Imagine if you will a cozy, friendly, fun place where you can go and enjoy an expansive menu of insane burger selections, BBQ, southern styled comfort food, vegetarian entrees, over 20 rotating craft beer taps, rock music memorabilia, vintage albums, and obscure sounds? Well, no need to imagine, because that place is very real, and it's called The Wherehouse, located in the heart of the city of Newburgh, New York, just up the street from the majestic Hudson River Waterfront. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo, a frequent patron of this fine establishment, recently sat down with owner & general manager Dan Brown to talk about the history of the restaurant, how it ties into the community, food, beer, rock music, and his new venture Vinyl Resting Place. If you live in the area and you haven't checked this place out, you need to, and if you are travelling to Newburgh or just thinking about it, you'll want to make The Wherehouse one of your destination spots.
Let's go back in time, before there was 'The Wherehouse'-can you tell us about your background, where you are from, and how you got involved in the culinary world?
I was born and grew up in Tarrytown, NY, eventually went into the military, came out and found myself settling into New York City, and spent a good quarter century down there…well, 25 years…quarter century sounds bad! (laughs). I started out originally working in the night club business actually, at places like Studio 54 and a number of other discos in the late '70s, eventually getting into management and the service end of it. As far as my culinary background, I just learned what I know as a kid from my grandmother. I always liked to cook, and I always liked the energy of the restaurant business, as it's something different every day. I liked being taken to task so to speak, and you are really taken to task with every meal you put out, so it's always a constant challenge. And, depending on the establishment you are running, it generally turns into a social hub and 'get together place'. Even though we have a beer bar here, we're not really a bar, we're technically a tavern/restaurant, you know, it's food first, even though we have 24 taps, it's primarily a food establishment or watering hole.
For lack of a better term! (laughs)
Yes, exactly! (laughs)
So when were the seeds of The Wherehouse planted?
I'd always thought of opening something up. You know, I'd partnered in some bars back in the '80s as well as went into the private sector working for people, but I moved to Newburgh, NY in 1997 and I always had some kind of an inkling or thought of opening something up here. It took me a good solid decade to find the right location, the right climate and the right time. When we found this location in 2008, nearby the Orange County Community College Newburgh location was being built over on Montgomery Street and there was also a big condominium project in the works slated for the Hudson riverfront area. Unfortunately the Layland condominium project got shelved due to the recession, but that didn't deter us so we moved forward with this and started construction in October of 2008 and opened in February 2009. I've been here by the skin of my teeth ever since! (laughs)
So you are located here in Newburgh, just off of Broadway and a couple of blocks up from the waterfront. Historically, especially in the last 15-20 years, this area that the restaurant is in has been looked at quite negatively from people who live in the town, Orange County, and New York State in general. How have you overcome that, even though this section of Newburgh is probably cleaner and safer than it's been in quite some time?
It's just been perseverance and putting my nose to the grindstone. I always felt that Newburgh had the potential to be like New York City. It is a city, and yes, it does have its issues, but I always felt like this would be a place that people would want to be. Unfortunately, the city has had a negative stigma attached to it. However, if you look at a place like Dinosaur BBQ, which started up in Syracuse, NY, the owner, who is a barbecue fan and a biker, started that restaurant up in a rather rough section of Syracuse, and he overcame the odds. What happens if you do this, you will get the adventurers in, and the bikers, and then those people who want to go to the 'other side of the tracks', but because the stigma attached to Newburgh was so harsh it can be a struggle to attract more mainstream customers. When we opened up here I didn't realize just how much of a negative stigma this area of the city had, and coming from living in NYC, you realize how really tame this is in comparison. In NYC, you'll have 4 or 5 blocks that are nice, but then you won't park on the 6th block, let alone walk down it, end of story.
It's kind of the same thing for someone who grew up in Goshen or Monroe, and that's all they know-for them, this part of Newburgh can be a little scary.
