When you walk into the Pineville Tavern , a couple of things hit you right off the bat. It’s warm. Everyone – staff and customers – seem to be in a good mood. There’s a buzz of people enjoying themselves. And it feels like it’s been this way forever.
In fact, the Pineville Tavern has been around since 1742 (see its Web site for more history). It sits at the intersection of Route 413, and Pineville and Township Line Roads, straddling two townships, Buckingham and Wrightstown, in central Bucks County.
Like a lot of good things, what seems natural and effortless has a lot of intention and hard work behind it. As regulars at the Pineville, or PVT, we were curious as to how the staff was doing it and what got them there.
To find that out, you have to go to Andrew Abruzzese, owner of the PVT for the last twenty years. It was our pleasure – Andrew is a wonderful storyteller – to sit down with him and his son, Drew Abruzzese to talk about their history and their future.
“Cooking has always been a passion of mine,” says Andrew, almost as soon as we start. It began when he was a young boy, helping out in the kitchens of his grandmother and aunts, and at neighborhood events in the Italian section of Baltimore, where his mother was from, and then South Philly, his father’s childhood home. Both families’ roots go deep into Italy, his mother’s from Naples, his father’s from the mountains of Abruzzi.
His father’s father was a chef, his aunt was a chef, his father a “natural” cook. On his mother’s side of the family, his aunts catered and sold baked goods. You get the picture. Andrew comes from food.
But he was also inquisitive. He spent a lot of time hanging at everyone’s elbows to learn all he could about cooking. “I knew I could get anything out of any cook if I helped clean up,” he says. “I became an expert at cleaning up.”
That passion continued into his marriage in 1976, when Andrew became the “one who cooked dinner,” and then after the kids came along (Drew, then Phillip), entertaining for friends and family.
It wasn’t until 1988 this love of cooking and entertaining took shape in the form of a restaurant. And it almost didn’t happen. Originally, Andrew’s plan was for a family-style restaurant, designed with help from his friend Jim Hamilton (of the Hamilton Grill in Lambertville) in a property further south on 413. The deal fell through, and while sitting at the bar of the Pineville Tavern, crying in his beer so to speak, an idea was born. Joe Turner, then owner of the PVT, said, “Why don’t you buy this place?”
It turned out Turner had a sale lined up that had also fallen through. Andrew approached his accountant, who not only gave his blessing but became a partner. Roger Bonner, an up-and-coming chef Andrew had recruited from the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia, came on board. Jim Hamilton helped design an expansion of the dining room, and the Pineville started a new chapter in its history.
As we sat and talked, Andrew’s and Drew’s philosophy became clear. “To me the recipe was simple,” Andrew says. “There are four things you need for a successful restaurant. Good food, served by really nice people, in a comfortable atmosphere, for a fair price. Those four things will get you through good and bad economies.” Woven through all four criteria: consistency.
Consistency. Drew, Andrew’s 25-year-old son, has been working full time at PVT for the past three years, but he also spent most of his childhood working every corner in the restaurant. He inherited his father’s passion for food, and his eye for consistency. As soon as we settled in at a table, Drew started scanning the room. Was the lighting right for lunch? The music level? He joked about what his father would notice when he joined us. How about the picture light on his great-grandfather’s portrait on the wall behind our table? Would Dad notice it wasn’t on? (It turned out Andrew first noticed the music, which Drew had turned down so we could record the interview.)
That’s the level of detail with which the Pineville Tavern is run. When Andrew first bought the business, he and his wife, MaryLou, had a paint contracting business (which they still run today). Not knowing how things were done in the restaurant industry at the time, Andrew was shocked at the lack of consistency.
“When we ordered french fries sometimes, I would taste them and they would be different,” Andrew recounts. “So, I’d ask Roger, ‘What happened?'” “Oh, they substituted a different brand,” he’d reply. The food supplier said such substitutions were common.
“Not in my restaurant,” was Andrew’s response. “I don’t care if they’re cheaper, if you can’t provide me with what I ordered then I’ll find somebody else.”
Fair prices. Here again Andrew bucked the industry standards. At the time, the prevalent pricing model was to take food cost, add overhead, and triple it to get the customer’s price. But the food ended up costing too much, Andrew felt. “I decided to take the cost of the meat, and triple it.”
