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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

An Evansville Original

Since beginning as a staff writer for Tucker Publishing Group last year, I’ve been added to the taskforce of finding local restaurants worthy of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for a comprehensive food story. Evansville is full of countless culinary gems, and Roca Bar North’s sleek, modern style and personal rapport stands among the city’s finest.

The 2-year-old sports-bar-meets-pizzeria opened in 2010 off of Highway 41. Sharing the name and menu items with its flagship restaurant, Roca Bar Pizza (established in 1943), on South Kentucky Avenue, Roca Bar North is separately owned by Randy and Andrea Sheffer and Steve and Ashley Hammer. Randy, owner of Sheffer Construction & Development, LLC, built the 6,500-square-foot restaurant on a 6-acre plot of land owned by Randy and land development partner Dave Carson, president and CEO of CHEM Group. Also on the property, Randy has built a strip mall that he hopes to have fully leased out by the end of the year. He plans to soon break ground on a car wash, which he will co-own with Jeff Robb, owner of Shine On Express Car Wash. “None of us do this full time,” says Steve, who himself is a managing partner at Ohio Valley Properties and Ohio Valley Communications. “It’s more of a passion project.”

That passion can be seen in every facet of Roca Bar North, in the professional nature of the wait staff, the perfectly crisp, thin-crust pizzas, and even the local celebrities, including Don Mattingly and Larry Bird, that adorn the walls in the bar. Polished yet flirtatious, Roca Bar offers the perfect blend of a colleague lunch date and a Friday night hotspot.

Outside, a spacious patio hosts summer weekend entertainment. On Friday or Saturday evenings — and sometimes both — from spring to fall, local musicians (including Troy Miller, Jordan Brooker, and No Curfew) play to crowds of up to 200. “It’s a place you can bring your kids or just your husband,” says Andrea. “We have corn hole boards, TVs, and music.” They started the musical nights last year, and this summer has brought in much larger crowds than expected. “It has nearly doubled our business,” says Andrea.

Accessible from the patio is the indoor bar, which offers a secluded getaway for those seeking an adult-only night out. “We can have families with babies in here and parties drinking buckets of beer and neither group knows about each other,” says Steve. The restaurant can accommodate rehearsal dinners, business meetings, and class reunions in the more than 300-seat facility, which includes the bar, dining area, a private room, and the patio. “We’re having fun with it,” says Steve. “And we have some solid, reliable managers who really help out.”

Manager Tyler Weston, who received a bachelor’s degree in food service management from Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., and went to culinary school at its branch campus in Charleston, S.C., primarily works the kitchen. His key partner, manager Jacklynn DeVasier, spends most of her time out front, involved with the customers and acting as a face for the restaurant. “They really are our eyes and ears,” says Andrea. “They run the day-to-day operations, from scheduling to serving to ordering food for the restaurant.”

It is young, spirited leaders like Weston and DeVasier who bring a good rapport to the local food scene. When a menu is prided on specialty dishes, customer expectations skyrocket. Roca Bar North meets the challenge with a friendly staff, customer-involved leadership, and a chef, (oftentimes Weston), who can make any delicacy on the menu to mouthwatering perfection.

Instead of a safe mozzarella or breaded appetizer, I began with the Roca Bar Italian salad ($5.99-$14.50), which I was guaranteed by friends to love. Roca Bar North uses the same recipe for this refreshing treat as other Roca Bars did in the 1940s. Even separately owned, allowing more menu freedom, Roca Bar North stays true to the restaurant brand, never having deprived its customers of this refreshing mix of crisp lettuce, ham, pepperoni, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives, cheese, and original Roca Bar Italian dressing.

Known even more for its thin, crispy, cracker-like crust, Roca Bar’s pizzas pack a lot of flavorful options, including my pick of the chicken barbecue pizza ($9.95-$19.50), with grilled chicken bites, red onions, jalapenos, and drizzles of tangy barbecue sauce. For those less keen on a meat-inspired plate, the garden pizza ($9.95-$19.50) comes evenly sprinkled in a creamy pesto sauce and a vegetable parade of broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, onions, black olives, and artichokes. (All pizzas can even come with a gluten-free crust.)

Later — and be sure to save room — I splurged on a creamy slice of Reese’s Peanut Butter pie cheesecake ($5.95). Like any good dessert should, each bite made more room for the next, as if the combination of chocolate on peanut butter never gets old. It doesn’t.

With such a consistent lineup of savory dishes, Roca Bar North lived up to — and perhaps even exceeded — all the hype. Locally owned, the hometown restaurant can customize and accommodate any customer’s need. “In a tight-knit community like Evansville,” says Steve, “that’s important.”

Roca Bar North

Location: 12301 Highway 41 N. • Phone: 812-868-8898 • Dining Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.  • Website: www.rocabarnorth.com  • Adult Beverages: Yes • Prices: Lunch $6-$8, Dinner $10-$15 • Reservations: Yes • Payment: Accepts all major credit cards

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