The Pawling Tavern has always been a family affair. Ben Christgau started working for his father tending bar pretty much as soon as he was legally able, about fourteen years ago. Like many small business owners, his father dreamed of keeping the restaurant in the family. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way; offspring don’t always share their parents’ passion. But when his father recently retired, Ben was only too happy to take over operation of the Tavern. In fact, bars just might be in his DNA. His great grandfather owned one in Philadelphia, and before opening the Tavern 25 years ago, Ben’s father spent 15 years running Foley’s Pub in Pleasantville. “I actually took him on a field trip to see where he started,” Ben says, “just so I knew where I started.”
Respect for the Past
Ben was enthusiastic about fulfilling his father’s vision of running the Tavern, but he also realized he would have to make some changes in order to succeed. “There are more people coming up from the city and young families are moving in,” he says. “I see Pawling growing quite a bit. It’s nice to see a change. Sometimes you just need a little light and imagination to see what Pawling could be.” Ben saw that potential and was ready to invest in his future here, but to keep up with the changing times and attract the new demographic, he knew The Pawling Tavern would need a bit of a facelift.
When I spoke to Ben on a recent Saturday afternoon, it was immediately apparent he had a clear image of what The Tavern could be and exactly how to achieve it. He has an attitude of respect for the past, while embracing the future. As one of the oldest pubs in the area, many longtime patrons liked things the way they were. Ben was sensitive to the fact any changes would have to remain true to its character. He wanted to keep his old customers happy, as well as attract new ones. Even people who are moving to Pawling from elsewhere are drawn to its country charm, so turning the Tavern into a sleek lounge was not in the cards. “We wanted to keep the rustic feel of the place,” he says. “You can’t come in and update something in a modern way. It won’t fit in with the area.”
New, Old Decor
The first phase of the renovation – completed in a whirlwind ten days – involved totally redoing the bathrooms and replacing all the kegs, pumps, and refrigeration units. Everything was state-of-the-art. When it came to decor, however, Ben wanted to maintain the Tavern’s comfy feeling, so he turned to the use of reclaimed woods. Reclaiming wood (the practice of reusing wood pulled from old buildings like barns and factories) began in the 1970s, mostly as a reaction to concerns about logging’s effect on the environment and a decline in the quality of available lumber. As waste disposal costs rose, it has become cheaper to deconstruct, rather than demolish, old buildings. There’s also just something wonderful about using planks hewn from trees that may have been cut down over a hundred years ago, exposed to decades of expanding and contracting due to heat and cold – gaining strength and character like a fine, aged wine. It brings new meaning to the saying “if these walls could talk . . . ” Ben pointed out a beam that came from a barn in Pennsylvania. The bar rail was a tree limb that came in whole; Ben’s workers planed off the bark for a custom fit. Reclaimed wood is also used throughout the space as paneling and seamlessly complements the original tin ceiling, which itself is more than a century old. Even with all the renovations, there’s been hardly a dent in the relaxed, been-here-forever vibe. “People would come in and say, ‘we know you did something, but we don’t know what you did,’ and that’s exactly what we wanted,” he says.
Although the renovations were done in a short space of time, Ben plans to introduce other changes more gradually. “Slow and steady wins the race,” he says. For example, the menu remains unchanged for now. The focus is on made-from-scratch, down-home food, not because it’s trendy, but because that’s the way it’s always been done at the Tavern. As Ben tells me: “The chef’s been there for fifteen years. All of our dressings are made from scratch, fries are hand cut every day. The wings and everything else on the menu are fresh – no cryovac!” Oh, and those wings? The kitchen goes through two tons in a year!
Another part of Ben’s plan to carve out a unique niche for the Tavern and differentiate it from nearby watering holes, is focusing on locally brewed beers. “I don’t have Guinness,” Ben confesses, but he can tempt you with an American stout, or perhaps a cucumber flavored cream ale, brewed right in Poughkeepsie at The Mill House Brewing Company. Ben subscribes to the “buy local” mantra, again not because it’s become hip, but because he wants to put a face to the businesses he deals with. “I went up to Adirondack Brewery in Lake George and visited with the seven owners. Now I’ve met them and when I buy their product, I know I’m supporting real people and their families.” Ben has high praise for the local breweries. The quality is phenomenal and the cost not substantially different from mass market producers. His ultimate goal is to have a beer custom-crafted featuring all New York ingredients, brewed exclusively for the Pawling Tavern. Not only does he plan to serve it, he also intends to use it throughout the menu—in beer batter, for example. He’ll also be looking to the many local distilleries cropping up in the Hudson Valley, like Hillrock Estate Distillery in Ancram, NY, and Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner. “What we have here locally is so phenomenal, there’s no need to go outside of the area to buy. Even if it costs a little more, you know you’re putting money into the local economy and you’re getting quality.”
Even the Tavern’s live music is locally sourced. “If they’re not from around here, I really don’t have them in any more,” he says. “There are plenty of talented musicians who live here and want to play.”
The next stage of renovations, the back room and outside facade, are scheduled to be completed in time for St. Patrick’s Day festivities. But don’t wait until then to enjoy a home-cooked meal and a brew. “Every day we have something different going on,” says Ben. Stop by for wings on Monday or tacos on Tuesday – whatever the day, you really can’t go wrong with a visit to the new [old] Pawling Tavern.