'Bear' at Bear's Den gives it one more year
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On the business cards, he's David E. Reynolds. But absolutely everyone calls him "Bear." He's a large, lumbering man, but there's nothing bearish or gruff about him. He's soft-spoken and big-hearted, low-key, a little bashful. The kind of bear you want to hug.
Regulars love him at the Bear's Den, his cozy bar and restaurant in the basement of the old Daniel Boone Hotel, now 405 Capitol St.
Most of the time, he's back in the kitchen cooking, enjoying the vocation chosen for him by his grandfather who was a chef at the old hotel. He learned to cook 50 years ago, as a teenager.
At lunchtime, people crowd the place to slurp his celebrated soups, especially the chili. Delivery orders pour in from all over.
On this very day next year, Oct. 15, he's bowing out. At 67, he wants time with his grandchildren.
Generally quiet and private, he finally acquiesced to an interview. Maybe the timing felt right.
"The girls called me Teddy Bear. The guys call me Bear. I got my nickname from playing football. I used to growl all the time. A lot of people didn't know my name until I got my business cards. They said, 'Your name is David?'
"I grew up on Wertz Avenue. We called it the hollow. My dad worked for DuPont.
"We had a garden on Dennison Drive all way to Oakridge. That's how far our property went. Our garden looked like a farm. We had cows, pigs and chickens. That's why it doesn't hurt me to work. We all worked in the garden. There were six of us, four brothers and one sister.
"My real mom, I didn't know who she was. She was gone, out drinking and carrying on. I didn't know who my real momma was until I was 16. I thought my stepmom was my momma.
"I had a mean daddy. If you even looked wrong, he would go upside your head. They don't know what child abuse is today. They should have come up when I was coming up. Now you can't whip them with a belt without someone calling the law.
"I guess it was OK. I'm still kicking. I've never been to jail, never been in any trouble.
"I went to Roosevelt Junior High, and I was the only black. It was rough for a while. Lonnie Hicks, I'll never forget him. We were in gym class. You know what he said. I picked up a weight and went upside his head. I'll be your man. I'm nobody's boy. We were friends after that.
"I got interested in cooking because my grandfather, LeRoy Hayes, was a chef here at the hotel. When I was 15, he made me come to work for him. Once I got into it, I loved it, so I've been cooking for 50 years.
"He started me out washing pots and pans. Everything I got, I earned. Back in those days, all you had to do was watch old people and they showed you how to cook and you learned all the recipes.
"The hotel was packed every night. We had President Kennedy one time. The maitre d' would be dressed in a suit with his shoes shined and the chefs had those big hats on. It was nice. We had about four different chefs.
"When I came out of Charleston High, I was working with my grandfather in the kitchen. Minimum wage was like $1.10 or $1.20.
"After that, I went to the Army Navy Club. I'd gotten older and wanted to move on. I was head cook over there. That's where I met Chef [Joseph] Duelli. He showed me a lot.
"I was at the Army Navy Club 11 years. All my jobs, any job I had, I stayed a while. I went to the Charleston House Holiday Inn and worked for Jim Davis and his wife, then to the Elk River Holiday Inn.
"I started back here in 1984 when they remodeled. This was nothing. When they remodeled, they dug all this out. A man said he used to come in here and drink when it was a hotel. He didn't. It wasn't here.
"When they opened, it was called SOB -- Shrimp and Oyster Bar. Mr. [Christopher] Plott owned it. They didn't make any money. I tried to tell them what to do, but they wouldn't listen.
"The Fifth Quarter offered me a job to be their kitchen manager. I worked there 12 years. I worked at Heart of Town for Julius George for about eight years. Lot of times, I was working two jobs.
"Me and Ray [Green] were down at Mulligan's. I was chef down there. The same man owned this place. It was called Daniel's. He went bankrupt. I was in the right place at the right time. I knew the general manager. I asked her if I could have it. I've been here 10 years.
"I borrowed the money and paid it back. I don't owe anybody. I praise God for it. He turned my whole life around. I became a Christian, and it seemed like everything just came to me. I belong to the First Baptist Church.
"I was raised in the church, but I got away from it. One day, I was lying in bed and I called my daughter and asked if she was going to church. She said she was. I said I was going with her. She said, 'You're what?' I went with her and kept going. It's been 10 years since I was baptized.
"I run specials here. On Thursdays, I have baked steak and gravy and mashed potatoes and green beans. I sell out before I even open the door. That's my best seller.
"I make a pot of chili every day in the winter. I'm famous for my chili. I just love to cook. I could cook seven days a week.
"We have happy hour 4 to 7 Monday through Thursday. On Friday, we let it run until 9. If nobody comes in, we close up. You ought to come for lunch. It's crowded.
"My best-selling soup is potato soup. And I make chicken and dumpling soup, vegetable soup, cheese and broccoli soup. I do it all.
"I don't open on weekends. If you open on weekends, you are looking for trouble. Look what happened on Capitol Street the other night. Those same people, I turn down.
"I get people from the Statehouse over there and people in this building and people at Saint Francis. We deliver from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. all the way up to Kanawha City and down to Patrick Street. Deliveries are 40 percent of our business.
"I don't advertise, but I have a good business. Everybody knows about me from word of mouth. At the Army Navy Club, I met about everybody in Charleston. Palumbo. Danny Jones. I was young then, about 21 or 22.
"I could write a book about what I've heard in this place and everything that went on in this building. It would be a bestseller. But no, a whole lot of my friends would be involved.
"I'm going to retire next Oct. 15. That's when my lease runs out. My employees will be taking it over. I'll stay on to guide them, maybe three days a week. But I wont be responsible for payroll and paying the rent.
"I wish I had gone in business for myself early. When I was working for everyone else, I should have been doing it for myself. When I decided to go into business, I was already 54 or 55. If I knew then what I know now, I'd be a millionaire.
"You get to a certain age, and you get tired. I come in here at 6 and get out about 4. That's too much for me, especially on this cement floor. I'll miss this place, but sooner or later, you got to hang it up. It's like a football player. You play as long as you can, then it's time to go.
"I got three daughters and seven grandchildren, all boys. I want to enjoy them. And I want to work around the church.
"I don't like being around a lot of people. I don't talk to people, just some who come in here. I joke with them, tell them hi, but as far as carrying on a conversation, no.
"Even when I was a kid, I played by myself. That way, you don't get in trouble and nobody knows your business.
"My friends I grew up with, they're mostly dead. But it ain't over for me yet. I figure I've got about 20 more years."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.