When Bob Payne Sr. decided to open his own place after years of working in the restaurant business as a bartender, it didn’t take him long to find his head chef. Patricia, his wife, was well-qualified.
For more than 40 years the couple and their family have run The Bear’s Steakhouse at 8254 Duanesburg Road. Bob Sr. passed away two years ago, but Patricia and their two sons, Bob Jr., and John, continue to own and operate the place.
“He ran the business, but it was my mom who did all the cooking,” said Bob Jr., who shares those duties in the kitchen these days with his mother. “My father might cut up the meat, but my mom did most of the work when it came to the kitchen. She was the one who knew how to cook.”
Originally a farmhouse from the late 18th century, the place became a restaurant in the spring of 1967 when Frank “Skinny” Boyle opened the Duane Manor Cocktail Lounge. Less than two years later “Skinny” was gone and the Paynes were in charge, opening in 1969.
Since “Bear” was Bob’s nickname, the Paynes changed the name of the establishment, and with plenty of quality food and hard work, The Bear’s Steakhouse is now known throughout the entire Capital Region for its chateaubriand and prime rib.
It’s not big — the dining room seats 48 — but the food and the hominess keep people coming back, according to Patricia Payne.
“When we first started out we were known for our huge sandwiches, but my husband decided we better offer more food instead of just being a bar, so we turned it into a restaurant,” she said.
“We’re small, and almost all of our business is by reservation. Our menu is limited, but it’s nice and cozy here, and people keep coming back for our steaks, our prime rib, our pork chops, lamb chops and scallops.”
Bob Payne Sr. grew up in Schoharie and started working at the Parrott House there as a teenager. He got plenty more experience in the restaurant business at various other places, including the Valley Grille in Schoharie, the Van Dyck in Schenectady and Some Place Else in Schuylerville.
“Bob tended bar at all of these places, and he really learned a lot from Marvin Friedman at the Van Dyck,” said Patricia Payne, an Amsterdam native who met her husband while working in an Albany bank.
“When we finally bought this place and moved here we had four young children. We never thought about finding another house because when you’re running your own business and you have four kids, you gotta be there. We were open every day when we started, but eventually we wanted to have some private time so we changed the hours to just Wednesday through Saturday.”
The restaurant is open from 5 to 8:30 p.m. on those four days, and while it used to have two precise servings, now people can come in and order when they arrive. It is a good idea, however, to have reservations, especially if you’re planning on eating steak.
Phone calls are almost always answered after noon Wednesdays through Saturdays. The Internet, says Patricia Payne, hasn’t made its way to her house yet, and the advertising budget, according to Bob Payne Jr., is quite small.
“Word of mouth is by far the best advertising you can have, and my father always believed that you have to go out and meet your customers, get to know them and thank them for coming in the door,” he said. “All of our guests are special, and that’s why they keep coming back.”
Learning the ropes
Payne, who pointed out that the restaurant also offers a chicken dish, learned the business under his father’s guidance. He is a graduate of the culinary program at Schenectady County Community College, where he teaches, and he also worked for 10 years at Disney World in Florida before returning to Duanesburg more than 20 years ago.
While Bob Jr. handles most of the cooking, John Payne covers the front end of the restaurant.
“I also pick up all the produce, and make all the homemade cheesecake, and my mother makes the breads, the soups and the other desserts,” said John.
“We all have our father’s work ethic, which was never take anything out of the kitchen that you would not eat personally. We strive for excellence, and we always say hello, goodbye and thank you.”
Soon after opening the restaurant more than 40 years ago, the Paynes noticed strange sounds in the middle of the night. Patricia was the first to become aware of the “house guest,” who made his way into David J. Pitkin’s 2002 book, “Ghosts of the Northeast.” Before long, nearly every family member had their own ghost story to tell, but fortunately they weren’t horror stories.
“He can be mischievous, but he’s a good guy and we like to think he takes good care of the house,” said Patricia Payne.
“At first I thought it was the old house just settling, but more things happened and the kids did some research and we think we know who it is. And he’s always been protective of us, not nasty. There’s no reason to be afraid of him.”
The presence of a ghost in the house has also been corroborated by non-family members.
“When the kids were young once, one of their friends knocked on our bedroom door in the middle of the night and asked if he could sleep with us,” remembered Patricia. “He had seen something. He spent the night in our room on the floor.”
Corkey Christman, who used to play the harp at The Bear’s Steakhouse, remembers the building when he was growing up. His grandparents, Roscoe and Ertha Wilber, owned the farm during the World War II era.
“My grandfather was a farmer and a businessman, who along with buying a farm now and then and fixing it up, also owned grocery stories in Duanesburg and Delanson,” said Christman.
“I spent some time there as a child, so it was great to go back there and play the harp in their very quiet dining room. I played classical and romantic music. No jazz or pop and it was always enjoyable. They are wonderful people.”
Christman is not only a strong believer in the Bear’s ghost story; he says he knows its identity.
“The first couple of weeks I played the harp there my heart just wouldn’t behave,” he remembered. “Then I remember my uncle’s funeral being there when I was a kid, and all these other little pieces I heard from the family came together for me. I finally figured out it was one of my uncles.”
“It’s his Uncle Wilber,” said John Payne. “Oh God, our customers love the ghost stories and so do we. Lately we think our father’s spirit is still here. We feel like we hear him walking upstairs.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]