The best things about Oliver Shakewell’s are what it’s not: It’s not a chain, its food is rarely frozen and it’s not an “eat, pay & get out” kind of place. It’s a neighborhood spot, no matter where you call home.
Located on busy S. 4th Street in Allentown, one block north of Emmaus Avenue, it’s conveniently close to Salisbury and Upper Saucon townships, as well as Emmaus, Fountain Hill and Bethlehem.
The restaurant is famous for its ambience and foods that go well with beer and sports (there are more than 20 televisions).
“We sold 5,000 chicken wings Super Bowl Sunday,” mostly take-out, says owner Joe Beck.
Named after famous Olivers (Cromwell, North, Twist), the restaurant’s half-pound, char-grilled burgers are made fresh and served on a Malone’s roll from the nearby bakery that’s another South Side institution.
“We also smoke our own spare ribs and pulled pork, too,” adds Beck.
For a recent lunch, I ordered chicken wings, original BBQ flavor (10 for $7.99). They were deeply smoky, sweet and crispy. The blue cheese dip (99 cents extra) was smooth and mild, and the celery crisp. My friend concurred: “Best chicken wings ever.” Next time I’ll try the Towering Inferno version; I like wings hot.
I also tried another Shakewell’s specialty, Jolly Joe’s Crab Soup ($4.99). Crab was definitely the main ingredient, swimming in a thick cream base. It made me want to come back for the broiled crab cakes, at $24.99 a little “pricey,” admits Beck, but made with premium lump crab.
My friend ordered a half portion of Ultimate Nachos ($7.49) and needed help to finish. No problem. All ingredients were fresh and flavorful, but a little on the tame side for me. Be sure to specify if you like spicy, it won’t be a problem.
“We’ll make anything that anybody wants,” says Beck.
The restaurant is a sedate building with an anything-goes interior. Collectibles and mementos cover the walls, including pieces of local history (a Bethlehem Steel sign) and sports and advertising logos (Eagles, Yuengling). One area has rock and roll portraits and posters, to match the classic rock that always plays. Another corner has Jersey Shore kitsch and a Ron Jon surfboard.
“Long Beach Island was my family vacationing spot,” says Beck.
Oliver Shakewell’s is only nine years old, purchased by Beck in 2002 after the location’s former Sunset Grille closed. Beck, 43, is an Allentown native who has worked in restaurants (The Shanty, Hamilton Plaza, Jelly Beans Southside Jam) since he was a teenager.
Open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., the restaurant has a lunch crowd of workers who fax in their orders before they arrive. Happy Hour starts daily at 4 p.m., with appetizer specials and $1.25 domestic drafts. Dinners are busy, too.
“We’re famous for having prime rib on the weekend,” says Beck.
The eight-page menu of 125 choices offers appetizers, soups, salads, wraps, sandwiches, quesadillas, pastas, pizza, and dozens of dinner specialties (grilled tuna, fish and chips, chicken divan and homemade meatloaf, to name but four).
“I’m proud of our food,” says Beck.
(There’s a catering menu, too, and weekly specials on the restaurant’s Web and Facebook pages, or sent by text.)
Beck is loyal to his neighborhood and its Crime Watch, and contributes up to $8,000 per year to local causes, from fundraisers to school sports booster clubs. His staff is loyal, too; four of the restaurant’s managers have been there since it opened.
It’s the kind of place where you’ll likely find familiar faces around the large, rectangular bar in the back, with its brand new, 18-foot pro shuffleboard. For privacy, there are quiet tables in the secluded sunroom (available at no charge for private parties of up to 30).
Oh, and about that name? It was inspired by the full-size statue of Oliver Hardy just inside the door, and ice cream drinks the bar once served.
1869 S. 4th St.
Allentown, Pa. 18103