When it comes to shore institutions, it doesn't get much more legendary than Fred's Tavern. The Stone Harbor destination has been around since the 1930s when Fred Menzel opened it right after Prohibition.
Still operated by the same family, co-owner Tom Hand says Fred's still isn't done reinventing itself. And it's drawing new, as well as longtime, customers to the bar and restaurant every day.
That's because in the last couple of years Fred's began offering pub food, something the tavern hasn't done for about 30 years.
"We just thought it was time to bring food back to Fred's," says Hand. "There was a niche in Stone Harbor for good, reasonably priced pub food."
Hand says Fred's Tavern has certainly had its "cycles." When Menzel opened Fred's, it was a restaurant and bar with music that occasionally hosted big acts such as Bill Haley and the Comets. When Anne and Arden Hand took over Fred's, they turned it into a pub and cocktail lounge with lunch and dinner, much like Fred's is doing now. However, from the late 1970s through 2011, Fred's wasn't serving any food, relying on strong bar business and drawing a younger crowd with popular cover bands.
"The demographic changed," says Hand, 48, who started in the adjacent liquor store as a stock boy when he was 18 and gradually became a bartender, club manager booking bands and now co-owner. "There's a lot less college kids living in Stone Harbor. And bands just didn't draw like they used to. So we wanted to maintain our great bar feel and add food."
That required a complete renovation of the restaurant. The only things that remain intact from the way Fred's used to look are the fireplace in the center of the room, the shape of the bar and the iconic Budweiser Clydesdale light that hangs above the bar.
The rest of the place received a complete makeover, including new vinyl flooring that looks like hardwood, a granite top for the bar, new furniture, and a brighter color scheme of orange/red and beige. Plus there's a new outdoor patio.
"I think one of the best things we did was we opened another bar on busy nights and weekends in the dining room that was an original mahogany bar from when my grandfather opened Fred's in the 1930s," Hand says. "It was stored in our attic and in bad shape, but we had a guy work on it and he brought it back. It looks great."
Hand recruited Joe Sparta, a chef who was working in Las Vegas who wanted to come back to the area to take care of his parents. He helped the Hand family craft a menu that features pub comfort food.
"It's basically a menu that was created by our customers from what they requested," Hand says. "Even before we found a chef, we had a pretty good idea about what we wanted to serve."
His customers wanted a simple, fresh approach. The most trendy thing on the menu is the Asian lettuce wraps ($10) that diners assemble themselves with iceberg lettuce, Asian chicken, peanuts, veggies and a Thai sauce."
Popular appetizers include chicken wings – Buffalo, BBQ or teriyaki; chicken quesadillas ($10); and nachos ($11) made with house-fried tortillas. Salads include the strawberry spinach ($9) with chicken, blue cheese, strawberries and candied cashews; and the house Cobb ($9) with spinach and romaine, carrots, cucumbers, green onion and house vinaigrette topped with egg, bacon, tomato and grilled chicken.
There's a variety of sandwiches on the menu: pizza steak ($8), crab cake ($10.50) and French dip ($10), but Fred's signature items are its burgers … six of them to be exact. Varieties include the blue cheese and bacon burger ($9.50); the California ($9.50) with guacamole, bacon and provolone; and the Fred's Burger ($9.50) with provolone, pickled onion, mayo, lettuce, ketchup and mustard.
Fred's offers no entrees on the menu. However, Sparta offers about three specials a night to be a little more experimental and to offer a little more substance. Offerings include flounder almondine, grilled mahi and a New York strip steak topped with crabmeat.
"We keep everything fresh, and he gets fish and other items every day fresh," Hands says of Sparta, who also creates appetizer specials such as a recent, creamy, delicious crab dip. "But even the entrees are affordable. We try to keep them around $20."
Hand says the recent Fred's Tavern renaissance took off immediately.
"It's amazing how fast people responded," he says. "We didn't expect to keep the kitchen open year-round, but every weekend we seem to have a small wait. And in the wintertime, we try to do specials like taco night to keep people interested in coming in. People were just excited that we were changing and they wanted to check us out. And they keep coming back."