Making it in the Lake Region: The Black Horse Tavern

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

A WINNING TEAM — One of the reasons the Black Horse Tavern is so successful, said owner Nick Klimek, at right, is the loyalty and hard work of its staff, some of whom sat with him recently for a photo. From left are Kitchen Manager Scott Bruns, Fry Cook Stephen Lyons, Night Chef Edson Vassoler, Hostess Brittany Christopher and owner Nick Klimek. (Gail Geraghty Photo)

As Bridgton officials consider what it will take to recreate itself as a destination town, they might take a lesson from The Black Horse Tavern.

For going on 25 years, The Blackhorse Tavern restaurant at 26 Portland Road has been a staple in the Lake Region. It’s one of the few businesses that can honestly lay claim to being a destination that people will drive for over an hour just to get here. Diners come from Fryeburg, North Conway, Windham, Westbrook, Portland and elsewhere to partake of its trademark “Casual dining in an equestrian atmosphere.”

“If we just drew people from Bridgton, we wouldn’t be here,” said owner and operations manager, Nick Klimek.

Recently, the fine dining restaurant was recognized by Food, Inc. as one of the 10 best eateries in southern Maine, owing to the talents of its night chef, Edson Vassoler.

“We really emphasize quality and a great atmosphere — and consistency. That’s what keeps us going,” said Klimek. “We’ve been told that we’re the Cheers of Bridgton.”

The Black Horse owes a great deal of its success to its many repeat customers. It’s a favorite destination for public works employees, members of the fire department and local law enforcement, said Klimek. It includes a classy bar, which specializes in infusions, drinks with added fresh fruit, herbs and spices tailored to the seasons.

“It’s awesome. I feel very privileged that my family owns this. People need a safe haven where they can come and unwind on a Friday night,” he said. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see Oxford County Sheriff Detective Tom Harriman playing his harmonica, or hear the laughter of local businessmen like Kevin Whitney and Todd Perreault, Bob McHatton or Mike Collins, who come for lunch or dinner, or just a few drinks.

The Black Horse relies on its bar patrons, but Klimek said his is not the typical drinking or watering hole. “We do not have the hooting or hollering. They give us their respect,” he said.

“It’s nice to have a place to go when you see all this (bad stuff) going on” in the world, Klimek said. “They can come in and let loose a little bit. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have our regular customers.”

All in the family

Klimek literally grew up in the restaurant. When his parents, Khris and Barbara Klimek, opened the doors of the 100-seat Black Horse Tavern on Dec. 17, 1981. Nick was just a 13-year-old kid, sweeping the floors and picking up cigarette butts. Over the years, he’s done every job in the restaurant, and still pitches in wherever he’s needed when not tending bar.

“My father always told me don’t expect anyone to do something you won’t do yourself,” he said. The name came from the barn full of horse-related equipment given to them by friends that was used in creating the atmosphere.

After high school, Klimek majored in hospitality management and minored in culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.

“I loved being able to come back to a family business that stands for something in this town,” he said. “It’s an example of a business that is doing well in the community,” despite difficult economic times. “We’re a class act. If we would leave this town, it would be a big loss.”

His parents also instilled in him early on the company’s corporate philosophy, which is printed in the menu, a fanciful laminated newspaper, complete with ads for local businesses:

“We will strive to be a company whose worth in dollars is determined by its emphasis on human values, rather than a company whose human values are determined by its emphasis on dollars.”

With such a philosophy, it’s no wonder that Klimek is very attentive to the needs of his staff, which is a large one: right now they are 33 people strong, either full- or part-time. In summer, that number rises to 40.

Staff is key

“It takes a strong staff that’s willing to treat the place like it’s their own,” he said. That’s the biggest reason The Black Horse never went seasonal, even though business drops off after Columbus Day weekend. “If we went seasonal, we’d lose our best asset. They all make very good money here,” said Klimek.

Many of his employees began working at the restaurant in high school, and haven’t left. There’s Peter Cash, the bar manager, who keeps coming up with new ideas for infusions and other concoctions; Angela Moreno, 15-year day waitress, and Carryl Castlemann-Ross, a bartender for the past 12 years.

There’s also Scott Bruns, the kitchen manager, who keeps a tight rein on profit margins through his careful food ordering and menu creation.

“You can lose your shirt in the kitchen if you’re not careful,” said Klimek. He said Bruns “is always on the prowl for the best meat prices.” Vassoler, the night chef, has brought back the restaurant’s autumn chicken, a restaurant favorite.

When the reviewer for Food, Inc. ate there, “She was very impressed,” said Klimek. “They had a very good experience.”

Klimek jokes that the staff likes to call Vassoler “Lord Edson — but we don’t want that to go to his head,” he said.

Another veteran employee is Jane Schofield, who has worked at The Black Horse for 20 years as the baker. Lolita Chisholm was brought on a year ago to add Asian-style cuisine to the menu, which has been a hit with customers.

Hostess Brittany Christopher has worked at Black Horse for eight years, and loves her job.

“It’s a fun place to work — everybody’s awesome. We laugh, we cry, we’re there for each other, that’s for sure,” she said.

Klimek said he, the chefs and kitchen staff all work together to maintain a consistent quality on the menu’s staple items: steaks, sauté dishes, pasta and seafood. Beyond that, “We’ll bend over backward to make sure they’re leaving with a smile on their face. If it’s not on the menu, and they want it, we’ll try to provide it. We go above and beyond what people expect when they come here,” said Klimek.

The restaurant runs regular specials, including all-you-can-eat prime rib for $13.99, and a Sunday “Roast of the Day” for $7.99. Their dinner entrees include such mouth-watering offerings as Shepherd’s Pie Crepe, Honey Ginger Glazed Salmon and Pan-Seared Teriyaki Steak Tips.

Klimek also emphasizes fast service without sacrificing quality. “We can serve a party of four, in and out in an hour,” he said.

Advertising is mostly by word-of-mouth, which has served Klimek well.

“We make sure our clientele leaves here satisfied, and as the saying goes, “everybody knows at least 100 people” they can tell, when recommending a good restaurant to eat in Bridgton, he said.

Giving back

The Black Horse gives back to the community, as well, as a regular contributor to Christmas for Kids, the BRAG Recreation Complex and the Depot Street Festival. Recently, they ran a discount benefit for the Rufus Porter Museum.

Klimek and his wife Jaimie, who works for Spurwink Social Services in Casco, live in Bridgton and have a two-year-old daughter, Addison, with another one on the way.

“I have no intention of selling, and no regrets” about following in his parents’ footsteps in the restaurant business, he said. “I couldn’t ask for much more. Bridgton has a lot to offer, the people are great, and it’s a great community to raise your kids in.”

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