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The Tavern: Dinner With A Side Of Penn State History

The Tavern has been a favorite downtown State College restaurant for more than 70 years.

Located on College Avenue, the Tavern has cemented itself as a gathering place for townies, students, alumni, and family members alike. Just ask Katie Toole and Gary Gray — two Penn State graduates-turned-professors who have a special place in their hearts for the iconic eatery.

In addition to being their go-to dinner spot with family and friends over the years, it’s employed five of their children. In fact, two of the five even met their spouses there.

“I can look around at tables in the restaurant and remember a graduation celebration here, a birthday dinner there…no other location in State College is more represented in our family than the Tavern,” Toole said.

Countless others feel the same way. By providing colonial-style comfort food in an environment that resembles an 18th-century inn, there’s no wonder why it’s difficult to find an empty table in the restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night.

What makes the Tavern special isn’t just the food or unlimited sides that hungry college students worship. Beyond the doors of the restaurant lies a welcoming atmosphere reminiscent of home accompanied by the rich history of the university and state of Pennsylvania.

The restaurant itself was the brainchild of two Penn State students, John O’Connor and Ralph Yeager. Both attended Penn State as undergraduates and were members of the same fraternity: Kappa Delta Rho. However, the pair didn’t meet until much later since they were several years apart in school.

When O’Connor and Yeager returned to Happy Valley after serving in World War II, they decided to take advantage of the GI Bill and enroll as graduate students at Penn State. Coincidentally, they both moved back into their old fraternity house and wound up as roommates.

Shortly after, the pair decided State College was in desperate need of a new restaurant. They began looking for a place downtown, and their search culminated in the discovery of a building being used for storage, previously home to the Harvey Brothers’ Bakery. O’Connor and Yeager jumped at the opportunity to rent the space and turn their vision of a restaurant into a reality.

On May 12, 1948, the Tavern opened its doors for lunch after officially receiving a liquor license. Three years later, it started serving dinner as well. The original menu, which included only spaghetti, steak, tossed salad, french fries, and french bread, can still be found hanging on the walls of the restaurant today.

The Tavern in May of 1968, back when College Ave was a two-way street (Eberly Family Special Collections Library)

Over the years, both the menu and the restaurant evolved immensely. O’Connor and Yeager expanded the space, moving upstairs into part of the adjacent building in 1949. Sixteen years later, another major change was made when the walls of the brick building were taken down in order to make room for a bar and lobby area.

The Tavern now encompasses three different buildings, all of which are connected, thanks to a grand total of seven expansions. The restaurant and kitchen make up the entirety of the red and white wooden buildings, while the brick building transformed into the bar now known as Adam’s Apple.

Pat Daugherty and Bill Tucker, who died in 1995, bought the restaurant from O’Connor and Yeager in 1980. After taking over the space, Daugherty and Tucker worked hard to balance the need for improvement while honoring the traditions and values deeply rooted in the restaurant’s history.

“In many ways, I’m not as much an owner as I am a curator. Many of the things that are here have been here for a long time, and people find comfort in that,” Daugherty said. “It makes them comfortable. We can’t do that with a menu, but we can do that with how the inside looks, the atmosphere, and the feeling.”

One of the ways the pair guarded this atmosphere was by maintaining a small gallery inside the restaurant. The previous owners were avid collectors of lithographs and prints depicting various Pennsylvania towns and battles. Although only a portion of this collection was left behind when the building changed ownership, it set a precedent for the space. It’s a way to tell the story of Penn State’s history, and that of the entire state of Pennsylvania.

Patrons sitting down for a hearty meal at the Tavern are surrounded by art in all directions. As a result, they aren’t simply indulging in a meal, but also taking a stroll through history.

The walls are adorned with drawings, paintings, and photographs of historic Pennsylvania towns, campus buildings, iconic coaches, and Old Main over the years. There’s even an entire room dedicated to Penn State’s national championship-winning teams.

Toole, who is also the president of the Centre County Historical Society, said she was fascinated by the collection of artwork inside the restaurant.

“The Tavern is a repository of Penn State history. It’s there, easily accessible and on display so you don’t have to go to a museum or dig up archives to learn about this history,” she said. “You can just go to the Tavern and have a good meal while you’re there.”

What’s more, some of the artwork holds a special meaning for Toole’s family. When her oldest son was six years old, he found himself particularly drawn to the photographs of athletes hanging on the wall. However, he noticed that one specific athlete was missing: his father. Gary Gray played football for the Nittany Lions in the late 1960s and was an Academic All-American linebacker.

Once Pat Daugherty heard the six-year-old’s concern, he had the family bring a framed photograph of Gray to the restaurant. Today, that photo hangs directly above the table where Toole, Gray, and their children used to sit at during their weekly Friday night dinners at the Tavern.

With the Tavern’s family-focused, traditional atmosphere, it seems fitting that many Penn State greats and prominent individuals have dined inside its walls over the years. From Joe Paterno and James Franklin to Don Bellisario, Walter Cronkite, and current Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf, the Tavern has served an array of locally and nationally famous customers. Billy Joel made a pitstop at the Tavern before a concert in Happy Valley — and left with the recipe for the Italian Cabbage in hand, according to Daugherty.

Joel isn’t the only fan of the Tavern’s food. Some of the most popular dishes on its menu include the Tavern Prime Rib (served only on weekends), lasagna, broiled escargot, and a spinach-mushroom salad. Dessert is also highly praised at the restaurant, especially the Tollhouse pie and gingerbread. The Tavern, of course, serves Creamery ice cream.

Despite its popular staples, Daugherty said he is always looking for new ways to improve the restaurant and the menu. A few years ago, the Tavern switched to buying its ingredients locally.

Curtis Biesecker was hired as head chef of the restaurant in 2017. Biesecker, an Altoona native, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked under world-class chefs in Key West, Telluride, New York City, and Pittsburgh.

The Tavern, with its iconic menu and traditional atmosphere, has been a downtown State College favorite for more than 70 years.
Curtis Biesecker became the Tavern’s head chef in 2017.

The Tavern has come a long way since O’Connor and Yeager first opened it nearly 71 years ago. However, so much has also stayed the same, which is why the Tavern remains one of State College’s cultural and culinary treasures.

“It’s just such a traditional place and in a town like State College, that is so transient, where people come and go all the time, it’s really important to have things and places that stay the same,” Toole said. “The Tavern is that place for us.”

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About the Author

Rory Pelella

Rory is a freshman from Binghamton, New York. She has been bleeding blue and white ever since her older siblings decided to create a family dynasty in Happy Valley. She loves ice cream, Penn State sports, and spending time with her two dogs, Coach and Jeter. Feel free to email her at [email protected] or follow her on twitter @rorypelella.

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