And interestingly enough, a few years ago the local newspaper ran an article that showed the problem areas in the city of Newburgh, and it's really a very small section where historically the problems have occurred, when compared to the size of the city and even the town itself, which is pretty large. That problem section is less than 5% of the size of the city of Newburgh. It's a bad neighborhood, simple as that. But the stigma is so ingrained in people's heads, so when I first opened, I was really gung ho and really pushing our opening and I had young ladies who wanted to work here but their fathers would not let them. There were people who I did hire who I had to walk to their cars each night. There were situations where if you came here to the restaurant with friends and told 10 other friends about us, maybe 1 would show up. On those occasions where the one or maybe one more would show up, they would park down near the waterfront and have someone pick them up to bring them here. Funny thing is there are probably more break-ins down there, but you never see that in the local newspaper!
Another stigma is that this corner where the restaurant is at used to be a notorious 'ladies of the night' corner, and when we first opened up, when we would turn the outside lights on it was like moths to a flame, and I would have to walk out and say 'ladies, there's a new sheriff in town, please take your thing down the road' and that pretty much took care of that problem! But it's gotten much better in the years since-if you tell 10 new friends about us, 6 or 7 will actually come and see what we are all about. So, we've basically overcome that stigma, though it's taken a lot of policing on my part, but it's also nice that the police station and the fire station are right around the corner, and their employees come here often for lunch and dinner. I'm also open to all colors of bikers as well, so we have a very varied clientele. We've had a very safe environment since we've been here, with only a couple of incidents in the 4 years we've been here, which is not bad. I think I've gained the respect of the locals, though sometimes I wonder if they are thinking 'who is this crazy guy opening this place down there!' (laughs)
So, as someone who frequents your establishment fairly often, I've noticed, especially over the last 2 years, that it's gotten increasingly more crowded, people are talking about it, and there's a great mix of all age groups and ethnicities that frequent here. When the topic of conversation of great places to go to in Orange County for food, beer, and music, The Wherehouse always seems to come up-how do you feel about that?
You know, I've never been one to advertise, like a car dealership, and say 'hey, look at me!', and in fact I waited like 6 months before I did the official grand opening where I actually flipped on the outside lights. It's just not my style to do that, instead I've always gone for the word of mouth. It's a comfortable atmosphere, we don't push people out, it's not like the Greek diner on Saturday Night Live, you know 'turnover, turnover, turnover', people come in, they want to be comfortable, sit with their drink and their burger. That's what we've been known for, our burgers…we have good food. Just about all of our food is made from scratch, and people like it. The word of mouth has been great, and my wife or I run into people all over the place, not necessarily even here in Newburgh, and they might not have been to The Wherehouse, but they've heard of it. That's been a really satisfying feeling to know that.
And you are on social media too, with a big presence especially on Facebook.
Facebook has been my main 'animal'-according to my son, who doesn't read newspapers, it's the way to go. The fact that it's free is nice, so I can basically do anything within reason on there to reach our demographic. We also have a new website as well, but I think social media is the wave of the future. I do try to tie them both together. I put various things up on the Facebook page, like new beers we get in, food specials, live music events, and so forth, but it's hard to measure just how effective all the work I put into it, but it does seem to have an effect. You don't get 5,000 fans on Facebook for being a schmuck! (laughs)
So when I walk in here, I get a feeling of Greenwich Village/lower east side of Manhattan meets San Francisco's Haight Ashbury section. Is that close to what your intention was?
It's funny you say that, because when we were first looking at designs and I had the first meetings with the architects, the two things that I said was that I wanted a bar built that looked like it had always been here (this place was not a restaurant or bar previously), and ironically all the materials used to make the bar were made from relics and old architecture sourced from around Newburgh. Second, that Liberty Street had the potential to be the Haight of this area of Newburgh, a place in the '60s that had gone to seed but that the younger generation came in, painted, turned to music, and turned it into a very cultural, trendy, artistic area and basically reinvigorated the neighborhood. And, I think we've kind of pulled that off.
How does all the rock and roll tie in to this?
