CONVERSATION WITH THE CHEF: The “Cheers” of Manayunk

Sep 12, 2017 0 comments
CONVERSATION WITH THE CHEF: The “Cheers” of Manayunk

By Ainsley Maloney

Photography By Melissa Kelly

Back in the mid-2000s, Joseph Keough and Jeff Bender had been bartending at Bourbon Blue for nearly five years when they began talking about opening a place of their own. Every time they talked about Manayunk’s nightlife, they kept coming to the same conclusion — something was missing.

At the time, it seemed there were only two ways to enjoy a night out in Manayunk. There was the club scene, where college-aged kids stayed out dancing until 2 a.m. Or there were fine-dining restaurants, where a more mature crowd sipped red wine over surf and turf dinners at white-linen tables.

“There really wasn’t anywhere with a good neighborhood feel, where everyone would walk in and feel comfortable — younger, older, blue collar, college aged,” said Joe. “Like the bar you went home to at Christmas time to catch up with your friends — we wanted that bar.”

As soon as an Italian BYOB at the corner of 4247 Main St. went up for sale, Joe and Jeff knew they found their perfect place. Shortly after purchasing, renovations took place — a concrete bar and interior woodwork to start. Outside, they installed a blue awning to offer plenty of shade to al fresco diners. In November 2007, the Manayunk Tavern was open for business.

“We wanted the place to feel that it had been there for 30 years, even though it was brand new, so that’s what we were going for with the name,” Joe said.

From the start, Manayunk Tavern was one of the few bars on Main Street to offer craft beers on tap. Back then, most establishments had just three beers to choose from: Coors Light, Yuengling Lager, and Guinness. A “closet homebrewer” himself, Joe had a sense for where the craft beer market was going. Manayunk Tavern opened with six rotating drafts from Victory Brewing Company, Yards Brewing Co., Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, and Samuel Adams.

“At the time, these were beers you couldn’t get anywhere else. Of course, we thought we were like City Works with 100 beers on tap,” Joe said with a laugh. “We didn’t want to be a ‘$2 Bud Lights every day’ kind of place. We wanted to be a place where you can expect to have a quiet evening.”

“Our draft beers have always been $5 or $6, and we figured the people who want that will come,” he continued, adding their clientele is mostly the 26-32 and older crowd. “It’s a walkable community, and we benefit from a lot of foot traffic. I think we priced ourselves right.”

Located at the crest of Main Street on the three-way intersection between Bourbon Blue and The Couch Tomato, Manayunk Tavern and its signature blue sign are visible to every passerby who bends right to continue toward Shurs Lane.

“We’re that middle bar in the middle of the road in every sense of the word,” explained Manayunk Tavern’s manager, Adrienne Maitland-Laguda. “We cater to all ages and demographics: college kids with their parents, bicyclists from Center City, Main Liners, locals, and Manayunk business owners.”

“And if we don’t know your name,” Adrienne continued, “we probably know your dog’s name.”

Manayunk Tavern’s menu has always been solid American upscale-casual “comfort food with a kick,” as Joe explained it. “Our signature, crab and asparagus grilled cheese has been on the menu since day one. It’s our perennial best seller.” The popularity of their appetizers, salads, and sandwiches have lead them to eliminate pricy entrées entirely.

For the first six years of business, either Joe or Jeff was at Manayunk Tavern every waking minute — tending bar, serving food, greeting customers, and ensuring quality — whatever it took.

“I think people liked knowing that when they came into the bar, 95 percent of the time, they’d see a friendly face,” Joe said, adding that he put in 12 hour days through the birth of his three kids — now ages 10, 8, and 5 — a sacrifice that was only possible because of his wife’s support and blessing.

At that time, Manayunk Tavern was one of the only kitchens on Main Street to serve food until midnight. Soon, it became the go-to place for servers from neighboring bars to meet and grab a bite after their shifts ended at 10 p.m.

That’s exactly how Adrienne ended up at Manayunk Tavern a decade ago. She’d been a server at a nearby establishment, came to the bar after work nearly every night (“loved the vibe, the food, the people”), and soon, asked if they were hiring.

“The rest is history,” she said. “Before you knew it, servers from other restaurants were hanging out there, working there, and then our regulars were coming into the tavern.”

Adrienne is one of the “last originals” who worked alongside Joe and Jeff shortly after the bar opened. She is now a full-time manager.

“The tavern is like the ‘Cheers’ of Manayunk,” Adrienne said. “Everybody in Manayunk is like six-degrees of separation. It’s a little family.”

Adding to the family feel, Adrienne said her dedication to the restaurant has everything to do with Joe and Jeff. They let her keep an incredibly flexible schedule over the years to accommodate her passion for choreographing and directing musical theatre. When Adrienne and her then fiance, Joe Laguda, were in the process of buying their house, the restaurant where he worked closed for lengthy renovations. At risk of losing their home, the owners offered Joe L. a permanent full-time bartending position in 2015.

“Between what they did for us then and working around my crazy schedule all this time, these guys have solidified our loyalty,” Adrienne said.

Today, the newlyweds are back to managing Manayunk Tavern six days a week. Adrienne opens every morning, Joe L. closes every night. This works perfectly for owners Joe K. and Jeff, who are busy overseeing their newest venture: the one-year-old Tavern at Valley Forge in Eagleville, Pa.

“Every time I get a new server, I ask, ‘What do you love about Manayunk that you can tell everyone about?’” Adrienne explained. “When Ann [Tetreault] opened The Spiral Bookcase, I was telling everyone, ‘You’ve got to check out this cozy little bookstore!’”

“This is the best corner — it’s people watching extraordinaire,” she continued. “I tell my servers, ‘If you know you’re working every Tuesday at this time, go stand outside. You’ll see the same faces walking by. Give them a little wave!’ It helps form that little sense of community.”

That’s exactly how Ellen Speake, now 28, feels about Manayunk Tavern. She moved to Manayunk right after graduating from Gettysburg College. At the time, she didn’t know anyone in Manayunk besides her roommate. She started coming to Manayunk Tavern once a weekend, which soon turned into multiple times a week.

“I love the vibe — the casual, comfortable atmosphere,” Speake said. “It’s a great ‘middle place’ if you don’t want to stay in, but you’re not looking to go out out. The servers are super friendly, and they quickly became my friends. I met other regulars, and that created a community for me there.”

Even though Speake moved to Center City last year, Manayunk Tavern keeps pulling her back.

“I tried to find somewhere similar in the city, but there’s nowhere else like it,” she said, then added a big, exaggerated sigh. “I guess I’ll just have to keep coming back!”

Luckily for Speake, Manayunk Tavern will be here. Joe just recently signed another long-term lease. Mentioning all of the new condos popping up along Venice Island, Joe said he can envision Manayunk Tavern remaining a Main Street staple for the next 20 years, at least. He intends to come back full-time to the Manayunk location again very soon.

“Manayunk is where my heart is,” he said. “Our recipe of unique twists on comfort food, an ever-changing mix of familiar and unfamiliar draft beer, our attention to local spirits, and our exceptional staff has been a winning recipe. It’s one I intend to continue for many years to come so I can hopefully welcome the next 10 years of regulars.”

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