The Bridge Tavern reopens its doors
In life, many great places come and go, only to be remembered in stories, memorabilia and empty storefronts standing as memorials to the past. But sometimes, those beloved places get a second chance, and for the residents of South Williamsport and beyond, this comes in the form of a reopening of one of the area’s favorite landmarks – The Bridge Tavern.
Thanks to co-owners Rich Johnson and Rod Joseph, The Bridge Tavern, 222 S. Market St., is reopening its doors for the first time in almost five years.
“I’m local; I grew up a block from here. I knew what this place used to be, and I felt like it could be that again,” said Johnson.
Re-opening The Bridge Tavern isn’t Johnson’s first dive into the restaurant business. He has been in the food service industry for 35 years. “It’s in my blood,” said Johnson.
“It was a lot more renovation than we thought, but we wanted to make sure it was right,” said Rod Joseph.
Johnson and Joseph’s partnership started in an unlikely place — a prison — said Joseph, where they both worked. Interestingly, the partners started on the same day, Johnson beating Joseph in seniority by the third letter of his last name, said Joseph.
And if this chance meeting could not be more beneficial, another person now at The Bridge Tavern also worked in that same prison, albeit one year longer than Johnson and Joseph — their bartender, Scott, said Joseph.
“We met day one in the bureau sitting beside each other — we both like the Steelers, we both like sports, we both like food,” said Joseph, who stayed in touch with Johnson since then. “The phone rang, ‘Would you like to open a restaurant?’ I said, I’m not doing anything without Rich,” said Joseph, who had the opportunity to open a restaurant with Johnson before retiring, but the timing was not right. “It wasn’t a matter of if, it was just when,” said Joseph, “it was meant to be.”
Opening April 25, The Bridge Tavern has already received an overwhelmingly positive response. “I think we had 1,700 followers overnight,” said Joseph.
“The phone’s been ringing off the hook. Our Facebook’s exploding,” said Johnson, adding that their menu has received over 400 shares and over 290 comments in under a week.
During the renovation, Johnson and Joseph received their fair share of curious passersby wondering when The Bridge Tavern would be making its grand return to the South Williamsport restaurant scene.
For Johnson and Joseph, reopening The Bridge Tavern is an opportunity to both revamp the business and honor its history, starting with the menu. “(The new menu is) not exact, but I’m going and make them close to what people remember,” said Johnson.
Fans of the first Bridge Tavern can expect the big fish sandwich, cheese steak, prime rib and many other nostalgic favorites on the new menu, all of which will be made with high-quality ingredients. “I don’t like using inferior products — all of our burgers are certified angus, never frozen,” said Johnson. But not everything inside The Bridge Tavern is as it was back in the day.
All the original walls remain, but the functionality has improved. “Took out a lot of booths, put in high tables, painted everything, new lighting,” said Johnson. “We did something to everything in here.”
Customers can stop in, have dinner with their families and friends, enjoy a drink at the bar and watch the game on any of large-screen TVs. Lining the walls are the jerseys of local athletes who went on to play at the next level, said Johnson, including one of an NFL draft hopeful.
Opening a restaurant, let alone reopening one that has been closed for almost five years, however, comes with its fair share of challenges, especially the infrastructure. “You have to reboot everything,” said Johnson. From recharging refrigerators to fixing small leaks, Johnson and Joseph transformed a barren bar into a bright, welcoming restaurant. “You can see all the new staff — they’re so excited they’re going to be part of something new from day one,” said Joseph.
Johnson and Joseph are passionate about a community atmosphere that is sports-conscious, demonstrated by the owners having already sponsored a Little League team, said Johnson, and their goal of making The Bridge Tavern a place primarily for families, but still a casual hangout for people looking to enjoy Williamsport’s bar scene.
To ensure the spirit of the original Bridge Tavern would show in the revamped dining room and bar area, Joseph reached out to the restaurant’s main audience, the building’s neighbors in South Williamsport, to gauge what people liked about the place in its heyday. “It gave me a chance to meet everyone around here,” said Joseph, and learn what locals liked about the menu.
The partners’ commitment to the community is exemplified not only in their large endeavor of resurrecting a landmark but also in the small details, like bringing back the limburger sandwich, just because one woman asked about it, said Joseph.
Looking at the framed black-and-white photograph from August 1951 hanging near the bar, one can see The Bridge Tavern existed even before the sixth version of the Market Street Bridge was opened, demonstrating the restaurant’s significance in the community. “To me, that’s what it’s about. I don’t care where you’re at, if it’s a part of history and you’re bringing something back to the community, I’ll become part of it. That’s all that matters to me,” said Joseph.
Johnson is excited to have a restaurant people like to come to, and one employees like to work at, a place people can be together and have a good time.
“Friends, family, neighbors — it’s all about people,” said Joseph.
The Bridge Tavern opens Thursday, April 25, and will serve lunch and dinner seven days a week.