Bob Harvey –Bar and Restaurant Legend
After a long hiatus, Bob Harvey, has returned to the local restaurant scene as the general manager of Riverbend Bistro in Hollin Hall. Bob has a tenured and well-founded perspective of the evolving life of restaurants and customers over the past thirty-five years in Alexandria, as he was one of the original bartenders at Chadwicks when it opened in Old Town Alexandria in 1979.
Bob claims not to be burdened by higher education. He tried college but realized he wasn’t a “good attender” and his interest in a young woman led him to working in a restaurant to be close to her. The relationship didn’t last, but his passion for restaurant life remained constant. He honed his skills as a bartender in two prestigious restaurants in Georgetown, Clyde’s and Nathan’s. In the 70’s Georgetown was the dining hotspot with more options and diversity for customers than Alexandria offered. In fact there were practically no dining choices in Old Town west of Washington Street.
When asked to describe the differences between dining out today and dining out thirty years ago, Bob laughed and said first of all Chadwick’s listed only two choices on their wine list; Lancers Vin Rose and Mateus and no one talked about Virginia wineries. He claims that today’s bars have got to offer both national and international selections to customers including at least a couple of the 241 Virginia wines to be competitive. He states that dining guests today are usually sophisticated in their knowledge of both wine and food and the proliferation of food shows and gourmet magazines and websites have educated the public about food choices and preparation and what wines are good pairings. This has emphasized the role of servers to describe the food being served and recommend good wine matches. He says this is one of his primary functions at Riverbend Bistro to train and ensure his staff can interact with their customers.
Another difference Bob has noted is the introduction of chain restaurants into the area. They have mass appeal because folks always know what they are going to get, it doesn’t change from one day or one week to another. But he admires the local entrepreneur who opens a restaurant and pours their heart, soul and money into it to make it successful. That’s what attracted him to working with owners Bill and Caroline Ross at Riverbend.
Soon after marrying and having two children, Bob decided that restaurant life wasn’t conducive to family life and he left to seek other employment. He set up restaurants housed in ice skating rinks and sold real estate among other jobs, but the goal was to be flexible with his schedule especially after the death of his wife and he became a single parent. Now that his children are grown and on their own, he felt the draw to return to the bustle of running a restaurant.
He claims that his best attribute in running a restaurant is to be the calm center and provide stability for everyone else. He’s always used humor to diffuse a stressful situation, to relate to diverse groups of people and to educate staff about their tasks. However, he learned early in his life about the dangers of humor. While on a date in high school he was regaling the young lady with his repertoire of “Pollack” jokes. She asked him what a Pollack was and he responded someone who is known for being dumb. She asked, “but who are they” and he answered, “people from Poland.” She quietly said her mother was from Poland. Date ended and lesson learned. Bob still thinks bar humor and locker room humor are very similar but he is always aware of his audience. One of the things he loves about Riverbend is that the majority of the staff is so young they’ve never heard any of his jokes before, so he’s enjoying a new audience.
It’s difficult to believe that a person who spent so many years bartending for a living and managing restaurants hasn’t had an alcoholic drink in twenty-seven years, but he says he was too good at drinking and got to the point of not liking the bad feeling the next day. And he stresses that today one of the major concerns of a bartender or staff in a restaurant is to ensure the safety of their customers. While being drunk has never been acceptable it carries too many consequences today, especially with the diligence of the police officers and the strict laws about drinking and driving.
His reentry into the restaurant business has been aided by working with good friends Bill and Caroline, a staff that he considers the best people to work with and a community that has anticipated the opening of Riverbend Bistro for several months. Bob has an easy manner that makes you feel as if you are his personal guest in his home and not just a customer in a restaurant and you would love for him to join your table for a discussion about food and wine. And maybe he would try out one of his jokes.
Written by: Sylvia Winterling