After more than 20 years of working behind the bar, Lila Pendley says she can look at someone’s face and know exactly what he’s going to drink.
While her keen intuition just might work with strangers, it’s a sure bet when it comes to her longtime customers, some of whom have been coming through the doors of The Fabulous Tack Room Bar & Restaurant for more than two decades. While the best known Penn Valley steak house may look a little bland from the outside, don’t be fooled. Inside, there is sure to be plenty of local color.
“I’ve been coming here for 20 years,” said retired firefighter Bob Webster, who was seated at the end of the bar with his wife, Carole. “All my friends know to call the Tack Room if they can’t reach me at home.”
“I come here every day for lunch,” said Philip Parker, a painting contractor. “This place doubles as my office.”
“We’re like a little family here — the employees and the customers,” said Jannie Roleder, who’s now in her 12th year of cooking and bartending there. “We all just love Barb and Al.”
“Barb and Al” are owners Barbara and Albert Martinez, who bought the establishment from Bill Dwyer in 1993. Originally from Oakland, Barb spent about seven years working off and on at The Tack Room until Dwyer suggested she and her husband buy the place.
“I thought we’d do it for about five years,” she said with a chuckle. “Here we are 20 years later. I love all 16 of my employees — I don’t have turnover — and I love my customers. They are all family to me.”
On Valentine’s Day, the restaurant’s 16 tables had already been booked days ahead, and Barbara was busy preparing her traditional cards for her customers, which would include a photo of each couple by the end of the night.
The Tack Room’s restaurant is a meat-lovers paradise, boasting choice New York or rib-eye steak, barbecue beef ribs and chicken, grilled pork chops, rack of lamb and ground sirloin hamburgers, all grilled on the open “pit” or grill in the middle of the dining room. Jumbo prawns and calamari strips are deep fried in the Tack Room’s own special batter. Lunches include burgers, shrimp ‘n’ chips, a steak sandwich and more.
Dinners include soup or a trip to the salad bar, garlic bread and a choice of baked potato, beans or rice pilaf. Children 10 and under can have a meal with chicken or ribs for $7.95.
“We started bringing our granddaughters here when they were toddlers,” said Webster. “Now they’re 26 and 27. Now I might just order three kids meals for myself.”
Over the course of the afternoon, one event was mentioned time after time by countless people: the spaghetti dinner fundraiser last August on behalf of Army Spc. Brandon Walden and his family.
The Penn Valley soldier was seriously wounded in Afghanistan in a surprise attack.
“It was our finest hour,” said Parker, on behalf of the Tack Room’s employees and customers. “We fed 500 people. There was a line out the door and we ran out of food.
“It was all volunteer labor, and Brandon was able to greet customers from home on a video screen. We made just short of $15,000 in a matter of hours.”
But that event is just one small example of all the Martinezes do for the community, say their customers, who refer to Barb as “our pillar.”
An example of the numerous events is the annual Walt Becker Trap Shoot April 21, now in its 10th year.
Somebody fell off a roof and can’t pay their medical bills? Talk to Barb, said Parker. She cares.
Built in 1964 by “Tex” Islenfelt, business at the Tack Room doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The Martinezes’ teenaged grandchildren are now employees, and soon they’ll all be gearing up for the free corned beef and cabbage feed on St. Patrick’s Day.
“We’ll be here,” said Webster. “We’ve made more friends here than we did after spending 40 years in the Bay Area.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.