March 26, 2015 by Ashley Schable
The Port Restaurant, with its breathtaking views on Lake Panorama, will reopen this month after closing for renovations in January.
Both the restaurant and bar have received complete makeovers, tuning up both the décor and food offerings.
The new design is intended to create a more comfortable look, while new head chef Drew Labath—who has returned to his hometown of Panora—has updated the menus to emphasize local and seasonal ingredients.
The staff—including general manager Stacy Goodenberger, restaurant manager Kaleb Valdez and longtime local food guru Paul Wendl—has teamed up to encourage community members, family and friends to dine in the updated restaurant.
“We want everybody—the farmer on the tractor all day, the person in the boar, the families,” Labath said. “To be able to write my own menu out and be able to serve really good food to people I know is really cool.”
Labath, the son of Bill Labath and Liz Labath, of Panora started working in a kitchen at the age of 14. He worked for Wendl, who at the time owned P.J.’s Drive-In, along the Raccoon River Valley Trail in town.
“I was washing dishes, and one day we got buys and Paul said, ‘Get over here,’” Labath recalled. “I started helping out, putting pickles and lettuce and tomatoes on burgers,”
By 15, Labath was running the joint, Wendl joked.
“Paul went elk hunting, and I worked,” Labath chimed.
After graduating from Panora High School in 2004 Labath went to culinary school in Cedar Rapids, graduating in 2009. He moved to North Carolina, where he honed his craft at Chef Mo’s Restaurant & Bar in Asheville.
“It was a full-service restaurant, with lunch and dinner and a full bar,” Labath said. “We made our own bread in the mornings and had chicken sandwiches for lunch, and then went a little nicer for dinner with lamb skanks and veal.”
Labath also worked for a health food store, Earth Fare, in Asheville, starting in the pizza station and quickly moving up to food service manager. He helped open stores in Florida and Georgia.
Working for Events 22, Labath’s most thrilling job, included feeding golfers at the Masters.
“I worked for Net Jets, and it was all the jets coming in and out of the Masters,” he said. “We would do really nice steaks and would cook all day long for the golfers.”
He doesn’t have proof, but Labath believes one of his steaks was served to professional golfer Tiger Woods.
It was last winter that Labath entertained the idea of retuning to Panora and The Port, where Goodenberger said she has struggled to hire a chef.
“Paul had been talking to my dad and said they needed somebody from this town, someone who knows the people, somebody local,” Labath said.
Wendl, who owned The Port with his wife, Linda, from 1981 to 1994, longed to see it a thriving pride in the community again.
“It’s a new area, and The Port has been a part of my life, and I just want to be a part of getting it back,” Wendl said.
Missing family and eyeing a “big opportunity,” Labath agreed to return home.
With a guy in the kitchen, Wendl said they shut things down and got started.
“We had to reload, revamp and start back over,” Wendl said.
They built diving walls and a new bar. They added fresh paint, new tables and chairs.
And the menu has been tested.
“I’ve tried just about everything, once or twice,” Wendl said.
Labath has worked hard to put his own menu together.
“We are going to have really good seafood; crab cakes are all handmade,” he said. “We have handmade pasta and real raviolis. A big portion is in-house and handmade.”
There are more appetizers, including ravioli, spinach artichoke dip and mouth-watering pork nachos.
“We have entrees for everybody, something anybody would want,” Labath said.
The Port will serve fresh fish on Fridays, feature a prime-rib buffet both Friday and Saturday evenings and have a Sunday brunch.
On Friday, March 27, the once well-loved restaurant among locals and summer residents alike will reopen.
The staff is gung-ho to show off their efforts.
“We’re all just ready to have people here,” Goodenberger said. “It’s cozy and inviting, more comfortable, more casual.”
The Port will run on winter hours until May 15.
It’s open Wednesday and Thursday 5-9pm; Friday and Saturday 5-10pm; and Sunday 10am-1:30pm.
Courtesy of Ashley Schable, The Jefferson Herald, 3/26/15.