He also got a lot of advice, much of it not very good. “One man said, ‘If it’s too cheap, people are going to think it’s not good.’ I thought about that for about three seconds and said, ‘If it’s good…it’s good. What are you talking about?'” he exclaims. “It’s cheap, and it’s good. And that’s kind of our mantra, still to this day.”
Drew concurs. A few years ago when the economy was high, and Bucks County was buzzing along, he pressured his father to raise prices. But Andrew resisted. He knew what was fair, says Drew, and knew the bubble was going to burst. Besides, raising prices went against his business model. “When people start telling me, ‘Andrew, it’s too cheap. You could get two dollars more for everything in your restaurant,’ I say, ‘Good. That’s the way I like it.'”
Now, Andrew says, when other restaurateurs call him to commiserate over the slow economy, and they ask him about business, he is embarrassed. “We’re doing fine,” says Andrew, grateful he’s stuck to his philosophy – and that customers have stayed loyal.
Service by really nice people. In a previous post, we mentioned the Pineville is one of those places where they know your name, and what you drink. For example, there’s the bartender Sue, there for seventeen years and dearly loved by staff and customers. There’s Roger Bonner, the chef, who started out with Andrew twenty years ago. There’s Dan Yingling, the restaurant manager. And all the wait staff, bar staff and hosts who are “like family.” It shows in how customers are treated.
A comfortable atmosphere. Sitting in the Pineville, you’d think the dining room hasn’t changed for a hundred years. To the contrary, a lot of work has gone into creating the atmosphere, but not in the way of today’s corporate restaurants. Many of the pictures on the wall came from one morning’s foray through the Golden Nugget flea market in Lambertville.
Rather than “clean up” the back dining room with it’s ancient cooking fireplace, Jim Hamilton kept it. The walls were treated specially, not white-washed, to give the look of years of soot and cigarette smoke. And the blackboard, with its specials changing daily, has been a mainstay of the PVT since Andrew took it over in 1989.
If you’ve been to the Pineville recently you’ll have noticed the construction going on at the back of the property. A major expansion is underway. First the parking lot will be expanded, adding twenty-five more spaces for a total of seventy plus (a storm water control system must first be installed). Another dining room, seating thirty-two, will be added out back, on the other side of the fireplace, with a six-seat bar and a rear entrance. The kitchen will be rebuilt and a take-out store will be added, as well.
Good food. If you’ve eaten at the Pineville, we don’t have to tell you the food is good and consistent. The menu is varied, and the blackboard specials supplement it. The homemade ravioli are fresh, soft and slightly chewy, with a light marinara sauce (all those hours cooking with his Italian aunts obviously paid off for Andrew). Order a hamburger medium-rare, and it arrives medium-rare, a detail many restaurants don’t bother with.
Whenever possible, the Pineville buys local vegetables. And why not? With so many local farms nearby, it’s a crime not to. Come in during the summer and early autumn to the PVT for a special called, “Freddy’s Tomatoes.” It’s made from Slack Farm tomatoes, grown by Freddy Slack, a few miles down the road in Forest Grove. The deep red tomatoes are sprinkled liberally with blue cheese and red onions with a light oil and vinegar dressing. And asparagus season is almost upon us, so look for that on the daily blackboard too.
Interestingly, the Abruzzeses don’t just talk about their restaurant. They heap praise on their colleagues, as well. Andrew has been a customer of the Kopper Kettle in Feasterville for years. He loves their Buffalo Shrimp and finally got the recipe from the owner. He’ll add the dish to the PVT menu soon as “Kopper Kettle Buffalo Shrimp.” Bowman’s Tavern also got praise from Andrew and Drew (watch for our post on our excellent meals there, soon).
To sum up, I’ll use Andrew’s words. In 1990, Philadelphia Magazine chose The Pineville Tavern as one of the “50 Best Bargain restaurants,” putting the new restaurant on the map. “That made it okay to come into a place with beer signs in the window,” he laughs. And on any given night, you’ll find a busy parking lot filled with vehicles from pick-up trucks to luxury cars to SUVs.
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