Good Taste: All in the family: The Jackson empire

I sat down to interview Peg Jackson, the animated and outspoken matriarch of the family behind the success of the Ocean View and Plane View restaurants. Our candid conversation revealed many things, not the least of which is that this might have made a better topic for a mini-series than for one column. Nevertheless, I give you the condensed version.

The Ocean View Restaurant is located at 16 Chapman Street, one block away from the Oak Bluffs Harbor, with thoroughly obstructed vistas, which seems to render the name somewhat misleading. Yet the little known truth is that the restaurant inherited its historical name from the Ocean View Hotel, a swanky three-story building with a spectacular panorama, which burned down at this very site.

Thirty years ago, when Ronnie and Peg Jackson bought the Ocean View Restaurant, their collective resume included ownership of a lumber company, a laundromat, a construction company (Jackson Builders, now owned by son, Ronnie Jr.) and Island distribution of Cott Soda. Their lack of restaurant experience was no match for their voracious business savvy, and the enterprising couple managed to turn a suffering business around in just three years. How? Peg credits two things: the unlimited salad bar, and Lobster Night.

Anyone who thinks you can’t get a reasonable meal on the Vineyard doesn’t know about the Ocean View. The soup and salad bar, which is meticulously maintained, comes with all the dinner entrees. It can also be ordered a la carte for $12.99. When they first launched Lobster Night, a complete lobster dinner that included a whole lobster, salad bar, bread, vegetable ,and choice of potato or rice pilaf, it was only $7.99. More than 25 years later, the tradition continues every Wednesday night and is still a fantastic deal at $17.99. Regulars rave about Prime Rib Night on Saturdays. The complete dinner is only $19.99.

“We’re good and we’re consistent…we don’t try to be anything we’re not,” is how Peg describes the Ocean View. So exactly what are they? I would say they’re an oasis in a sandstorm of tourist traps. They’re a seafood and steak house where you can count on quality and value. Your burger or steak will be cooked to order just the way you like it. The lettuce is never wilted. The pickle is always crisp. The staff and the menu are remarkably unchanging so you can count on dishes like Lobster Thermidor and Fillet of Sole Almondine being prepared just right.

Every able-bodied Jackson over the age of 15 has put some time in at the family’s restaurant. They’ve waited and bussed tables, cooked, hosted, bartended, and washed dishes. In the early days of their proprietorship, Ronnie Sr. was known as the “Hobart technician” since his regular post was most notably at the commercial dishwasher. Although Mr. Jackson has switched his focus to creating soups and specials, he and Peg are as dedicated to the business as ever.

Bob Jackson began working at the restaurant at the age of 14, two years before his parents owned it. He started as a salad maker and quickly learned the skills needed to work on the hot line. After studying hotel and restaurant management at Johnson and Wales University, Bob spent nearly 20 years running the kitchen at the Ocean View while his wife, Jill, waited tables.

In 1999, Ronnie, Peg, Bob, and Jill placed the winning bid on the new restaurant at the airport. The aptly named Plane View Restaurant, with its vaulted ceiling and oversized windows, is bright and airy, a perfect place to enjoy breakfast or lunch. Bob attributes his omelet expertise to the tutelage of “Bubbles,” his breakfast mentor, but I’m willing to bet Bubbles is not responsible for the “Hobo.” You won’t find it on the menu, but ask your server for this secret special and they’ll return with a three-egg omelette stuffed with everything, topped off with two over-easy eggs, served with homefries, toast, and coffee.

After some years of co-ownership, it was decided that Bob and Jill would buy out their partners, becoming sole proprietors of the Plane View. You might expect an airport restaurant to have a fairly transient clientele, but the Plane View has more of a following. It could be because Bob and Jill share the philosophy of quality and value that made the Ocean View a success. Regulars highly recommend the blueberry pancakes — $4.95 for a stack of three. Hungrier patrons go for the “B52 Bomber”: two pancakes, two eggs any style, two sausage links, two bacon slices, toast and coffee for $6.25. For lunch, start with a cup of Bob’s award-winning clam chowder for $2.25. Next, the Philly Steak Sandwich with six ounces of shaved sirloin, sautéed onions, mushrooms, crushed red pepper, and Swiss cheese, served with French fries for $7.45, always satisfies.

From appetizers to deli sandwiches to seafood platters, there’s plenty to choose from and nothing you haven’t heard of.

“We never hire chefs; we only hire cooks,” is Peg’s resolve. Bob, who still works on the line and refers to himself as a cook, concurs. In an industry where everyone is clamoring for the cutting-edge, the Jacksons have effectively kept it real and continue to make it really good.