By EMMALEE C. TORISK
When Don Watt first began working in the family-owned bar of his soon-to-be wife, Rip’s Cafe was frequented most often by middle-aged steel mill workers — patrons who would order a glass of whatever draft beer was on tap and a few shots of whiskey, then disappear behind cigar smoke.
The only item on the menu back then, before the city’s mills were shuttered, was a pulled-pork sandwich, the closely guarded recipe for which had been purchased during a family member’s travels down south for $300.
A lot has changed since then, particularly the menu. Today, in addition to the Pork Bar-B-Q, Rip’s Cafe boasts other homemade offerings such as the famed Hunky Platter: an Eastern European smorgasbord of stuffed cabbage, halusky (cabbage and dumplings), and pirogi filled with mashed potatoes and cheese, then tossed with butter and sauteed onions.
But just as much hasn’t changed.
The bar still takes only cash. Just two beers — Genesee and Genesee Light — are on draft, served in frosted mugs. Most of its customers are regulars, and have been perching atop those very same, 1950s-style red bar chairs for decades.
“It’s a small-town, neighborhood bar. We like it that way, and we prefer it stay that way,” said Don, who has owned and operated Rip’s Cafe with his wife, Marilyn Watt, since 2004. “We have a lot of friend-worthy customers, who have been coming for 30 or 40 years.”
In 1933, George Repasky — Marilyn’s paternal grandfather — opened Rip’s Restaurant at 114 Bridge St. Newspaper clippings advertising its opening announce that the restaurant featured “meals, short orders, lunches, tobacco and soft drinks,” and that Repasky, also known as “Rip,” invited “his many friends and others to drop in and see the restaurant.”
One year later, only a few months after the repeal of Prohibition, another clipping proclaims that Repasky had become “the first person in Struthers to receive a state liquor license for the sale of whiskey, wine and ale by the glass.” An accompanying advertisement shows beer by the glass for 10 cents and wine for 15 cents, with the most-expensive offering being bottled-in-bond bourbon for 40 cents.
Then, on the morning of Feb. 25, 1935, when Repasky was opening Rip’s Cafe — as it became known shortly after attaining a liquor license — he was shot and killed during a robbery. The bandits made off with about $200 — only a fraction of the $1,000 that Repasky had brought with him to cash Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. paychecks at the bar.
After the death of its founder, various members of the Repasky family took the helm at Rip’s Cafe, and in 1958, it moved to 614 Youngstown-Poland Road, where it remains today. In 1973, Michael and Mary Repasky — Marilyn’s parents — became its sole owners.
Marilyn doesn’t remember deciding to work at Rip’s Cafe — only that as soon as she turned 21, she was “shoved into the bar,” as other family members had been before her.
“At that point, it was, ‘We need you up at the bar,’ so we went,” she said. “It’s been in the family for so long. It’s tradition. I don’t know anything else.”
Now, Marilyn and Don split the work, occasionally receiving help from family and friends. She arrives most days at about 8:30 a.m. and tries to finish all of her cooking by 11 a.m., when the bar opens. Almost everything on the menu — from the pickled eggs, to the wedding soup, to the roast beef sandwich — is made from scratch. Nothing is frozen, either.
“If a plate’s not cleaned up with the bread, I ask if something’s wrong. It’s homemade. You just don’t get that anymore,” said Marilyn, adding that all recipes are courtesy of her late mother. “I hear people say, ‘It tastes just like my grandmother’s,’ and it makes me feel good.”
Don handles evenings at the bar, noting that though some nights are slow, others are “tremendously busy.” And though Rip’s Cafe is closed Sundays — “it’s a lot of work and a lot of fun, but we look forward to Sundays,” Marilyn said — running the neighborhood bar isn’t a small task. It’s a seven-day-a-week job that requires a lot of hours, Don said.
“It’s a long day, and a long night — and a long bar,” added Marilyn.
Both Don and Marilyn admitted that Rip’s Cafe likely won’t continue beyond them. Their two sons have careers of their own, Don said, adding that even if they didn’t, he’s not sure that passing the bar onto them is something he’d consider doing.
“I really think that my wife and I will be the end,” Don said. “At some point in time, we’ll have a big party and close the doors. We had a good life here at Rip’s.”
Longtime patron Ray Rosen of Struthers called Rip’s Cafe his “Cheers.” It’s simply a homey, welcoming place.
That family atmosphere is what keeps Judy Wilson, also of Struthers, coming back. Her mother and Marilyn’s mother were locker partners in high school, while Don and her late husband were good friends growing up. Wilson stops in about twice a week, often with her grandchildren. She usually orders the Hunky Platter.
“I’m here for the community,” she said. “There are so many people here from all different ages — and good friendships.”