Pine Grove Hall Brings an Old-Time Nightclub Flair to the Area Dining and Listening Scene
In its lifetime, Pine Grove Hall, at 101 E. Pine Grove Rd., has been many things.
Formerly known as the Old Oak Tavern, it’s been in use almost continuously since 1900, when it was built as an Oddfellows hall. Since then, it has functioned as a civic center, a meeting place for Boy and Girl Scouts, a fallout shelter and, in the 1970s, a police station complete with a shooting range still in the basement. During the ’20s and ’30s, vaudeville acts were held in a large upstairs room now reserved for parties and private functions.
“It was the local place for music and community,” owner Liz Grove says.
Gone are the gingerbread flourishes, floral wallpaper, and Victorian decor of the Old Oak Tavern.
Now, with a huge, mahogany bar with sparkling chandelier, stage with hushed lights and rich velvet curtains, hammered copper table-tops and art nouveau-inspired decor, Pine Grove Hall brings a jazzy old-time nightclub flavor to the area dining and listening scene.
“When you are serving food, there are usually things you don’t want people to notice,” says front of house manager Karen Caswell Sapia, formerly of Zola and Carnegie House. “But here, everything – the fabric, the lighting – is so carefully curated, people recognize and comment on the details.”
Grove, a musician and former record executive with a passion for history and genealogy, says the building’s roots were a huge part of the draw when the idea for a restaurant and live music venue was born.
“I remember being in this building when I was a kid and my mother and grandmother would come here for activities,” she says. “My kids helped with the renovation work, so now I can say four generations of our family have been here.”
For Grove, an area native who lived in New York before returning to help run the family business, opening a restaurant wasn’t something she had ever envisioned herself doing. It was her experience playing around town with her band Cone of Silence, and the shortage of places to play, that got her thinking.
“What drove me is I wanted to have a really nice live music venue,” she says. “We really needed one. There is a lot of talent in this area, but hardly any places to play that don’t cater to the college crowd.”
So in July 2019, she purchased the building and liquor license and began work on her vision for a destination where locally-sourced food, music, and drinks all were featured equally.
“Elk Creek sort of provided the model,” Liz says. “The biggest difference is we want to have all kinds of music – classical, jazz, bluegrass, rock. That, and we have a full liquor license.”
While she’s never worked in a restaurant, she relished the idea of mastering a new challenge.
“I wanted something I could sink my teeth into,” she says. “I’m used to multitasking.”
Grove decided to combine her experience in systems and logistics with some of the best restaurant talent in the region.
She hired Mark Johnson, founding chef at Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks in Millheim, and Jess Glick, of J. Rose as food and beverage consultants. Shane Orndorf, formerly of Shy Bear Brewing, and Tory Glossner, formerly of RE Farm Café, came onboard as chefs.
With hopes for a traditional opening dashed by COVID-19, curbside pickup, along with beer, wine, and cocktail takeout allowed a soft start, with outdoor seating and limited indoor service (both reservation-only) added as restrictions eased. (Cocktail takeout is no longer available.)
But the focus was always on fresh, inventive food and unique cocktails. As much of the food as possible – more than 90 percent, Grove says – comes from within a 50-mile radius from approximately 25 local farm partners. A kitchen garden provides fresh herbs and edible flowers for food and cocktails.
“There’s no Sysco trucks pulling up at our door,” she says. “The farmers literally bring the produce in the kitchen door and leave it on the table.”
With menus changing approximately every two weeks to take advantage of what’s available, there are no house specials yet. Chefs get to experiment and explore with flavors and ingredients.
“Our kitchen staff are like jazz musicians,” Grove says. “It’s all about skill and talent.”
“It’s almost improvisational,” Sapia says. “Every dish takes the simplest of well-made, well-raised ingredients and elevates them to more than the sum of its parts. It honors food in a way I haven’t seen before in my many years in the food business.”
To complement the fare and provide a helping hand to others in the local food scene impacted by the pandemic, Pine Grove Hall is featuring guest bartenders each weekend who will be mixing up their own specialty cocktails in addition to those already on the menu.
As a musician, Grove made sure the performance aspect of the hall was just as carefully thought of as the food. The stage was expanded two feet to better accommodate musicians.
A state-of-the-art sound system was installed, and Grove herself padded and wrapped the front sections of the bar in soundproofing material and fabric to help acoustics.
Live music shows started in September, with performances Saturdays and Sundays at 1, 3, 6, and 8 o’clock.
For Andy Tolins, who played the first show in the new venue, Pine Grove Hall offered an experience not found in other area venues.
“It’s like going into a recording studio, but playing in front of a crowd,” he says. “As a performer, it’s super-fun. You get more than you bargained for.”
Despite the challenges of opening a restaurant/live music venue during a pandemic, feedback, and business, has been good.
“In the short time we’ve been open, we have regulars who come back every week,” Sapia says, “And in these economic times, that’s saying something.”
While the venue, originally slated to open in May, can ultimately seat 80 downstairs and 100 in the private upstairs room, due to COVID-19 seating is limited and by reservation only. Patio and inside seating is available Thursday-Sunday, 4-9 p.m. Takeout food is available; order online at pinegrovehall.com or by calling (814) 954-5419. Pickup is between 4 and 9 p.m.
Robin Crawford is a freelance writer in State College.