I'm a big music lover, and I'm also a fan of the bizarre and the sublime, so if I could have another name for this place it would be 'The Temple of Pop Culture' because we put strange things out there, like Michael Jordan's Wheaties boxes to Howdy Doodies. If you look at the history of music from like 1949 to 1969, with be-bop jazz to rock 'n' roll, as well as the poetry of the '60s, it all just totally broke all molds, and will someday be looked at as almost a renaissance period in American pop culture. I just feel it's very important. You know, some kid might come in here with his grandfather, and the kid might have a Ramones shirt on, which is great because he wasn't even alive when the band was big, and most of them are dead now, but there's a good chance his grandfather might have even seen them at CBGB's back in the day. Bands like The Beatles, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin are still viable today, to all age groups, so it becomes sort of like a bonding point with different generations. It becomes a great tie in point for the restaurant, which is why you see all the vintage albums up on the walls and the old concert posters.
For someone like me, who likes a lot of stuff that's off the beaten path of the mainstream, I can come in here and have a great burger and a beer, or whatever, and marvel at all the rock memorabilia you have up on the walls, as well as hear music playing in the background by bands like the Rolling Stones, Ozzy Osbourne, Uriah Heep, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Winter, Wishbone Ash, Mountain, The Who, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Queen, or any number of artists and especially songs you don't necessarily hear anywhere else (like the radio for example). That for me is something special and a real selling point of this place.
I totally agree, and something I really strive for. There are things in my ipod that are so rare and obscure; I just love to watch peoples expression sometimes saying 'what is this?' (laughs). I have weird stuff on there like Fred Murtz from I Love Lucy doing show tunes, the soundtrack to The Odd Couple featuring Jack Klugman, strange stuff like that. That kind of goes along the line of the old 'free-form radio', when they let DJ's do their thing and put random types of music together that all actually worked. We also do live music here, but I'm going to be scaling back on that a bit because there's not as much of a draw for live music it seems, so I'm going to start being very selective on who we have play here until we start making more money on it. Generally we have mostly bands doing all original material, but occasionally we do have cover bands come in, because they do tend to have a bit of a following and some are friends of mine. Mostly though I want bands who do their own music, as I feel it's important to expose people to new music.
I used to have all those old Fillmore posters and various other concert posters all over the dining room of the restaurant, but we moved them because people just weren't talking about them enough like we thought they would. They just didn't become the conversation pieces we anticipated, but the wall of vintage records were, which is why we have the huge 'record' wall in the middle room now, which I'll be adding to. I try to put records up there that are on the rare & bizarre side (all original pressings), like Debbie Harry's first band that she was in, Wind in the Willows, and Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, which had Tommy Chong on it, before Cheech & Chong, stuff like that, albums that had a story. People have seemed to relate more to the records than the old Fillmore and Avalon posters. You get comments like "hey, I had that album" which sparks all sorts of conversations. That's another reason why we have opened up a record store next door, to educate and entertain. Vinyl has certainly been making an upswing I've noticed! Back in the old days In NYC, West 4th St was nothing but record shops and you could find anything you could possibly think of, but that eventually died out. Now you are seeing vinyl sections pop up again in retail shops, and CD sections are shrinking, so I thought it was a good idea to open a record store. Vintage records are fetching big money on ebay and various sites on the internet these days. It's interesting to see this transition again, and you know, analog and vinyl is much better!
So are you just selling LPs at Vinyl Resting Place?
No, we also have CDs, DVDs, and cassettes too, as well as other assorted memorabilia. The goal is to be a sort of connoisseur shop, and I have some resources to be able to get some really good stuff that I think people will want. It will be another reason for more people to come to Liberty St. and give it some culture. I'll be marketing the restaurant with the record store, so we'll be tying in certain burgers or dishes on the menu with a 'buy this dish get a free EP at the record store' sort of thing.
I see there is also a 'horror theme' at the restaurant from time to time…
Yes, I love vintage horror, cheesy horror, you name it. We are also big zombie fans here, so we do The Walking Dead nights on Sunday where we play the show on a few big screens, and lots of people come around for that. Zombies are fun, we love zombies!
It all sounds like a great plan, and I wish you a ton of success! I'll be sure to stop by and peruse the shop after my next meal & brew.
Please do-look forward to seeing you then!
The Wherehouse is located at:
119 Liberty St.
Newburgh, NY 12550
24 Rotating draft lines....over 50 Burgers...Taco Tuesdays, Wild Wing Wednesdays, Mac Daddy Thursdays, Sunday Brunch! LIVE MUSIC!
The Vinyl Resting Place
113 Liberty St.
Newburgh, NY 12550