Living Large in Northeast Ohio
March 5, 2016
I used to go to the Royal Oaks in 1969 with some of my college buddies. We mostly went there for beer and hot dogs. Then I went away to school and forgot about the place. Fast forward thirty-five years later. My son who happens to be active in local politics told me he went out with some of his friends. When I asked where he went…he answered The Oaks. Wait a minute…the Oaks? Not the Royal Oaks on 422? Yep…that’s the one. Holy blast from the past Batman.
I thought back to 1969 and my last visit there. For some reason I could remember it like it was yesterday. I even remember the topic of conversation. One of my friends, who happened to be a Math major, was talking about going to medical school. We thought that would be a good idea.
In Youngstown, you never know what is going to last and what will go by the wayside. While the upper echelon of local restaurants from that era like the Living Room, the Mansion, Cherry’s Top of the Mall, the Mural Room, and the Colonial House have gone the way of the steel mills, the steel workers’ bars are still here and thriving. The Oaks is one of those bars.
For those of you unfamiliar with this Youngstown landmark, the Oaks is located on Oak Street at the corner of Lansing Avenue. It is on the east side…cookin’ in the hood. Up until last fall, the burned out sign out front was the same as it has been for years while the inside had all sorts of add-ons like a baby-doll hanging in the restaurant by its neck. The painting on the side of the building had been added since the last time I was there 40 years ago. Oh yes, they had a wreath on top of the back door with a pig’s ass sticking out. Nice touch! But then again, it’s the Oaks!
First and foremost, it is a neighborhood bar. This place is a hoot owned by the brothers Kennedy – Lou and John. Their antics are legendary. I have visited the Oaks on a Saturday night when it was pouring down rain and they were washing their car up on the sidewalk by the back door. Their customer case is an eclectic mix of bikers, rockers, suburbanites and politicos. Politicians really like to hang here. It is a home away from home…so to speak. Everyone can be themselves.
This place is GREAT!!!! Up until last fall it looked exactly the same as it did in 1969. In fact, it probably looked the same as when it was opened in 1919 as a grocery store, and when it got the first liquor license in Youngstown at the end Prohibition. It has an elaborate pressed tin ceiling, a tile floor with an apparent vintage of 1950, an elaborately carved wooden bar, and lots of Youngstown and political memorabilia all around you…a little dingy but one learned to overlook.
Last fall they were visited by Bar Rescue. The program was a spectacle. Lou and John didn’t disappoint, including mooning the cameraman. Great strives were made nonetheless. The sign out front was repaired. The back dining room, which one could only loosely call a dining room, was redone to a level of shabby chic. One can actually eat in there now and feel comfortable. The bar was given a major upgrade losing lots of the “stuff” hanging around. The food and bar menus were bolstered. The staff was re-trained while the owners, who are really great guys, were imbued with a new sense of responsibility. The program unfairly commented on health issues, which were not health issues at all. Notwithstanding, the upgrades greatly facilitated the kitchen and general operation.
The Oaks barbeque is in the top five of the best barbeque I have ever had anywhere. The BBQ recipes are from the old Ohio Pig House, slightly modified. The ribs are all baby back ribs, smoked with cherry wood, and rubbed with secret spices, and smothered in a raspberry BBQ sauce, hot or mild. Are you ready to die yet? Sop those Idora fries up in the sauce, and you will be. But at least you will die happy!!!! Whoa, Mama!!!! In addition, it has wings and burgers and great pulled pork, all of which are supposed to be superb, as reported by my son. I trust him. He didn’t steer me wrong on the ribs.
The neighborhood in which it is located is not the best…but I have always felt perfectly safe there. Parking is in the back and in the lot across the street. There is a lot of in and out traffic and Oak Street is right out front. In the summer they pull out the lounge chairs and commiserate on the sidewalk by the side door smoking away.
I talked with owners just once since the Bar Rescue experience. They seemed pleased with the results. They had to strike a tricky balance between its dive bar reputation and the more normal restaurant experience Bar Rescue was shooting for. Those of us who frequented the establishment wanted change…but not really. At least to me, they seemed to have achieved that balance. When I rate a place, I try to rate it by the class of establishment it is trying to be. The Royal Oaks is in a class by itself with top notch ribs. For that…I give it a standing O.
PS...The Oaks does a good takeout business as well as catering with items on their menu.
THE ROYAL OAKS
924 Oak St
Youngstown, OH 44506
Phone number (330) 744-5501
By: Mark G. Mangie
The Royal Oaks