Santa is not the only jolly, white-haired man-about-town in State College these dark December days. Pat Daugherty, owner of The Tavern, is on the scene and happy to greet people needing a restorative at his colonial restaurant that is the epitome of mid-20th century American traditional dining. Even if you haven’t been in town for 30 years, you can go to The Tavern and find the menu looks very much the same. You can meet up with an old friend in for the holiday and revisit over veal piccata and warm gingerbread with brandied hard sauce, just like back in the day.
Holiday traditions are what bind us to a place and time. We need to repeat, repeat what we have done before, as if following the same path — and eating the same foods or singing the same songs — will lock us down into a safe place where we can truly celebrate the deeper meaning of the holidays.
People who are religious have it easy. They go to the church of their denomination or to a synagogue and all the rituals are the same. You are surrounded by people who share your own traditions and have the same values that you have. You are instantly accepted as part of the fold.
Secular people find their own way, which may include embracing a multitude of traditions. Some traditions in central Pa. that helped define the holidays in days gone by include the Junior Women’s Club Elves Gift Shop, Virginia Ricker’s Christmas coffees, the JCC Food Fair with latkes, shopping for a tree and cutting it down at the farm and holiday shopping downtown.
While shopping online has certain advantages, there is no way to make up for the sense of excitement that you find on the street ablaze with lights, where you hear the bell ringers collecting for The Salvation Army, and you can easily fall into any number of establishments to warm up with a beverage.
The Tavern is cozy, especially when the weather cooperates — cold, but not too windy — and there is a fire roaring in the Adam’s Apple bar. The well-worn benches next to the fireplace are inviting, but you may have to swap places to warm yourself up equally on both sides. It’s the perfect place to have some appetizers if you want to stay light on your feet and continue with errands on Calder Way, where the shops now include a new oil and vinegar emporium, The Branch and The Vine. Or you may choose to go the distance and settle in the dining room for a relaxing dinner and take advantage of The Tavern’s Wine Spectator Award of Excellence wine list.
Dinner at The Tavern is a holiday tradition for many locals, and many more on New Year’s Eve, when the restaurant is booked from 4:30-9:30 p.m. and typically serves 450 people. Their menu has perennial favorites that include spinach salad, lasagne, prime rib and Mrs. Yeager’s cheesecake recipe that has been on the menu since 1948. But their main claim to fame is the fact that you can order unlimited side dishes with your entrée, and they are all good.
When Curtis Biesecker came on board as executive chef just two months ago, he stepped into a hot spot that was a part of a well-oiled machine. Kitchen manager Brian Cummings is his partner in menu design and ordering. With a 20-year history with the establishment, Cummings worked his way up the way many do, by first being a dishwasher while he was a Penn State student. He eventually rotated through all the stations in the maze of the underground kitchen that has been cobbled together in a space that was part private home in 1890 and part carriage house in 1900. Even Daugherty worked as a waiter while he studied civil engineering at Penn State. He eventually bought the restaurant in 1980 with Bill Tucker, who retired in 1987, leaving that big boat with Daugherty at the rudder.
Biesecker is up to the current challenge below deck, and is working at maintaining The Tavern favorites while setting a high standard for food and service and incorporating more fresh seafood and local products — and broadcasting that fact on the menu. The Altoona native and Culinary Institute of America graduate has worked in many restaurants, including properties in Telluride, Key West, New York and Pittsburgh before heading back to home base in central Pa. He last worked at The Phoenix in Altoona and prior to that had his own catering business. He and Cummings are busy conjuring up what will be on the menu for New Year’s Eve to make it festive for the diners who anticipate a memorable evening .
Further up College Avenue, The Corner Room has an even longer hospitality tradition and the Allen Street Grill offers the best restaurant view in town from the windows on the porch. Sitting across from the sparking Christmas tree and viewing the lights of South Allen Street, one can be thankful for this place called home and all that it means in this moment. Start your tradition this year or continue one and enjoy the sparkle of the holidays.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Tavern Restaurant
220 E. College Ave., State College
Daily lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner Sun.-Tue.: 5-9:15 p.m.
Dinner Wed.-Sat.: 5-10 p.m.
Sunday brunch: 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.