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924 Oak St., Youngstown
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; beverages only on Sunday
Within a half-mile stretch on Oak Street are three East Side institutions: Cosmo’s Barber Shop, Immaculate Conception Church and The Royal Oaks.
The Royal Oaks, arguably the oldest bar in Youngstown, first opened in 1934. Lou and John Kennedy have been running the place for the past 14 years.
To hear them tell the story, ownership of The Oaks was a matter of happenstance, or perhaps destiny.
Fourteen years ago, Lou, in an effort to corner the pirogi market, was looking at purchasing Boombas on the South Side. His brother John happened to be working on the East Side and would occasionally stop by The Oaks for lunch.
John began asking questions to then-owner George about the ins and outs of owning a bar and grill. George suggested they consider his establishment, and within a few months, ownership was transferred to the Kennedy brothers.
The Oaks features barbecued ribs on Tuesdays and occasionally Saturdays. In either instance, Lou advised that it’s best to call ahead because the ribs go fast.
We arrived on a Tuesday night and felt right at home. A TV on one end of the bar featured “Jeopardy,” and on the other was ESPN, with a diverse clientele between.
The bar is adorned with an eclectic mix of memorabilia, including political, musical and religious. The Oaks is a throwback to another time, a place to enjoy a shot and a beer, not Cosmopolitans and appletinis. It is a time warp to what Youngstown neighborhood bars used to be.
After reviewing the menu, Lou suggested we try a half-rack of ribs each along with a few orders of wings. Although The Oaks has many sauce options, we decided on the hot version of its signature raspberry barbecue sauce.
Lou explained that they use baby back ribs prepared the night before and marinated in a dry rub. The next day, they are smoked low and slow for 3 to 4 hours over cherry wood. Before the ribs are served, the sauce is applied and they are grilled to differing degrees of char, depending on what the customer wants.
Our ribs arrived coated in a nice layer of sauce with a slight char. Alongside came a basket of crispy french fries reminiscent of those from Idora Park and garlic rolls.
We sliced off our first rib and saw a nice pink smoke ring, and upon taking our first bite, the ribs had a toothsome feel to them. As Lou explained, good barbecued ribs are not fall-off-the-bone, as some may think. There should be a little bite to them.
The taste was amazing. The undertones of the raspberry along with the slight spice of the cayenne make the sauce a perfect complement to the slightly smoky ribs. Easily some of the best ribs in the area.
Although fairly full from the generous portion of ribs, we were still eager to sample the wings, and they were big, meaty wings. We opted for the same barbecue sauce on our wings as were on the ribs.
The wings are deep fried to a crispy exterior but maintain a tender, juicy interior. They are tossed in the sauce, then kissed by a flame to give them a slight char. Addictive and delicious.
Between the ribs and wings, it’s easy to see why The Oaks has drawn accolades from online foodies.
John and Lou regaled us with the history of the Oaks and the surrounding neighborhood while we transformed the plateful of ribs and wings into a basket of bones.
One story involved an alleged ghostly spirit that still sits at the bar. Shortly after the brothers bought The Oaks, a patron told them about an unreported mob hit that happened at the bar many years ago.
Lou said that the bar stool on which the occupant had his last drink seems to have a habit of moving from its position at nightly lockup to a different direction in the morning.
They spoke warmly about how the patrons at The Royal Oaks are like extended family and were proud that their bar and grill was included in the National Dive Bar T-shirt Club. Clearly John and Lou enjoy being kings among a cast of characters and owning a piece of Youngstown history.
Make a point to head to the East Side. Although Immaculate Heart’s building is up for auction, Cosmo is still cutting hair and The Royal Oaks is putting out some of the best barbecued ribs you’ll ever eat.
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