The landscape around East Tennessee State University has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, but one constant was Poor Richard’s Campus, a popular West Walnut Street restaurant/pub located next to the Johnson City campus.
After 40 years of operation, however, the establishment closed in November 2012, only to re-open early last summer under new owners, Daniel Shell and Donna Vitoux.
The couple have kept the atmosphere of the business almost unchanged other than some refurbishing. They’ve also kept the classic PR’s menu pretty much intact, including items such as Maxine’s Finest Iced Tea.
I visited with a friend on a recent Saturday evening. Although I spent considerable time at Poor Richard’s, or PR’s, during my undergraduate and graduate years at ETSU, I hadn’t really frequented the establishment in recent years. It was nice to be back in the familiar surroundings of the casual and comfortable eatery. My friend didn’t attend ETSU, but he had been a customer at Poor Richard’s on a couple of occasions before the eatery closed in 2012.
When we arrived we were invited to take our choice of seating. With the university still on holiday break during our visit, the establishment was not particularly crowded for a Saturday evening. Our server, Alex, confirmed that activity does pick up when school’s in session.
The interior of the eatery is divided into a front counter, multiple dining areas and a large bar in the rear of the establishments. The walls feature wood paneling and exposed, unfinished wood planking. Seating is available at wrap-around booths for large groups, as well as tables equipped with chairs upholstered with hunter green cushions. The walls are covered with lots of ETSU memorabilia. There are also several nods to pop culture, including a wall dedicated to the Beatles and a framed poster of the cover of the iconic Rolling Stone 2007 “hot issue” featuring Kid Rock on the cover. Neon signs, ceiling fans and bar-style stained glass lamps help complete the decor. The dining area offers a corner-mounted television, but the bar area features a huge projection TV, perfect for keeping track of the big games. During warmer times of the year, the restaurant also offers an outdoor dining patio.
One of the areas that looked like it had been updated included the appetizer listings, which include fried items such as Monterrey Jack Cheese Sticks, Breaded Mushrooms, Breaded Green Beans and P.R. Fries, which can be enhanced with cheese and chili. The restaurant also offers a selection of nachos and quesadillas. One classic — the Chili Van Ransom — is still on the menu. This meal-starter begins with a bed of Fritos that are then smothered with house chili, chopped tomatoes and onions and cheddar and Monterrey Jack cheese.
For this visit we decided to share an appetizer, and we chose the Breaded Green Beans. These arrived at the table fairly quickly, served in a paper-lined plastic basket. The long green beans were coated with a well-seasoned batter that had been fried to a nice crispy texture and accompanied by a small container of ranch dressing for dipping. We both enjoyed this delicious and innovative appetizer.
In choosing our main meal selections, we pondered options that included entree salads, soups, build-your-own sandwiches and several customer favorites, including The General with roast beef and turkey with Monterrey Jack cheese, as well as Our Hero, which is billed as PR’s best sandwich. This creation features a choice of ham, turkey, roast beef or pastrami topped with provolone cheese and PR’s secret sauce, as well as lettuce, tomato and onion, all piled onto an Italian roll.
The restaurant also offers several hearty soups, including French Onion, Broccoli Cheese, Potato Bacon and PR’s Classic Chili.
Although I was tempted by PR’s Better Reuben, I decided to try the P.R. Hamburger, to which I added cheese. I also added an order of House-fried Cajun Potato Chips.
My friend chose R.B’s Delight, a sandwich which features roast beef topped with buttery gouda cheese and a bit of horseradish for extra kick. He added P.R. Fries to his meal, choosing to have them smothered with cheese and chili.
The meals arrived promptly. My burger featured an Angus beef patty topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise, served on a grilled bun and accompanied by a dill pickle spear. The burger tasted flavorful, but it was a lot to contain on a smallish bun. As a result, it began to fall apart midway through eating it.
I loved the zesty and crispy Cajun potato chips, made in house, that accompanied my burger. My friend also liked his sandwich and the accompanying chili-cheese fries.
It’s nice to know that Poor Richard’s Campus is once again a fixture on the dining scene around the ETSU campus. I hope this latest faithful incarnation of the establishment enjoys just as extensive a run as the original one.
The eatery also offers some daily specials, including 39-cent wings every Wednesday evening, as well as half-price appetizers every day from 2 to 5 p.m. Some nights are also set aside for live musical entertainment.
The eatery normally offers desserts, including Banana Pudding, Brownies and various cakes and pies. They were all out during our visit, however, so we had to skip a sweet conclusion at the end of the meal.
Poor Richard’s Campus offers some affordable food — always important for a college student population — that also tastes good. There’s also a children’s menu called “Deli Kids” which features some offerings for the tykes, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and grilled cheese sandwiches. If you haven’t visited in a while, why not visit again soon? Maybe take the kids along for a nostalgic trip back down memory lane.
AT A GLANCE: Poor Richard’s Campus, 825 W. Walnut St., Johnson City. 928-8611. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 2:30 a.m. Closed Sundays. Menu items $7.49 and under. Credit cards accepted. Carryout available. Full service bar available.