MANCHESTER — Long before downtown Manchester became the dining destination it is today, the Wild Rover began building a loyal following. Twenty-three years later the competition has grown and the economy has changed, triggering a major makeover at one of the city's oldest pubs.
Dan Boisvert, a Manchester-based electrical contractor, started the business in 1990 at 21 Kosciuszko St., and was soon joined by Jim Batchelder, who graduated that year from the New England Culinary Institute. With Boisvert's business sense and Batchelder in the kitchen, they built a Manchester staple in an industry known for turnover.
When Batchelder was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2008, the partners began to plan for a transition. "We knew we had to change to keep our piece of the downtown," said Boisvert.
Enter Tom Puskarich, a 20-year veteran of the Manchester restaurant scene, known recently for his six-year stint as chef/owner of "Z" food and drink, located at 860 Elm St. until it closed last year. He had crossed paths with Boisvert and Batchelder over the years, and when he learned they were looking for a new manager, he struck a deal with the co-owners to become general manager in charge of food and beverage, with a mandate to re-invent the place while retaining its essential character.
"The Rover has always been chef-driven, with great atmosphere and great food," said Puskarich. "Everything is built on that. We never forget that we're the Rover, and there's a special place in Manchester dining where we belong."
He started in early September, debuted a new menu on Oct. 15, and is preparing for a grand celebration on Nov. 20, which he characterized as "a reintroduction to an old friend."
The menu is about 80 percent the same, according to Puskarich. "Nothing's really gone," he said. "Things have been retooled and modernized."
In addition to new twists on classic Irish favorites like shepherd's pie and bangers and mash, the Rover expanded its bourbon, whiskey and beer selections. Fans of Puskarich's cooking will recognize his Asian nachos (made with crispy wontons and wasabi sour cream instead of corn chips and salsa); macadamia nut chicken fries and gouda-stuffed tater tots.
New burger options include "the ultimate" — a veal, bison and beef patty topped with aged cheddar, bacon and a fried egg on a brioche roll. "It's my attempt to one-up Jim on his angus burger," said Puskarich. "We want to have fun with the food. We never want to be taken too seriously."
The menu makeover was accompanied by some interior renovations, including new tables and bar stools, new lighting fixtures and bathroom improvements, said Boisvert. "We wanted to keep the same character, just give it a little spit shine," he said.
Live music continues every Saturday, with an open mike night on Tuesdays that features a three-piece house band.
There are plans to offer live music on Fridays as well, starting in early November.
New flat screens are being added for the sports fans, many of whom turn to the Rover as the place to go to watch a good rugby or soccer match, as well as Boston's professional teams.
The Irish pub format has enduring appeal in Manchester, given the 23-year history of the Rover and the popularity of Shaskeen Irish pub, opened in 2005, or Murphy's Taproom, opened in 2007.
The Peddler's Daughter in Nashua has become one of the most popular nightspots in the Gate City.
"The Irish pub crosses demographics and economics," said Puskarich in explaining the phenomenon. "Laborers just off the job or bankers coming in from the high-rise can feel comfortable in the same space. It's a mixture of suits and baseball caps, construction boots and wing-tips."
When Boisvert and Batchelder formed their partnership in 1991, they had that market to themselves.
Even though he formally stepped down on Sept. 22, Batchelder will continue his relationship with the Rover as co-owner and as a "presence" in the business he helped build.
"Jim has a designated corner at the end of this bar," said Puskarich, pointing to the long counter that dominates the room, "where he can watch the place grow for the next 23 years."