By Jamison Cocklin
Little has seemed to change at the Boulevard Tavern since it first opened in 1937.
Sure, beer costs more these days and there’s no longer a morning rush that finds men getting off the night shift at nearby steel mills and starting the day on a bar stool.
But today, those stools are still the same.
The old wooden floors glow with decades of polish and a large wooden fish, carved from the trunk of a tree, hangs over the bar reminding patrons that a fish fry occurs every Friday night that is “second to none.”
At least that’s how the tavern’s new owner, Michael Pasquale, describes it. Icelandic Haddock is cooked with the skin on and covered in a thin layer of batter.
“Nothing about this place will change,” he said, waving a hand to signal how absolute his words were as they echoed through the bar during a recent interview. “I might update some furniture, but that’s about all.”
To Pasquale, and droves of the bar’s loyal customers, the Boulevard Tavern, at 3503 Southern Blvd., is a Youngstown landmark, one that’s weathered more than 75 years of change without losing any character itself.
“It means a lot to me — I’ve met a lot of good friends and extremely loyal customers here,” said Craig Deoring, who for nearly 23 years has served as manager at the bar.
“It’s a part of history, and it’s a part of Youngstown. There’s a reason it’s been in business for so long,” he said.
A primary reason for the tavern’s longevity, aside from its patrons, was Nick Petrella, who long owned and operated the bar with his family.
But in March, he died, leaving the fate of the Boulevard in limbo for months and forcing Deoring to take on the work of a manager and an owner.
Months passed until Pasquale made his way in on a Friday in June for the tavern’s signature fish fry, sitting on a bar stool with his wife, Christine, at his side, he leaned in to ask Deoring if anyone had purchased the Boulevard.
“I couldn’t believe it — my mind was racing a mile a minute,” Pasquale said when he learned that Petrella’s wife had a deal fall through, leaving the bar up for grabs.
Turns out, at 53, and retired from the Tamarkin Co., now owned by Giant Eagle, Pasquale had decided he wasn’t ready for his twilight years.
His wife, Christine, 51, had also operated her own business on Market Street for 26 years before closing it in May 2011.
Prompted further by an empty nest, with two kids living out of state, Pasquale “wrote the check in November and became the legal owner on Dec. 26,” after he obtained all the necessary licenses and permits from the state and county.
With no experience in the restaurant industry, Pasquale is still undaunted.
Deoring will run the operation and all the staff have agreed to stay on board, lifting a weight off Pasquale’s shoulders, as he tells it.
But why purchase a bar when you have a pension and a significant amount of savings stuffed away?
“I’ve been coming here my whole life,” said Pasquale, who grew up in Boardman and currently lives in Canfield. “I can remember when ... I could get a draft beer for 40 cents. It was important to keep this place open.”
In those days, the tavern would serve 3.2 percent beer to the younger crowd, Pasquale said, because of the lower alcohol content.
Under Pasquale’s stewardship, the beer menu at the bar will stay the same, but Deoring has added what the two believe will become new staples at the Boulevard: Italian greens and hot peppers and oil.
They’re still considering whether to truly upend things by adding dessert, which has never been offered at the venue before.
“Subtle things; I mean it when I say nothing about this place will change,” Pasquale added.
“I’m not even going to be in the way. I’ll clean the place; that’s my only job. Other than that, I’ll be here on Fridays for a fish dinner.”