Written and photographed by John Torsiello
Red Lamphear has always been one to feel confident in his ability. When his boss at a restaurant he was working at as a 15-year-old asked him if he could cook, he quickly said, “Yes,” thus launching a career as a successful chef and finally restaurant owner.
“My mom worked three jobs and I would often cook meals for the family as a youngster,” said Lamphear, as he sits near a window at At The Corner restaurant in Litchfield, one of two eateries he owns along with the Black Rock Restaurant and Tavern in Thomaston. “I was working as a dishwasher at Widow Brown’s in Naugatuck, where my sister was working, and when the chef left suddenly they needed someone to cook. I said I could do the job and they gave me a shot.”
Lamphear said much of his inspiration as young man came from his older brother, Jeff, a skilled athlete and scholar who moved on to a highly successful career in the Air Force. “Jeff was always great at whatever he did. I couldn’t match up to him in many things. But when it came to cooking that was my thing, a way for people to look up to me. My first cooking job was rather simple, sautéing and grilling. But I had a photographic memory and I could remember dozens or orders looking at them once. And I could remember recipes.”
He thrived as a teenage cook, and began a fruitful transitory span of years working at a number of Waterbury area establishments, where he learned from other chefs and cooks. “As a young person, about the only people who had cooking shows on television were Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. I actually wound up meeting Chef Pepin and have been involved in his “No Child Goes Hungry” campaign.” He learned the art of ethnic cooking, which when merged with his earlier culinary experiences made for a well-rounded ability to turn out pretty much any type of dish.
“I then worked at several of the Carmen Anthony restaurants and worked in Litchfield at the Village Restaurant, where I had a great time.” He then got the itch to own his own restaurant after working for so many years for others.
“I got a call from Annemarie DeLuca of the Thomaston Economic Development Commission telling me about availability of the former Vi-Arms Restaurant on Main Street,” says Lamphear. “I met with the commission and viewed the property. I had my doubts because it needed a lot of work (he and his family and staff basically gutted the building and gave it an upscale Mediteranian flair). But I was 36 years old, had a two-year-old child, and my wife was working full-time as a school principal (she since retired). I figured if I was going to work 60 to 70 hours a week I might as do it for myself. I guess owning a restaurant was another way to show that I could be a leader. I knew I could do it because whomever I worked for, I gave it my all and made them money.”
It’s been 10 years since the Black Rock Restaurant and Tavern opened under Lamphear’s “leadership” and it’s been a sweet marriage between himself and the town. “I love Thomaston. It’s a blue collar town and I can walk into the bar or dining areas and greet pretty much everybody by name. It’s that kind of a place. It’s a family restaurant and everyone comes there after events, whether it is a play or show at the opera house or the parents and members of a high school sports team after a game. I utilize other businesses in Thomaston for my needs and we have a strong sense of involvement with the community, donating food to organizations or helping out with fundraisers.”
The Black Rock Restaurant and Tavern, along with At The Corner, are indeed a family affair. Lamphear’s wife, Jayne, works behind the scenes, dealing with financial matters, and Lamphear’s step-son, Jeff Schmidt, is general manager for both eateries. Lamphear’s niece, Melissa Meeker, is manager at the Black Rock. The Black Rock has a staff of around 30, slightly fewer during the summer when business slows down a bit.
“The bar at the Black Rock does a fantastic business,” says Schmidt. “We have a large selection of craft beers and probably sell the most craft beers in the northwest corner of the state, if not the entire state. We have great connections with a number of breweries and get all the top brands into the bar.” The bar is so popular that it maintains a “mug club,” where patrons have their personal beer mugs that must be used within a two-week span or they are placed in “Alkytraz,” a small mug “jail” and owners must bail their mugs out with the accrued money used for a year-end party.
Says Jayne Lamphear, “We have a wonderful, loyal clientele, both at the restaurant and in the bar. This is a place where parents can feel comfortable bringing their children to eat (the bar is separate from several dining areas within the restaurant).” The eatery has seating for 240 and is an ideal place for banquets, as all of the rooms can be shut off for privacy.
The menu is what Lamphear calls “New American with an Italian and French influence.” The owner-chef adds, “We also do a lot of Tex-Mex dishes and we use the freshest meats and fish as well as produce. We try and source as much of what we use locally, especially during the summer.”
The Black Rock Restaurant and Tavern is unique in that you can have a beer and a burger or opt for a more upscale dish, such as fire-grilled filet mignon or crab encrusted salmon. The price for entrees are generally in the $14 to $18 range. Lamphear and Schmidt were working to change up the menu a tad to bring in new dishes and keep things interesting this summer.
Among the appetizers at present are seared crab cakes with lime Thai chili aioli, and apple ginger slaw; pretzel knots that are house-made fresh daily and dusted with sea salt; and tavern nachos with melted cheddar jack cheese, diced tomato, scallions and jalapenos, served with salsa and sour cream.
For veggie lovers there’s a tavern salad of rustic greens, tomato, carrots, cucumber, red onion, bacon, white beans and gorgonzola, with a balsamic vinaigrette, as well as an apple walnut salad featuring rustic greens, apple, dried cranberries, walnuts, goat cheese, and a lemon citrus vinaigrette. If you want meat or fish with your salad, toppers include grilled chicken, grilled flank sirloin, grilled shrimp, and grilled Atlantic salmon. There are several soups to choose from, as well as the house’s own homemade chili.
The house wings are fabulous, fried to a crisp and tossed in a choice of sauce served with carrots, celery and blue cheese dressing. Boneless wings are crispy fried and tossed in a choice of sauces and served with carrots, celery and blue cheese dressing. An extensive list of wing sauces includes buffalo, honey hot, honey BBQ, teriyaki, garlic parmesan, and Baja jalapeno.
There are several burger choices, including a Black Rock burger, a hand-pressed grilled Angus burger on a toasted brioche bun, and a bison burger, which is a grilled local grass-fed bison burger from Mohawk Bison in Goshen on a toasted brioche bun.
Among the expansive list of entrees is a braised beef short rib with sweet drop pepper, aged cheddar, mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, and frizzled onions; asiago panko chicken, served with lemon organic baby greens, grape tomato, and a pesto drizzle; country style stuffed meatloaf, stuffed with mashed potatoes and Cabot private stock cheddar, served with grilled vegetables, and topped with country style gravy; seared sea scallops served over creamy risotto with roasted corn, leeks, wild mushrooms and crispy bacon lardons; and lemon chicken Francais, an egg dipped free range chicken breast in a pinot grigio, lemon and herb butter sauce served over angel hair pasta. This is just to name a few.
Some of the most popular items on the menu are the restaurant’s famous “Hot Rocks” dishes, served raw on a 600-degree granite slab. You can choose from steak on a rock (New York sirloin, surf and turf, or filet mignon), served with house-made steak sauce, horseradish cream and sea salt served with a side of French fries; or seafood on a rock (jumbo shrimp, sea scallops, or ahi tuna), with Cajun remoulade and sesame ginger.
The Black Rock Restaurant and Tavern’s dining areas are open Tuesday and Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. The tavern is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to close.