The Guard House was never just a restaurant. Sure there's fine dining: Fresh Dover sole, "the best" fried oysters, and homemade meat loaf. There's a friendly bar, where Joe didn't need a tutorial from Mad Men to know how to pour an Old Fashioned the right way. And a wait staff of professionals who viewed their work as a career. Not to mention a rustic, unique decor born of real, 200-plus-year history, not recreation.
But it's been the combination of all that, plus the attention to detail of proprietor Albert Breuers, that made it a Main Line institution. A destination, not a rest stop. The kind of place where life's milestones get celebrated. A first holy communion. Fortieth birthday. College acceptance. When good things happened, it was the only place my family wanted to be.
Now, after nearly four decades under Albert's stewardship, the Guard House is closing on New Year's Eve and will reopen in early 2017 only to members of the Union League. "The Guard House, located within five miles of approximately 800 of our members, has institutional integrity, is a part of American history, and is the appropriate scale to be a wonderful member amenity," said a club bulletin.
I'm one of the lucky ones who'll continue to take a meal in the heart of Gladwyne, and I'm sure the Union League will run a fine establishment. But it will never be the same. And I'm not thinking of Michele never complaining about my penchant for showing up without a reservation. Or the summer plate of roast beef and fresh seafood, the homemade hooch that would sometimes show up at the table after dinner, or Inge's famous bread pudding. The missing ingredient for this famed restaurant will be its owner.
Albert is one of those pillars who gives a community strength. The type who recognizes that, while his personal goal might be to make a spectacular Wiener schnitzel, his greater responsibility is to be a good neighbor. Watching him operate at a distance for so many years, I know he has succeeded by taking it all so personally.
Albert's commitment has extended from the kitchen to the curb of Youngsford Road. It's there, in the midmornings, when I'd see him alone, cleaning up, planting and watering geraniums in the summer and mums in the fall, attired in his black-and-white checked pants and white chef's toque. He's old school, a man who knows his customers better than they know him. And he has probably been brought into people's confidences as often as Monsignor Leighton holding confession down the block at St. John Vianney. As a result of Albert's stewardship, people mixed well at the Guard House. Green sport coats didn't stand out, but neither did the hip millennials starting families.
We charted our kids' growth at the Guard House, and I remember fondly that when they were younger, the building, built as an inn circa 1790, was the stuff of endless fascination. "How did that bunny hanging over the bar grow antlers?" they'd want to know about the jackalope. And they'd ask about the effigy - even if they couldn't understand the word - of local TV host Captain Noah (Carter Merbreier and his wife, Patricia, were regulars) they once saw stashed in a closet.
But the biggest mystery - the source of countless dinner discussions - was, What lies upstairs? (One night, Albert showed them, but he must have sworn them to secrecy.) Every night ended the same way - with one of the boys ringing a brass bell, which hung outside on the front porch, before making a run for our car.
There are plenty of restaurants, but only a few that take on the stature of a Guard House. I knew one other: Conti's Cross Keys Inn in Doylestown. Walter Conti was the family patriarch and a proud member of the Penn State board of trustees, ably assisted by sons Joe and Michael. Leroy Neiman's famed sports paintings hung on the walls and any celebrity who had reason to be in Bucks County would always stop by for the prime rib. But with Walter gone and his sons pursuing successful careers (Joe was a longtime state senator), the business closed and the site now houses a gas station. Thankfully that won't happen to the Guard House.
Two weeks ago, at my wife's holiday party in the back room, Albert's son Marc reminded me that it could've been worse - the building could have been razed for a chain drugstore. He's right, of course. And I was happy to hear that the telephone hasn't stopped ringing with well-wishers and those who also wanted to book a final meal, which is now the area's most prized reservation. Marc also noted that the staff will be invited to stay under generous terms.
When the Guard House reopens, I'll go back. I'm going to invite Albert and Marc to dinner.