New owner knows restaurant well

Pine Tavern's Justine Bender Bennett has been involved since childhood

By Tim Doran / The Bulletin / @Newsinbendor

Pine Tavern, Bend's oldest restaurant, has new owners.

But at least one of them, Justine Bender Bennett, spent so much time in the restaurant as a child, the kitchen staff once labeled a container with her name and filled it with leftover bread, which Bender Bennett fed to the ducks on Mirror Pond.

Duck feeding was allowed 25-or-so years ago, when she spent summers living in an apartment above the Pine Tavern when her father, Bert Bender, one of the restaurant's owners, came to Bend.

“I spent almost every summer here with my dad, hunting crawdads and feeding bread ends to the ducks,” she said.

It was around the same time she lost her appetite for the Pine Tavern's famous sourdough scones, the recipe for which her father brought from Idaho. Bender Bennett “OD'd” on the pastry after eating a whole order.

“I have not touched a scone, except for quality-control purposes, since I was 8,” she said Monday.

Bender Bennett and her mother, Chris Bender, bought out the remaining owners, including Brad Hollenbeck, a longtime manager who had acquired an ownership interest. They officially took over the landmark Bend eatery in October, said Bender Bennett, 36.

They are the fifth owners, counting individuals and partnerships, of the Pine Tavern, founded in 1936 by Maren Gribskov, who sold it in the 1960s and died in 1984.

Bert Bender and Joe Cenarussa bought the Pine Tavern in 1982. Cenarussa died in 1997 in a plane crash, and Bert Bender died in June 2009, his daughter said.

Bender Bennett, who moved to Bend from Portland with her husband, Gordon Bennett, and children, ages 1 and 3, to run the Pine Tavern, previously operated a jewelry store, and has worked in every position at a restaurant except chef and owner, at least until recently.

She has made some interior changes and plans to close the restaurant in mid-February to make some more.

One change can be seen immediately upon entering the Pine Tavern. A booth that had walled off part of the lounge, to the right of the bar, has been removed and replaced with a table and four lounge-style chairs. It opens up the front of the restaurant.

In February, the Pine Tavern will close for two weeks to update the upholstery, carpets and bathrooms, which can be accessed via a short hallway off the dining room, but are actually located in a separately owned building.

Bender Bennett also hopes to replace the windows in the garden room, where the ponderosa pines extend through the roof, and remove the stairs leading to the patio and make it accessible to the handicapped.

New Executive Chef Skye Elder began in May and has offered some new dishes, such as crab-stuffed arctic char, Bender Bennett said, but she plans no big changes for the menu.

“I think slowly we'll make some changes, but the menu's been honed and fine-tuned over many, many years,” she said.

Chiefly, she hopes to reintroduce locals to the Pine Tavern and let them know it offers value through events such as “Where were you in '82?” held in November. The restaurant rolled back prices to 1982 levels for items including prime rib, fried chicken, baby-back ribs and pan-fried trout. Also new: Five Buck Burgers on Wednesdays.

Bender Bennett agreed to answer a few additional questions from The Bulletin.

Q: What made you want to own the Pine Tavern?

A: It's dear to my heart. My dad put a lot of time into this with his partners. I love it. It's a part of my childhood.

Q: Why did you open up the lounge area?

A: The industry trend is for lounge dining more than sit-down dining, so we decided to open things up by removing a very large booth and adding some high tables.

Q: You referred to the Pine Tavern as three businesses in one. Can you explain?

A: We have the patio, and we have the garden room. They are sit-down dining. The lounge is a very different animal.

They all (have) their very own distinct demographic. Sit-down dining appeals to older business people, retirees and old-time locals who have been coming here for years. So to change the garden room is unthinkable.

The lounge is more adult, appealing to people about town. It's not a party bar. The patio (mainly appeals to) tourists.

Q: You've mentioned reaching out to locals several times. Why is that?

A: Right now, so many people are struggling (financially). We're trying to let people know that the Pine Tavern is not the most expensive choice.

(Previously), they focused much more on the summertime and the tourists. We're really focusing on how do we endear ourselves to locals.

I think we do that with good value and fun events.

The basics

What: Pine Tavern

Where: 967 N.W. Brooks St.

Employees: 49

Phone: 541-382-5581

Web site: http://pinetavern.com