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DOFL: The Orchard Tavern

April 19, 2013

Some people may see Dining Out For Life as a fancy affair. And they wouldn’t be wrong with more expensive restaurants like Mingle, Yono’s, Athos, Creo, and the new Javier’s agreeing to give a percentage of their sales to the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York.

But there are plenty of ways for people to participate in this fundraiser on Thursday, April 25 that are decidedly more down to earth.

Albany’s taverns are some of the Capital Region’s greatest treasures. And The Orchard Tavern is the oldest among them. In an attempt to better understand tavern culture, I sat down with its owner Mike Noonan and his son Brendan to learn what makes this place tick.

When I asked about their involvement with the AIDS Council Mike told me the following:

If you are healthy, you have everything.

My father was involved in the health administration of New York State. So I have a lot of background through the years. And he always kept saying, ‘Health. Health. Health.’

We’re big into the healthcare and charities and we do a lot in the community otherwise as well. Little league, soccer teams, whatever. We support them all. But mostly it’s been healthcare.

A couple of our good customers and friends have been involved with the AIDS Council for years, but we’ve also been involved in the community, especially in health care realm doing a fifteen year annual golf outing for the leukemia society, and with other health care charities.

It is a tight community. Albany is an old town and The Orchard is an old tavern. Just how old cannot be entirely proven. Some of the records from the early days aren’t terribly clear. So a lot of historical information has been pieced together by Brendan through a combination of archival research and anecdotal information.

But the Tavern seems to have opened in 1903 as either storage space or a bar for a local brewery. It was the John Bonville Saloon from about 1907 until the end of the 1920s. Then George Gorman bought it and called it Gorman’s Grill.

That last part is quite important as George Gorman introduced the pizza for which The Orchard is now famous.

The pizza is shrouded in secrecy, but it is decidedly similar to Pennsylvania’s Old Forge style. Each rectangle of pleasantly oily crust is topped with a concentrated herbed tomato sauce and topped with slices of brick cheese. And they have taken pains to faithfully recreate the original recipe for over seventy years.

Brendan says, “It is unique. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. You either love or you hate it.” However, their pizza has so many admirers that this dish represents one third of the tavern’s food business.

My hope was that Brendan might be able to help me understand the appeal of taverns to the people of Albany. It’s a tough question, but he had some good thoughts. “The people around here, we’re not impressed by much. We are who we are. We are not trying to be fancy. We’re not trying to be any other city. People like it the way it is.”

But Brendan also argued that people want to go to a place where they know the food and the experience are going to be the same as the last visit. And they want to go to a place where they will likely see a lot of people they know or haven’t seen in awhile. He suggests, “It’s a comfort level thing.”

Once upon a time The Orchard was a neighborhood bar serving the workers from the railroad shops and their families, but as the neighborhood has changed so has the tavern, the Noonan’s now consider it to be “neighborhood-style.” They have plenty of parking adjacent to the building to accommodate their old regulars who moved out to the suburbs. “I like to joke that 95% of our clientele either went to VI or CBA,” says Brendan, “As much as we try to get new people in here as a business, we are carried by those people who are continually coming back”

Ultimately Brendan declared, “It is what it is. We’ve never tried to be anything we’re not. We’re not fancy. We’re comfort food. It’s pub food. And we like to think it’s good.”

I think it’s good too, and consider myself a fan of their pizza. But my pizza preferences are fairly fluid. One has to come to it with an open mind. Thin crust New York style it is not. Their dough, that they make in house from scratch every day, makes a softer focaccia style crust. You can and should order the pizza well done. This crisps up the bottom crust, which is great unless you happen to be one of those people who prefers it doughy.

Remember, when you try the pizza, you are eating history. And it takes a special kind of town and a special kind of place to keep an unusual variation of pizza thriving for over 70 years.

Love it or hate it, it’s an Albany institution.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2013 9:54 am

    I love this insight into what makes Albany tick, and I’d love to pin it onto my New York Pinterest board to refer to in the future. Is there any way you could beg, borrow, or steal an image to attach to this post? (ixnay on the stealing;-)

  2. Josh K. permalink
    April 19, 2013 5:22 pm

    Good article Dan. And well said by Brendan. The Orchard is an Albany treasure.

    These kind of local “neighborhood style” taverns are my favorite things about living in this area.

  3. April 20, 2013 8:10 pm

    I’m probably one of the few who didn’t LOVE the pizza right away. But it’s grown on me. More importantly though, I love just how much it’s unique to Albany. I haven’t had a pizza like this anywhere, and any food that’s particularly 518 warms my heart.

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