About 15 minutes into our meal at Founders Tavern and Grille in Pasadena, something unusual happened. Our server did not pass quickly by our table and ask: "You guys doing okay?" or "How is everything?" as happens in most restaurants these days from roadhouses to even the ritziest scenes.
No. Jacqueline stopped, smiled and said: "If there's anything you don't like or that could be better, please tell us. It's the only way we learn." And, she meant it. When one at our table remarked that her pasta dish, a mélange of colorful seasonal vegetables, chicken and penne in a light cheese sauce seemed under seasoned, almost bland, there was a quick offer to replace it. The diner declined, but Jacqueline headed for the kitchen to inform the chef.
The key to getting the most from this locally owned, unpretentious place is its name: Tavern and Grille. Not bistro, not café, not tap house … tavern and grille. The motif is mildly American history. (The Maryland historical maps on the walls are fascinating.) Its website proudly proclaims that it's "a neighborhood place" focused on "the pursuit of happiness." And that's just about what it delivers in atmosphere, food and service.
It's a corner venue in a multi-section shopping plaza on Ritchie Highway just south of Jumper's Hole Road. The exterior features plenty of red, white and blue bunting and old several old-fashioned rocking chairs near an outdoor dining area. The interior is divided between the tavern area and a small dining room.
The tavern aspect of the place ponies up plenty of choices. Some 100 whiskeys and bourbons are poured "for your merriment" and can you sample them in flights. A dozen wines and double that in beers and ales are options and the cocktail list picks up the early Americana theme with quaffs such as the Jefferson Mule, Washington's Cherry Tree and Queen Anne's Revenge. Judging by crowd the night we visited, happiness is pursued in the tavern.
The dining room is a no frills affair in keeping with the tavern and grille theme. The serving staff is young, casual and friendly.
Not much on the menu will surprise you. It's a list of familiar starters (with the exception of some tasty chopped clams and roasted corn fritters), salads, burgers, pizzas and a dozen entrees all solidly in the comfort food zone. Yankee pot roast, chicken potpie, shrimp and grits, steak, fried chicken, ribs and similar fare are standards for family eateries like Founders.
What might surprise you is the owners' commitment to organic ingredients, locally sourced whenever possible, and always fresh. The serving staff proudly will let you know that Founders does not have a freezer. Ingredients that could easily be poured from a bottle or a jar — salad dressings, applesauce and more — are homemade, as are many of the baked goods.
Starters for our group of four were the Maryland crab soup ($6 cup), a "New England" wedge salad ($10) and those roasted corn and chopped clam fritters ($10). The crab soup broth was closer to tomato bisque: the vegetables fresh with claw crabmeat and plenty of Old Bay. Good start. We shared the fritters – fried with respect and in good quality, almost undetectable oil. The salty tang of the clams and the roasted corn were an appealing combination. And that wedge of iceberg lettuce ($10) was big enough for all for us to share. Liberally doused with very good homemade bleu cheese dressing, cherry tomatoes and excellent bacon, it included a glaze of balsamic vinegar that seemed a needless distraction.
We were all over the map that night when it came to entrees. In addition to the pasta dish ($20), one of us went for the Tuesday night "prime rib" special ($30), and another for a dinner salad ($21). With fresh, wild caught rockfish ($26) on the menu, well, I couldn't resist.
Our salad lover added shrimp to her Minuteman Chopped Apple Salad with pleasing results. In addition to diced gala apples, baby spinach, and toasted walnuts, the pomegranate vinaigrette added sweetness and zip. My fresh rockfish – a fish many restaurants overcook —- was a generous filet that arrived moist and mild. The accompanying cup of pasta and cheese (penne again) was good enough that everyone else at the table helped themselves to a forkful … or two.
The prime rib portion could have been trimmed of a bit more fat before serving, but the meat was cooked and seasoned with care and done just as requested. With the redskin mashed potatoes and fresh green beans, it had a satisfying home-cooked quality.
We shared the house-made apple pie with a big dollop of bourbon-infused whipped cream ($6.50). The hefty crust may not be to everyone's taste, but the savory apple filling will be.
There's not much in the way of restaurant activity along that stretch of Ritchie Highway. Founders offers a pleasant and welcome respite from its Bob Evans and fast food competition. The food is fresh and the team in the kitchen and in the tavern and dining room aim to please. That's what good neighborhood places are all about.
Founders Tavern and Grille
WHERE: 8125 Ritchie Highway, Pasadena
HOURS: Tues. to Thurs: 11:30 a.m. — 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat: 11:30 a.m. — 11 p.m., Sun.: 11:30 a.m. — 9 p.m. Closed Mondays.
EXECUTIVE CHEF: Steve Sumner
CHEF: Jackie Perry
1st COURSES:$8 — $13
MAIN COURSES & SANDWICHES: $9 — $25
CREDIT CARDS: All Major Credit Cards