CLARKSBURG -- John Morris has been the chef and owner of the Golden Eagle Restaurant for decades, but he can still recall when he first opened the business 30 years ago.
"My father owned the building," said Morris. "It was a gift shop, but the gift shop days were dying out, everyone was telling him it'd be a great place to have a restaurant. He bought it in 1980, and we opened on August 1, 1982. The gift shop was on the bottom floor, and the second floor was empty."
So it was that the second floor, which had been home to an antique store in years prior, became the Golden Eagle Restaurant. The gift shop on the first floor would remain for a dozen more years until 1994, when it was converted into a pub.
"We needed the expansion for the pub because the gift shop business was dying out and restaurant business was picking up," said Morris. "So aside from the formal dining room upstairs, we needed an informal gathering place, and it was really popular with the local people."
When it comes to popularity, having a famous location doesn't hurt.
Morris considers the Hairpin Turn a historical spot, and is glad to be in the first page of Google results for it, which contributes to Morris serving visitors from around the globe. Morris also attributes some of his success to art tourism.
"What's really helped us is Mass MoCA. We get people from all over the world who come back up here on their way to Logan, flying in or out
While Morris may be a lifelong restaurateur today, he had absolutely no background in the business when he first opened the restaurant. Just out of high school, he was essentially thrown into the career by his father.
"My father was an ironworker," said Morris, "and he didn't want me to follow in his footsteps. Everyone kept saying it was a good place, so he put me and my sister in charge. She was a few years older than me, she eventually left, and then I had the whole place for myself to run."
Morris's father, when not working, would hang around the restaurant. Starting out as a young boy of 17, Morris didn't really know what to do, and just went along with what his sister did. It took time, but eventually Morris grew into the position.
One thing that helped, said Morris, was a constant interest in research.
"I had friends that were chefs, at the Captain's Table and other places," Morris said. "They gave me ideas, and equipment ideas ... some even came to work for me. Some chefs from out of the area came and worked for a year or two. I'm always willing to learn something, so I've gained a vast knowledge of cooking from numerous chefs, and now I'm almost 50, so I've been here quite a while. If you have a passion for something, you can excel at it. I loved it. I still do, almost 30 years later, and I work at it every day."
One aspect Morris works most on is keeping current in the world of food.
"The best lesson I learned is, you've got to go with the trends and flows of society," Morris said. "And things are in one year and out the next year. You always have to keep basic. That's the way I cook, I don't like a lot of overpowering sauces to hide true food. I'm big into cutting all my own steaks -- I even bandsaw, sometimes we grind different hamburger mixes. I try to do everything -- even with fish I buy whole fish and filet them. We try to do everything as natural as we can. Years ago, we used to have leg of veal, and we'd have to break it down, pound it, cut it into different sections for different parts. But all of it's hard to get that way these days, with government regulations, it's all boxed."
So what's the big thing this year?
"What's in right now is that public food safety has come to realize that wheat is a problem for a lot of people," Morris said. "So you have to have on your menu gluten-free products. We have many people who come from out of the area who can't have that. So I try to find different gluten-free products to offer, and am even trying to get gluten-free beer now. The other thing that's gaining momentum is these specialty burgers, where instead of grinding the beef they chop their beef, so this summer I'm planning to put that on the menu. I try to read as much as I can, all the restaurant books. I subscribe to all of them."
In addition to reading, Morris does a lot of traveling with his wife to get ideas from other restaurants around the country from Florida to Buffalo. After reading Chef Anthony Bourdain's book "Kitchen Confidential," Morris decided to visit his restaurant on Cape Cod to see what it was like.
"Things like that interest me," said Morris. "You have to keep up on all that. I also like exotic things, we still have escargot on the shelves that we make. I cut my own lamb chops, we do our own trout where we get whole trout and we take out the bones and filet them, and make trout almondine. I buy all the best beef I can, prime New York sirloin like you'd get at Morton's Steakhouse. I'm really into the fine quality meats. I love my job so there's 100 percent effort into it. I do all kinds of different menus, we cater to people ... I'm even going to somebody's home next week to cater a Christmas party."
And John Morris isn't planning on stopping any time soon -- even if he does have a plan for the future.
"I have a nice life; I love what I do," said Morris. "I have a young chef underneath me who started at 16 doing dishes and left for a while to go to lots of local restaurants. Now he's come back and he has been here for six or seven years. Now that I'm getting older, I have a little more time and my vision is just to keep it running. I don't plan on retiring, just slowing down. As I get older, he can take over the daily activities more and more as I slow down and age, but I don't expect that for another 20 years, hopefully."
The Golden Eagle Restaurant has seasonal hours, open this winter for dinner from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and the pub is open Sundays from noon to 8 p.m. Full-time hours will resume in May after Mother's Day. For more information, call (413)663-9834.