by Terrance V. Mc Arthur
If you take 180 east, past Sanger, past the house I lived in for 27 years before CalTrans tore it down (Am I bitter?), past Centerville, and past Minkler, you will find a beautiful, old, red-brick schoolhouse, the (oddly enough) School House Restaurant & Tavern.
Originally built in 1921 as the Frankwood School, and for many years the Sherwood Inn restaurant, it is now positioned as an upper-end eatery under the leadership of partner and Executive Chef Ryan Jackson, who grew up in the Reedley area. Trained in San Francisco and with experience in the Napa Valley area, he has a commitment to local, fresh, and seasonal ingredients, to the point of having a restaurant garden out back.
Of course, a restaurant lives and dies on its food and service, but I need to talk about what the new crew has done to the place. Some walls, dividers, and a lot of the Wild West/old-timey trappings are gone, although the string of railroad-car booths still graces one side of the main dining room, which was once the auditorium of the Frankwood School. This opens up the hallways and the restaurant, and there is more light. The wine cellar can be glimpsed through the curtains at the back of the auditorium stage. The tavern features a mammoth bar and a corner stage, great for a drum-thumping evening of country favorites leavened with a healthy dose of Creedence Clearwater Revival and a semi-rowdy crowd. The tavern has its own menu, leaning toward appetizers and sandwiches.
Courses are purchased individually, so be prepared to spend money and have a good time. While you wait for the food festivities to begin, munch on the crunchy, crusty bread and slather it with or dunk it into the gleeful mix of garlic and olive oil. Appetizers range from a $5.75 crab cake to the $13.50 grilled lamb chops. The crab cake is not the usual breaded hockey puck, but a seeming cupcake of crab with a lip-tingling chile aioli that makes your eyebrows do a dance of joy. The Fire-Grilled Artichoke is not one of those leathery masses that you have to pull through your teeth to the point of loosening your fillings; no, it is tender and flavorful, so keep your fingernails out of the way or your friends might start calling you “Stumpy.”
The clam chowder ($4.50/cup, $8.00/bowl) features red potatoes and large chunks of clam, with bacon and green swirls of chive oil. Enjoy. Tiny grape tomatoes adorn the house salad ($4.50) of mixed greens with paper-thin slices of cucumber and a balsamic vinaigrette that could have been applied more generously.I seldom have gnocchi, because of bad experiences with them in the past (chalky, dry, and somewhat to the left of library paste), so I let my wife order the Pacific salmon with roasted garlic gnocchi ($21.50). Oh, was I jealous! A healthy block of flaky seafood over juicy, creamy, potato pasta, with parmesan, basil, and butternut squash??I know what I’m ordering, next time. The roasted half-chicken ($16.75) came with wafer-thin slices of red potatoes scattered with olives and sun-dried tomatoes, a regal accompaniment that spilled out from under the bird.
Are you ready for dessert? I wasn’t, but I gave in to the call of the lemon cheesecake ($5.00). This was not a bland slice with a token topping, but a royal crown glazed with raspberry preserves, and the pale-green, zig-zaggy pattern of the presentation on the platter wasn’t olive oil, but a spearmint syrup that should be carefully scraped from the dish and savored.
The serving staff is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the building. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and share your memories. Problems are taken care of with respect and dispatch; these people want you to love the School House Restaurant & Tavern as much as they do.
The School House Restaurant is at 1018 S. Frankwood Ave., at the SE corner of Frankwood and E. Kings Canyon Rd./Hwy 180. Open Wednesday through Sunday, with lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner 5-9 p.m. The Tavern menu is served Wednesday-Thursday 2-9 p.m., and Friday-Saturday 2-11 p.m. Phone: (559)787-3271. Learn more on their website. Parking can be difficult on the weekends. Reservations are recommended. Dress is relaxed and up to the diner’s tastes, ranging from suits and dresses to lots of flannel shirts to jeans and full-sleeve tattoos.