Not everyone is happy with the transformation. I know a couple of Romanelli regulars who still long for the comfortably shabby familiarity of the old place. Over seven decades, the venue changed very little from the unassuming neighborhood joint that opened during the Depression. The menu stayed homey and uncomplicated headlined by steaks, spaghetti, rainbow trout and apple crisp and the prices were shockingly cheap.
I liked the joint for that very reason. It was so brazenly unhip that it was kind of retro cool. Not unlike the equally genteel Leona Yarbrough's Family Restaurant in Shawnee or the 60-year-old Stephenson's Old Apple Farm Restaurant on the east side, which still serves apple daiquiris and baked chicken. Similarly, the Romanelli Grill survived not only the changing demographics of its neighborhood but decades of evolving culinary trends and fashions. When a venue sticks around long enough, it often comes back into style.
But the hipsters never discovered the Romanelli Grill. You rarely saw diners under the age of 30 in the place, unless they were escorting a grandmother or an elderly aunt. When I reviewed the Romanelli Grill three years ago ("John Knox Vittles," October 31, 2002) I spotted a thirtyish friend eating a cheeseburger in the dining room. She made me promise not to "out" her as a Romanelli regular. "Darling," she said. "I'd rather be seen walking out of Ray's Playpen." OK, so the place lacked glamour. The décor was dowdy, the food bland, and most of the clientele had voted for Harry Truman, but my review gave it points just for carrying on. That didn't mean I could ever get anyone I knew to eat there.
The owner of the Romanelli Grill, Joe McCabe Jr., must have figured his aging clientele wouldn't live forever. So he sold the majority interest in the place to partners James O'Brien and Ray Dunlea. They gave the frumpy old place a dramatic makeover, which started with the name. In Dublin, gaf is usually defined as slang for one's home or flat. O'Brien has been quoted as saying that gaf is Irish slang for chat or a meeting place.
It could mean just about anything in its current incarnation; I noted during three evening visits that The Gaf attracts a mixed lot of chatty diners, including Gen-X types, baby boomers and loyal Romanelli patrons in their sixties.
Though the bar still sits to the left of the entrance, The Gaf bears little resemblance to the smoky Romanelli saloon. It now looks like a modern Irish pub, with shiny hardwood floors and dark woodwork. And, of course, there's Guinness on tap. The dining room is brighter and more attractive than before, thanks to the new upholstered booths and tables draped in white linens. There's even a rustic stone fireplace on the eastern wall, although the only thing I've seen burning in it were votive candles.
The place does a steady business, and sometimes there's a wait for a table. But on the Friday night I arrived with Patrick, Bob and Yvette, we had the luck of the Irish with us: We snagged a parking space near the front door and didn't have to wait for a table. Walking through the dining room, Patrick even noticed several people who seemed to have dressed specifically for an Irish pub. "I saw a woman wearing brogues, a man in a cable-knit sweater and at least one tam-o'-shanter," he said before we ordered.