By Bernadette Hogan |
RUMSON – Val’s Tavern of Rumson celebrated its 75th anniversary on Saturday night with over 300 friends and neighbors throughout the day and into the night.
From nine o’clock on, the dance floor was packed with young and old. A ten-piece cover band played crowd favorites like Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness,” Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” and The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” in an intimate stage area behind the bar. At some tables, three generations of Rumson Bulldog fans shared Val’s famous thin crust lobster pie pizza. The night was an authentic slice of Val’s culture.
“It’s not pretentious here,” said John Kouri, the lead singer of Jerry Hat Trick & The Flatliners, on a break in the snug, landmark tavern at 123 East River Road. “As a musician, you see so many bars open and close. But here, people know who they are.”
The band, shares a special connection to the current owners, brothers Chris and James Smith, who bought Val’s in 2009 from the Ciambrone family. Chris now resides in Little Silver and James lives a few houses down from Val’s in Rumson.
The Smith brothers were commodities traders on the New York Mercantile Exchange floor (NYMEX). That’s where they met lead guitarist Chris Greves of Middletown and a few other Flatliners from the tristate area.
The band was first invited to play at Val’s in December 2009, at the 12 Bars of Christmas Carolers for Coats annual fundraiser hosted by the Smiths and fellow ex-trader, (and this author’s father) Rumsonite Peter Hogan. Although local musicians like Brian Kirk and “Mad Dog” Lopez have played at Val’s, as during the summer Friday and Saturday nights feature live bands as well as Thursday nights throughout the year, The Flatliners were called upon for this special occasion.
“They blew the roof off,” says Chris Smith. “Ever since then, we try to get them at least once a year. We wouldn’t be able to get them if it weren’t for the NYMEX connection.”
When the Smiths took over Val’s, they made updates, adding flat screen televisions, new ceilings and walls, but almost everything—from the pizza to the original structure of the bar—looks similar to its opening in 1942.
From the dough to the sauce, the food is still made from scratch, and the recipes haven’t changed.
They use local purveyors as much as possible. “The pizzas are the same as they were 40 or 50 years ago,” Smith smiles.
“Customers love our Lobster Pie, and they want a thin crust—it’s a Jersey Shore thing.”
Val’s also maintains a philanthropic community presence. It opens its doors to the Rumson Fair Haven high school lacrosse, rugby and football teams, sponsors the local softball leagues and among other charity events held on the premises, is the headquarters for Rumson’s famous 12 Bars of Christmas.
“Having a local business gives you the platform to help out,” Chris Smith explains. “We’re not on a highway or in a mall. This is a local place, so we take care of the people first.” Customers leave personal touches as well, as college pennants and team banners color the wall around the bar.
Chris Smith fondly names Val’s as one of the last of “the neighborhood bars,” as he remembers a time when Rumson was a hub for beloved local joints. “I have people who came in here and sat at the bar with a soda pop, while their dad had a beer in the 1960s,” says Smith. “Now they bring their kids here. We like having that connection to the town.”
The brothers have plans to update the bar again in the near future, but they have a handle on its true character.
“I meet so many people from all walks of life,” says Chris Smith. “Everybody can find things in common with one another, but we sometimes don’t all hang out at the same place. Val’s is that place.”
This article was first published in the Aug. 17-24, 2017 print edition of the Two River Times.
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