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Founders Tavern Reminds Us of First Fathers

Jul 01, 2018 12:00AM

By Mary Lou Baker

life-sized wooden replica of the American flag serves as a divider between the bar and dining room at Founders Tavern and Grille on Ritchie Highway in Pasadena. Look closely and you’ll notice there are 12 stars on the upper left blue square and the 13th in the center, a hint of the historic theme that prevails at this casual watering hole where food and drink are taken seriously by owners Steve and Janet Sumner.

The husband and wife team opened Founders five years ago in a high traffic area along Ritchie Highway in Festival at Pasadena shopping center. Steve, a history buff with an interest in food, fine spirits, and craft beers, took “Good friends, great food & the pursuit of happiness” as his motto and has built Founders on the promise of all-around integrity. 

“Founders name is a nod to the founding fathers of our country,” Janet says. “We are an American ‘scratch kitchen’ restaurant, our food is slow cooked, slow roasted, made to order, back to basics, homemade…showing true craft that prevailed in the time of our forefathers.” The back-to-basics theme is carried out in the functional décor of the establishment, where Integrity Wood, a business started by two firefighters, created a wall of old wood in the main dining room. They also made the 13-star flag that Steve chose because it was carried by the Maryland 3rd Regiment during the Revolutionary War. 

Founders takes us back to basics in more ways than one. There are no freezers, no microwaves, no bottled salad dressing, and no processed foods on the premises. Everything—from bread, soups and stews to sandwiches, sides and pizza pies—is made in-house. Steve serves as executive chef, with the assistance of sous chef Jacqueline Heacock. “He no longer cooks every day,” Janet said in a post-visit email. “Running the restaurant is a full-time job.” 

Steve is in charge of the spirits side of the operation, guided by the notion (inscribed on the drink menu) that “whiskey pleases the senses, enlivens the conversation, and lifts the spirits.” Several times a month, the self-described “whiskey enthusiast” puts together a sipping of three whiskeys, accompanied by his tasting notes on the color, aroma, taste, and finish of each. The cost depends on the selection, but an average would be $15. 

Proving that drinks share equal billing on the list of attractions at Founders, there is a savvy selection of craft beers and ciders, as well as five customized vodka martinis (Founders Filthy Bleu features Grey Goose, olive juice, and Roquefort-stuffed queen olives), and cocktails inspired by the season. Martha Washington’s rum punch, made from an authentic recipe, is an intoxicating blend of white and dark rums, orange curacao, orange and lemon juices and simple syrup infused with nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove.  Quoting Thomas Jefferson (“Wine…a necessary of life for me”) the owners offer a short but savvy selection of reds and whites ($8 a glass, $29 a bottle) that is appropriate to the menu.

Despite the emphasis on spirits, Founders’ focus is food. Our initial visit was for lunch, when an engaging young woman named Linda made us feel welcome. From “Great Beginnings,” my companion honored his Polish heritage by ordering homemade pierogis stuffed with potato and cheese. He cleaned his plate. What made him equally happy were the mussels—not steamed in white wine, but as one of the ingredients in an original recipe featuring chorizo sausage, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers. The dish was delicious in its own way. A bowl of onion soup, thick with slices of red onion and a baguette and smothered with a blanket of Swiss cheese, was a savory rustic rendition of this French favorite.

Back for dinner on a Saturday night, we had the pleasure of having Linda as our server again. The dining room was mobbed with families, attracted by the casual informality of Founders as well as its kids’ menu: five choices in the $6–7 range. Founders’ homemade pizza is popular with its client base, who may choose from eight different toppings for the 12” pies ($11–15). Surprising toppings include fried chicken and gravy, ingredients for a classic Reuben, one called “The Whole Hog” that features pulled pork, meatballs, and Italian sausage, and three vegetarian combinations.

We ordered an “Old World” offering that married spinach and artichoke hearts with a house-made pesto sauce as a foil for Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. Everything was fresh and green, atop a soft crust. Founders’ pizza is a hit.

On our lunch visit, I chose tacos made with battered Atlantic cod, shaved cabbage, a blend of avocado and sour cream, and pico de gallo. My partner praised the freshness of his Colonial Caesar salad in a classic dressing and the deep-flavored iced tea.

We were equally pleased with our dinner choices. I fell hard for the famous “Hot Brown,” the famous signature dish that made its debut at the Brown Hotel in Kentucky in 1926. Served smoking in a small cast iron skillet, this savory comfort food begins with a slice of house made white bread piled high with roast turkey, crowned with sliced tomatoes, smothered in Mornay sauce and sprinkled with parsley and bacon. It is a culinary classic associated with Kentucky bourbon—another Founders trademark and first cousin to the “Hot Brown.” I have read about it in the The Wall Street Journal and the The New York Times, but never had the opportunity to see what all the raves were about. Now I know—and highly recommend it. From the available sides, I chose a wild rice pilaf as the perfect partner.

My co-diner zeroed in on the Yankee Pot Roast ($20), another oldie but goodie, which featured a cut of beef tenderized by slow cooking and sauced with a mild-flavored gravy, cut carrots, and red skinned potatoes—a hearty dish. It deserved a solid rating, especially when the sauce was sopped up with the restaurant’s homemade white bread. But the grand finale of a homemade apple pie, a round of perfect crust filled with tender fruit and lots of cinnamon, was a great way to end the evening. Unlike most restaurants, desserts are a strong point at Founders—with a family tiramisu recipe, pecan pie, and Fort McHenry rice pudding on a separate menu. (Steve’s resume includes 10 years as a commercial baker at Aldo’s in Little Italy.)

Founders is a determinedly familial establishment, somewhere you can go in your jeans and with your kids and feel welcome. The Sumners have made a unique contribution to the local restaurant roster and in the process take us back to the days when America was young and innocent. 

Founders Tavern & Grille

8125 Ritchie Highway, Pasadena. 410-544-0076. American classics. Whiskey Bar. Mid-day offerings 11:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun.; dinner 4:30–10 p.m. Tues.–Thurs., until 11 p.m. Fri.–Sat., and until 9 p.m. Sun. Children welcome. Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible.