With his newest restaurant concept scheduled to open in late November, a New England-style tavern called Jackson Tavern, Poppy Kitchen and Gio Taco owner Brian Metzger recently returned from a fact-finding journey across his native New England.
We asked Brian to share some of his discoveries with The Range to get a sense of what's going into the menu at Jackson Tavern.
Of Sea Dogs and Stuffies
Question: What does a nice Jewish boy who grew up in Rhode Island, moved to the desert southwest, and opened up a downtown taco joint and a foothills restaurant do for an encore?
Answer: He opens up a New England-style tavern!
Now, that wasn’t necessarily my plan when I first discovered at the tender age of eight that I was a true foodie. But often the best life is lived unplanned, at least to a certain extent. And that’s how mine has unfolded.
I’m excited to report that the newest addition to the Metzger Family Restaurants line-up will be Jackson Tavern, a New England-style tavern that honors the central role the tavern has played in the history of American hospitality.
Growing up in Rhode Island with my twin brother, Jay, traveling throughout New England, enjoying summers with our Nana and Poppy, and devouring just about anything that climbed - or was fished - out of the Atlantic waters, I have always had a fondness for clam cakes and steamers, “chowda” (New England style, it should go without saying), lobster in whatever form, oysters of any kind, fish and, of course, calamari.
So when we made the momentous decision that a tavern would be the next creation in our family’s culinary business, we knew we had to do a road trip and go back to the very beginning.
At the end of October, my brother and I took our executive chef and partner, Virginia “Ginny” Wooters, on a classic road trip to several New England states to both harvest ideas for the tavern and to introduce Ginny to the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of New England.
Our plan was to hit up places I had grown up visiting, as well as newer establishments — clam shacks, taverns, seafood companies, classic restaurants, food trucks, oyster and chowder houses, inns and artists — all in an effort to try new things and see what ideas, recipes and flavors we could import back to the Old Pueblo.
Our five-day journey packed in way too many home-made and hearty edibles, enjoyable craft beers, unique cocktails and rustic sights, but that’s what you do on a business trip. Isn’t it?
DAY ONE — Rocky Point or bust!
Our first day was spent in Rocky Point, but not the one Tucsonans know and love. The Rocky Point Clam Shack in Warwick, Rhode Island brings back fond memories because our Nana and Poppy would take us there every summer.
There was an old amusement park we would visit, and afterwards we would walk around the shore and enjoy Rocky Point clam cakes and chowder — those smells, tastes, and sights take me right back to when I was young. Or at least younger.
After that nostalgic visit, we kicked it up a few notches hitting more joints in the capital city whose motto is — I kid you not — “What cheer?” The full motto is, “what cheer, netop?” a seventeenth century version of “What’s going on, friend?”
Our journey then took us to Narragansett, Rhode Island, a beach town where my family would spend summers, where we not only found lobster rolls and stuffies (minced clams and breadcrumbs served on the half shell), but fried whole belly clams, clam cakes, homemade coleslaw, fried calamari and suds from the Narragansett Brewery. We also discovered locally made whiskey at the Son’s of Liberty Spirits Company!
We dreamt of fried clams and stuffies that night, and wondered what they would look like on the Jackson Tavern menu.
DAY TWO — Making mollusk music!
On our second day, we arrived in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, just in time for the annual Oysterfest, a celebration of the mollusk in all of its glory. (insider tip: put this festival on your bucket list).
I learned that Wellfleet was originally named “Port Aux Huitres,” or Oyster Port, by French explorer Samuel de Champlain because of its plentiful population of oysters.
At other area establishments, we dined on white clam pizza, calamari, fried and raw oysters and, of course, more oysters.
The beauty of the oyster is that the flavor is a direct result of the waters that they grow in. Wellfleet oysters are perfect. They have a briny-ness and a seawater flavor that is second to none.
We expected to see oysters of every type, both cooked and raw, but we did not expect to meet a “sea dog,” an oh-so scrumptious fried lobster tail on a stick!
Having eaten oysters from both coasts throughout my life, I was excited that we were able to taste Wellfleet oysters. These babies are incredible. Ginny, Jay and I couldn’t get enough, which is the beauty of Oysterfest, because they are everywhere!
Can you imagine a New England tavern, which doesn’t showcase the beauty of these oysters on the menu? Good, neither can we. Get ready.
DAY THREE — Witch way to the oysters?
Salem, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine served as hosts for our third day, where we soaked up ideas for our bar area and enjoyed, guess what, more oysters!
I’m sure you can imagine Salem around Halloween, but if you can’t, let’s just say it’s exactly what you are picturing… monsters everywhere! We chose to settle into the Village Tavern “grille and oyster bar” looking for a cold beer and some nosh to ease the trip.
The quintessential New England tavern is mostly about the feel. It’s about different types of people, meeting in one place to share the ups and downs of their day. The stop over in Salem wasn’t originally on our road trip map, but who can resist being in the neighborhood around All Hallows’ Eve? This tavern experience, along with some items we purchased at the “Bewitched in Salem” novelty store, brought us closer to my vision for our tavern. And, no, we didn’t encounter any real witches!
We threw down some raw oysters at the Eventide Oyster Company upon arriving in Portland. This place is owned and operated by the same team behind the über-popular Duck Fat restaurant in downtown Portland, showcasing Maine in all of its glory. They love their Maine oysters up there — different than Wellfleet, meatier but still crisp — and we had a blast catching up with a former bartender of mine who now calls Portland home. Portland left its mark on us. What a cool town, the perfect place to stop for the evening.
DAY FOUR (part one) — Catching the perfect crustacean
On the fourth day, we rested. Actually that’s not true at all. This was a big day for us, because we ate the best lobster roll you could ever imagine. We also found our new lobster vendor, before making our way down the coast to Boston.
Let me just take a minute to talk about lobster rolls.
At this point of the trip, we were all completely burnt out on them. We each probably ate 10 in the three days leading up to our arrival in Maine, and none of them was what I pictured for Jackson Tavern. I was holding out hope that Portland would showcase the perfect roll, and I was not disappointed.
After Jay did some homework, we traveled to a park in Cape Elizabeth, Maine called Fort Allen, searching for a food trailer named “Bite into Maine” which is reportedly the holy grail of rolls… and it was!
These rolls were perfection. Plump, tender, Maine lobster right out of the water, just enough mayo to be dangerous, fresh cut chives and a buttered and toasted bun.
Just wait until you try our lobster roll at Jackson Tavern.
We then visited the Seaview Lobster Company in Kittery, Maine, recommended to us by a great Tucson friend from Portland. It was an incredibly cool experience — literally, because Seaview is right on the ocean, benefiting from the sea breezes, and figuratively, because we met Seaview’s own Tom and Kevin Flanigan who started lobstering with their father, Mike, more than 30 years ago.
Tom and Kevin buy live lobsters from the local lobster boats — including their father’s — and ship them worldwide. They still put on their boots and oilskins, and were eager to take us on a tour of the company facilities. We also talked about how we can turn their lobsters into our own adaptation of the lobster roll and sea dog.
DAY FOUR (part two) — One if by land…Two if by sea…
Boston local food celebrity Barbara Lynch operates two concepts we had to stop by; Drink, a simple bar with food, and B&G Oyster House, both located on the South End of Boston, doors down from a place called Union that I once managed.
Drink was the perfect setting for us to research New England cocktails because they prefer to create drinks for you rather than ordering pre-selected combinations. We gave our bartender Sebastian, who prefers to be called “Seabass,” only one rule: we need to try six “classic” New England cocktails, in two rounds.
The highlight was Milk Punch, a milk-based brandy or bourbon beverage with sugar, and vanilla extract. It’s served cold and usually has nutmeg sprinkled on top. B&G Oyster did not disappoint either: the highlight was the fried oysters and their fried whole belly clams — wow!
DAY FIVE — I’ll have what Iggy’s having
We ended our visit as we began, back in Providence, where we indulged in more culinary cruising, tucking into traditional Portuguese Stew, Rhodey-style calamari with banana peppers and garlic, fried clams and chowder at Legal Seafoods, as well as even more clam cakes and chowder at Iggy’s Doughboy and Chowder House.
Before leaving Tucson, I asked a great friend of mine from Providence what her must-eat is when she goes home to visit. She told me Portuguese Stew. I hadn’t ever heard of it, but she described it as a bouillabaisse-like dish featuring fresh clams, mussels and fish along with chorizo, kale and kidney beans — instantly I was intrigued.
We were fortunate to try our first at the Wellfleet Oysterfest, which was heavenly, and now we know that this will be featured on our “Supper” section of the nightly menu. Let me just say, if it sounds good to you, you will be blown away!
The word that comes to mind when I look back at this trip is “proud.” I’m so proud that New England showed itself so perfectly to Ginny, and it was incredible to see it in this light.
The leaves were fully changing, colors of reds, oranges, yellows and purples made driving easy and fun.
If you’re a New Englander, you’ll understand completely how going back home puts you in a mood to take it all in, even at the expense of overindulgence.
The tavern played a critical role in America’s history — dining establishment, watering hole, meeting place, sometimes post office and court house, occasionally an inn, and once, for a brief while, the seat of the U.S. Congress.
Without the tavern in the American narrative, our present undoubtedly would be different from what it is today. We honor and celebrate the role it has played in our past while hoping that it brings a little bit of merriment and cheer to our present. Lord knows we need it.