STATE COLLEGE - How can a restaurant be in constant flux, and yet at the same time be a model of consistency?
Just ask Pat Daugherty, the owner of The Tavern Restaurant. The Tavern consists of some of the oldest buildings in the city, but you'd never know from the way it does business.
The menu changes every day and, with a roster of Penn State University students as employees, the staff changes yearly.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Tavern waitress Kendra Immel serves dinner to Doug Sweetland and his wife, Carolina Rojas, of San Francisco.
Even the Tavern's most devoted customers are torn as to whether the tradition or the change is most important.
Tom Knauff, 70, of Julian, says he has been coming to the Tavern for 50 years. Asked what keeps him coming back, he's quick to answer.
''I think if anything else, it's the consistency in the food,'' Knauff says. ''You know what you're going to get here.''
Behind the Plates
Name: The Tavern Restaurant
Address: 220 E. College Ave., State College
Hours: 5 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday and 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday
Price range: $7.99 to $26.99 (prices include
all-you-can-eat side dishes)
Atmosphere: Casual dining
Specialties: Veal, chicken and seafood during the summer months and prime rib on weekends
Seating capacity: 190
Reservations: Taken Sunday through Thursday, but not needed
Yet in the next sentence, Knauff lauds the ever-changing roster of dishes.
''There's always surprises in the menu,'' he says. ''You never really know what's going to be on the menu. But then we have our favorite stuff that they routinely have, so you know you're going to get a good quality meal.''
In the end, The Tavern is still a State College tradition.
The main buildings are a former residence, which Daugherty says was one of the original buildings built on College Avenue, in 1893, and a former carriage house that he says was built in the late 1800s or early 1900s. The Tavern has expanded since its founding in 1948 by Ralph Yeager and John O'Connor - but the restaurant still has a somewhat ancient feel, like you're dining in a museum or a historical monument. That feeling is only multiplied by the decor.
Daugherty - who bought the restaurant in 1980 with his late partner, Bill Tucker - said that the Tavern has always been known for its decor. The artwork that the founders originally decorated with is now in the art collection of Penn State. But after buying the restaurant, he and Tucker were quick to add their own works to the Tavern walls. A lithograph of George Washington hangs on one wall, while in the next room, patrons sit under yellowing maps of some of the oldest towns in the region.
''Some of the things that are on our wall, people enjoy them at different levels,'' Daugherty said. ''I have people say, 'Oh, I've seen this print, this print and this print, but I've never seen a print of ... Pottstown. I collect these, where did you get that?'
''Then other people will look at it and say, ''Oh, there's DuBois, that's where the railroad is.' They enjoy it because they can relate to it.''
The decorations extend to the rooms themselves. According to Daugherty, the Fireside Room looks just like it did decades ago. One room is lined with maps of area towns, while another features photographs and prints. The National Championship Room features photos of every team and individual athlete to have won a national championship for Penn State.
The university is an important part of the Tavern's history. The school provides the restaurant with an endless pool of employees.
''We're pretty proud of our kids,'' Daugherty said. ''We have a kid this year who left us because he's now the overall chair of (the Penn State Dance Marathon, or THON).
"It's the second time we've had the overall chair (working at the Tavern). A year ago we had a great waiter who was a cheerleader ... now this is his second year of being the Nittany Lion, so we lost him, too.''
Though turnover can be high as the students move on, Daugherty makes a point to give the college kids a chance.
''Almost every person on the floor is a Penn State student,'' he explained. ''The previous owners started that in 1948 and it's something that we've continued to do.''
Though the university offers ample employees for the restaurant, Daugherty says the students aren't really a big part of his restaurant's customer base.
''The kids at the school tend to come here only on a special occasion,'' he said.
Much of the Tavern's business comes from regulars, both area residents and those who travel specifically to eat at the restaurant.
Several of the familiar faces only appear during the Penn State football season.
''We have a group of people we call 'football regulars' (because) we see them eight times a year seven home games and the Blue and White (spring game),'' Daugherty said.
He added that the football weekends illustrate patrons' love of a Tavern staple.
''One of the things that we're known for is we don't charge extra for sides and salads. You can have as many orders as you like,'' he said. ''Where we really see it is on football weekends. During homecoming weekend against Michigan we had several times where it took two servers to take the salads out because eight people got three or four salads each.''
The expansive side menu is a favorite of State College resident Dave Sweetland, who likes the tucker pudding ("You don't find it very often," he said.). Sweetland says he has been coming to the restaurant for more than 30 years.
"They have a good variety on the menu, it's sort of classic American food," he said.
Sweetland was dining at the Tavern with his son, Doug, who was visiting with his family from San Francisco. Doug, a State College native, has fond memories of the restaurant."
''I started eating here when I was a kid," he said. "We would come with family friends and I would get a steak. I just remember 'steak and the spaghetti,' that's what we would get at the Tavern."
He laughed at the memories, than added, "now that we live so far away, whenever we're back in town, we try to make sure we stop here."
Daugherty is happy to see many generations dining at the restaurant. He says its the easy-going nature of the town that makes the Tavern such a popular destination after six decades in operation.
''State College is a town where nobody's uncomfortable,'' Daugherty said. ''People can come in and be dressed in T-shirts and jeans, and sit next to someone in a jacket and a tie, and neither one feels uncomfortable. It's a casual town that way.''
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.