John Paul (J.P.) Boles, managing partner in Baggataway Tavern, now open to the public in its large outdoor setting, has a unique record in the annals of college football. (Photo by Len Lear)

by Len Lear

One year ago having dinner outdoors with my wife and sister-in-law at a gastropub would hardly have been something worth writing about. Having some spicy shrimp, fried onion rings, cold beer; ho-hum. You call that news?

But it felt like a very big deal when we ate at an actual restaurant on Friday, June 12, for the first time in three months! We felt as if we had just been released from solitary confinement. Of course we did not forget what food tasted like because the only times we have left the house since mid-March have been to get food at Weavers Way, Acme or ShopRite or to pickup takeout pizza or Chinese food. I only wish there was a restaurant called “All You Can Eat to Go.”

Still, the shock of an actual charming server, Tessa (who I think was smiling behind the mask; not sure), taking an order was exhilarating. She could have been speaking in Bulgarian. That would have been fine. We would have pointed to the items on the menu that we wanted.

We ate outdoors on a perfect spring evening at Baggataway Tavern at 31 Front St. in West Conshohocken, about one minute off the Conshohocken exit of the Schuylkill Expressway. It has three different areas for outdoor dining that can seat about 90 in all, even with social distancing, one benefit of which is a quieter atmosphere. Because of the pandemic, there were disposable plastic utensils instead of metal and plastic cups instead of actual glasses for drinks. Not exactly elegant, but after three months in isolation, we would have eaten everything with our fingers if necessary.

Baggataway, by the way, is a Native American word for a form of lacrosse as played originally by the Ojibwa Indians. The name was selected because three of the six partners in the restaurant formerly played professional lacrosse with the Philadelphia Wings. One of them, Mike French, was the U.S. Collegiate Player of the Year in 1976 for Cornell University, and he led the professional National Lacrosse League in scoring while with the Wings in 1987, the league’s first year. (The Wings were relocated to New England in 2014.)

The partner who manages the restaurant, John Paul (J.P.) Boles, may have earned a dubious place in the college football record books. In his entire three-year career at St. Francis College near Pittsburgh (“It was the only college that accepted me”), this wide receiver caught a grand total of one pass in actual game combat for a total of two yards — although, to be fair, it was a touchdown pass. Boles was also an NCAA men’s lacrosse official for 15 years until 2010.

In April of 2001 he opened The Ugly Moose at 443 Shurs Lane in Manayunk, and in January of 2004 he opened The Garage right next door. Both were noisy, funky pubs.
Referring to the risk involved in The Garage since he had no financial backers, as most modern high-profile new restaurants do, Boles said, “I stacked up the chips in the middle of the table and said, ‘Let’s get it on.’ This new restaurant is like putting $350,000 on 36, black, in Las Vegas. I’m not robbing Peter to pay Paul. I shot Peter, killed him, and now I can feel the lawmen breathing down my neck.”
The Ugly Moose lasted 15 years; The Garage became Deke’s BBQ around 2008 and closed in the Spring of 2017.

The restaurant demons may still be following Boles around. The day before the state allowed him to open up Baggataway for outdoor dining, a gigantic tree across the street fell across Front Street, making the road completely impassable and taking down phone wires. Later that day a monster truck jackknifed off the Expressway exit, blocking off the other end of the road.

But by the time we got there, everything was cleared up. Everything we had to eat — Bang Bang shrimp (a Bonefish Grill staple), fish-and-chips, soft-shell crab sandwich and onion rings — was delectable. We each had two drinks, and the bill came to $123, which was OK with us. Just to be able to have good food, good beer, good service and good company at an actual restaurant was delightful. It may not have been the Four Seasons, but it was definitely one season — spring — and that was more than enough.

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