the many wakes we saw pass by was one for a guy that I clearly remember meeting for the first time in 6th grade as we waited in line to go inside after recess on my first day at the new school. He grabbed my arm and flipped me over his shoulder and as I looked up bewildered from the ground, he said “Hi my name is Steve Chamberlain.” And I said “Dan Daley back at South Pines warned me about you and now I know why”. We remained friends from then through us opening the Rock Inn when he came in one night and playfully but obnoxiously grabbed me by the hair from across the bar as I barbacked one busy night. He was being a drunk customer, trying to reestablish the pecking order between us. I did not mind because I knew he was proud of me and he knew that he and I went back to the days when he ruled University Elementary.
I saw the retirement parties for cement truck drivers whose first days on the job I could remember, having been only eleven years old when Dad started me on his foundation crew. One guy named Jay Carpenter actually worked on Dad’s crew for a few years before he went to work as a cement truck driver. I had to ask him to put out his cigar at his retirement party since the no smoking law had just gone into effect. He really did not like the idea that I could boss him around.
These kinds of times were rich, like Bill Gates rich, like Mega lottery winner rich, and I loved them. But of all the hundreds of great gatherings, one stands out as by far the best to have been a part of for Elaine and I. It was a benefit for a little girl named Hailey who had been terribly abused by her daycare worker.
Compared to that day when they were able to raise $10,000 for her, nothing made us feel so grateful to be owners of a place as then. I would argue there is no greater purpose for a bar than to host a benefit for anyone in crises, let alone a young child in need. For that matter, I would go one step further and argue that no structure be it a church or school gymnasium or opera house has any loftier use of its space than to bring caring people together to raise money for the purpose of helping lessen the financial burden of a family enduring the immeasurable trial of carrying and comforting a child through suffering.
This Saturday the Bayou Tavern out at Trent and Barker has the God-given opportunity to rise far, far above its calling as it takes on the honorable role of hosting a fundraiser for one of God’s precious young children named Jayden Bennett, who at age 10 has been waging his fight against cancer for 3 years.
Just as the Bayou will be at its highest and best calling this Saturday, so will each and every person who attends. I can say that knowingly, having attended the most important night of many peoples’ lives. Nothing compares to doing what little you can to just slightly relieve the unfathomable burden of a family with a child going through what Jayden Bennett is going through.

I could write all day long and never begin to say the words that this picture says so poignantly and profoundly. I can only add that this function begins at 4. Lasagna dinner is $10. There will be a live and silent auction. The Bayou is at the corner of Trent and Barker. There will be entertainment and if you can come up with a better place to be, don't ever tell me because we'll just get into a big argument.

So after months of waiting, the Valley has the opportunity to go in and enjoy a relaxing repast at The Ref, which is exactly what Elaine and I and two of our kids did on opening night. When it comes to putting out an opinion on food for public perusal, I trust all three of them more than I do myself. At 53, I’m getting to be more and more like Elaine’s beloved and long-departed grandfather Alvin Clark.

Apparently, everything set before him tasted great and even better when he mixed together seemingly unrelated foods on his plate like green salad with Blue Cheese dressing together with the mashed potatoes and brown gravy topped with ketchup. While his never-ending food mismatching caused all the younger generations, including myself , to shutter at the sight of a few strands of green beans disappearing into his mouth forked just ahead of a chunk of turkey topped with ketchup, he always cleaned his plate, had  dessert and lived a robust life until the age of 94.

Jacque, our 17-year- old, and Eli, the college student, are far from their great-grandfather in regards to taste buds, while I seem to be following in his elderly foot steps. But that may not be all bad. As with bad hearing that allows me to miss unkind words and a bad memory that allows me to forget the ones I do hear, perhaps tired taste buds are another blessing of old age, allowing no foods to offend me. At the Ref, however, I would have preferred youth on my tongue as the reading glasses on my nose made clear to my aging eyes that the pizza Elaine had picked out looked very tasty indeed.

I was a bit worried that a large pizza would not be suffice for the four of us and so I slipped in a small order of wings with sweet chili sauce. Silly me. The pizza turned out to be a 4-person-butt-kicker. Being the one who gets the check put in front of them ( before I slide it over to Elaine), I liked that aspect of the pizza.  It basically meant we could have dined to everyone’s capacity on very good pizza for about $7.25 a person. Considering the fun, lively atmosphere and friendly service, that was a bargain. (And when there is a big game on when the fam has to be fed out for some reason, The Ref, with its host of flat screens insuring there is not a bad seat in the house, will be every Fathers on-demand choice).

It was pretty much a given that I would find the pizza tasty since I love Thai and they did a great job. As the family scavenger, I had an additional bonus because  when I picked  the perfectly good left-over crusts off my family’s plates and dipped it in the ranch dressing I found it made delicious bread sticks for me. Alvie would have been proud even if I didn’t add ketchup.

But as I said, I am not the consumer the chef  at the Ref is worried about. That would be Elaine and the two kids. The next afternoon as Jacque munched on one of the three pieces of pizza we brought home, she asked when we were going to go back. She loved the pizza and thought the wings were perfect. The menu, she said, looked so good she could not wait for another round at The Ref.

