The Pawnee House in Oak Bluffs occupies a portion of what remains of the once grand four-story Victorian hotel with the same name. Alex and Debbie Cohen are the owners of Pawnee House, and their combined restaurant and catering experience adds up to 50 years. Alex and Debbie got married below the Gay Head Lighthouse in 2013, and came to the Island to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant.
“I grew up in Scituate, but my family came here in the summers,” Alex said. “Oak Bluffs has special meaning to me. My parents live in the Campground year-round, and my grandfather and great-uncle had furniture and clothing stores in the same building we’re in now.”
Debbie and Alex had been living and working in NYC, and though they enjoyed city life, the hustle and bustle was getting old. Since they loved coming to the Vineyard, and have family ties, it seems apropos that they chose to open a restaurant here. This undertaking wasn’t quick or easy, however. “We were in the process of renovating when COVID hit. Also, Debbie had never cooked in a restaurant kitchen before,” Alex said.
“I started cooking two days before we opened the doors,” Debbie said. That doesn’t mean she’s new to cooking, however. She inherited her love and talent for cooking from her mother, Gloria Lane, and expresses her love of cooking through the masterful meals she creates as executive chef.
My husband Eric and I ate at Pawnee House, and enjoyed every moment. The night we went, it was raining relentlessly and by the time we arrived, we were soaked. Alex greeted us enthusiastically, took our dripping raincoats, and showed us to our table. It was warm and cozy inside, with soft overhead lighting and glowing candles on every table. We started off with drinks. I chose the Careless Whisper because I remember 1984 (mostly), when the song “Careless Whisper” by the pop group Wham! came out. The Careless Whisper is a combination of gin, lemongrass, Suze, IPA syrup, and grapefruit soda. It was refreshing, bright and tasty. Eric ordered the Odd Job, which is a tasty concoction of Japanese whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, Lillet Blanc, dry vermouth, lemon saline, and banana absinthe rinse. Eric and I shared sips, and agreed that both drinks were divine.
The Pawnee House menu offers a variety of vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and meat options. The drink menu is generous, and includes wine, beer, specialty cocktails, and mocktails. “Mocktails are very popular,” Alex said. “Offering them is a way of making sure we aren’t excluding people who may not want alcoholic beverages.”
I asked Alex and Debbie what some of their most popular dishes are. “Chicken pot pie,” Debbie said. “Yes,” Alex agreed, immediately. “Chicken pot pie has been our No. 1 seller. When we drew up our first menu, Debbie included it, and I said, ‘It’s August — who will want chicken pot pie in this heat?’ But they sold like crazy, and I never questioned her again.”
I chose the Mushroom and Smoked Gouda Tart with vegan cheese, charred onion, thyme, truffle oil, and topped with arugula. Yum. The dough was light and flaky, and melted in my mouth. Eric ordered the Red Beans and Rice Bowl, with collard greens, radishes, roasted tomatoes, scallions, and fluke caught fresh in Menemsha. The combo of flavors and textures was amazing.
Though I was joyfully full, I couldn’t leave without trying a dessert. Or two. I love anything lemon, so I ordered the lemon tart, while Eric ordered the flourless chocolate torte. The lemon tart was sweet, tangy, and smooth. The chocolate torte was rich and decadent, with a chocolate glaze, and whipped cream. Though we couldn’t finish our desserts, we happily took them home. I ate the rest of my lemon tart for breakfast the next day. It was just as delicious as the night before.
The Pawnee House closes in mid-December, and reopens in early May. Current hours: Wednesday and Thursday dinners, 5 pm to 9 pm, Friday and Saturday dinners, 5 to 9:30 pm, and Sunday brunch 10 am to 2 pm. To learn more about the Pawnee House Restaurant, visit its website, thepawneehousemv.com.