Here is the awesome menu that, combined with the delicious pizza and wings, made us all look forward to another round at the Ref.

This is a pretty darn good-looking appetizer menu. I got my eye on the loaded chips and the Slam Dunk Buffalo Dip.

They have the salads covered.

Hopefully, Jacque won't read this because I already went back for lunch on Friday with my mom. She had been gone a month and had a birthday while she was away so I feel quite justified indulging myself. She had the Chicken Ceasar wrap that was big enough for her to take half home to Dad. I tried a few of her fries and they were quite dandaroony with great seasoning. I had the Pulled Pork sandwich that is their Friday lunch special ( the real reason for eating there on a Friday). I love BBQ and so I can vouch that this is a good one , especially with the appleslaw mixed in there. Unlike a lot of the inventive food pairings Alvie used to come up with, the slaw with the pulled pork was obviously the conncoction of a culinanary talent in the kitchen that is sure to be a crowd pleaser, I know it was a Craig-pleaser.

This is where things start to get a little serious. There is a lot of pizza to be had in the Valley, but not a lot of premium pizza. The Ref saw the situation and has seized this opportunity, making their place the place to go for really good pizza in the Valley. The Thai Pie that we tied into came with their house appleslaw on the side. Elaine, taking after her Grandpa Alvie, slathered it all over the top and thought she was up there in heaven with him.

Really can’t vouch for their burgers since I seldom touch the buggers.

Their wings are their knockout punch. You can tell by their sauce selection that The Ref is not coming in on a wing and a prayer in matters concerning this part of the beleaguered chicken's anatomy. ( What a bummer for cows and chickens to be so tasty to the American palate. Much better to be a dog or cat. Though India would have been a great place to be born a cow and China for cats is not where you'd want to be.) At any rate, I can tell you they have willy wonderful wings. The first night with the family we had boneless with chilli sauce. While I loved the sauce, boneless is not what behooves a man, but both my kids prefer them and they loved The Ref's rendition. Friday night Elaine and I had a late night snack of a 1/2 pound of the traditional wings with the Thai sauce. The wings to us were succulent and delicious, there's just something that the old bone does for the meat that works for Elaine and I.

Unlike Alvie, I never have room for dessert, but these look like destination desserts, worthy of their own visit.

This menu is smart because the Valley is a special place in more ways than one.The Happy Hours apply to the weekends which I think is very smart. A lot of places do not remember to keep the Happy Hour sacred on Saturday let alone the Sabbeth.

The bottom line on this new place is that the originality and inventiveness of the menu is backed up by genuinely good food and good service. If you have been keeping track, (and I hope Jacque’s not) I have eaten there three times with four different people. The service was always good and every dish was dead on in presentation, portions and preparation. I am proud of the owners, Fred and Melanie Lopez, for creating a new place from scratch that obviously puts a heavy emphasis on good food.

   I love that their menu was put together and dialed in by people who live right here andnot by East Coast chefs working  in a million dollar culinary laboratory back East somewhere like they do for Applebee’s. This Pulled Pork sandwich with the appleslaw mixed in there a la Alvie was really good  and that is coming from a guy who has been carrying on a decades-long love affair with the old pulled porkarooskie. The sweet potato fries were pretty darn good as well.

They obviously paid attention to a lot of little things. For example the celery that came with these wings were crisp and fresh while the Blue Cheese dressing that we dipped them in was about as good as it gets. And those wings are as mouth-wateringly good as they look. They are able to bake them at the Ref and not just deep fry them and so they come out with an outsanding succulence. These are what Elaine and I would call the Right Wing while the kids, who grew up during the height of the McNugget Era, seem to be fonder of the boneless wing.

      While the visual focal point  of the interior of The Ref is the huge oval bar with its eye-catching  and very original scoreboard/ flat screen display hovering above, the real focus of The Ref’s owners and staff is on putting out a great tasting product with friendly and professional  service. Which is exactly the way it should be.

Update: since writing this post I have become something of a regular at the Ref and have now tried quite a few different things there and talked to a lot of people about their meals. I still stand firmly behind their pizza, and can now add atleast the BBQ burger to my list of recommendations, having tried and loved one. Two friends told me they loved their burgers as well. We always order their great sweet potato fries that come with a great dipping sauce.
But I have to pull my tip of the hat to their pulled pork sandwich and warn that their kitchen apparently has some consistency issues. The sandwich we had Saturday was a far cry from the one I had a few weeks before. It was flat out bad in that the bread was soggy and had the rubbery texture that nuking does to bread. It was tiny and had very little of the appleslaw that earned my ravenous ravings the first time around . In truth, Elaine, who split the sandwich with me, and I both felt that the sandwich reminded us of one of those that you get at a convenience store wrapped in paper that you cook yourself in the microwave.
All that being said, I still have no problem standing behind my glowing review and after having the opportunity to get to know the owner and some of his staff, I know they will eventually get everything up to the excellence and consistency they have been delivering from day one on nearly all of their menu.

To read a feature story on Fred Lopez click here.

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