Road Trip: Historic downtown Lancaster
"Eat local" is becoming a double-edged slogan in Lancaster. Obviously it's an advertising strategy trumpeting a renewed commitment to regional products. But for a city heavily under the influence of corporate restaurants, "eat local" also has a pride-of-place resonance, as in: Why not dine in area-owned establishments?
That zeitgeist-y rallying cry has energized Lancaster, a proud, old city 33 miles from Columbus. Now its historic downtown streets aren't just rife with lovingly preserved 19th-century buildings, they're bustling with bred-here restaurant vitality. Attesting to this new spirit-while honoring the past-are a brilliant vegan enclave, a family pizza joint, a revivified classic, plus gastropub upstarts.
For example, where the Olde Cottage Restaurant once slung rote diner fare, sleek and modern Table 1 now serves breakfast and lunch prepared by a French-culinary arts-trained chef. Stone, wood and gastropub gray decorate this busy place-as does an amusing patchwork counter made from variegated vintage doors.
Smoke flavors several inviting items on Table 1's small menu, like the rich and tangy Tomato Bisque ($2.50), a must-order. Also pleasantly puffing smoky vapors are two recommended sandwiches served with crispy house-made chips. The juicy Fidel ($8) is a Cuban sandwich with all-day smoked pork and ham (plus all the mandatory fixings) encased like a pastry in a crisped, folded tortilla. The hoagie-like Prime Time ($8) vigorously aligns irresistible "pit-roasted" sliced beef with sauteed onions, horseradish and melted provolone cheese.
Staying on aptly designated Main Street, just a couple storefronts away, lustrous new Ale House 1890 has set up shop-and 16 taps. Named for the year its building was erected, 1890 sports delightful murals echoing antiquated commercial signage still visible on its exterior. Also echoing the past are inexpensive $6 cocktails, such as the Sazerac and Georgian (Hendrick's gin, pear vodka and St. Germain).The latter is named after a famous Lancaster mansion and museum circa 1832.
The biggish menu features contemporary favorites like pork belly, kale salads, handmade pizzas, plus jazzed-up macaroni and cheese. Try the popular Cheech and Chong ($12, with fries), a whopping double-decker spicy cheeseburger with chorizo and sriracha aioli.
If you're in a mellow mood, The Well can't be beat. Embracing a holistic and back-to-nature aesthetic, The Well is a sophisticated combination of artisanal coffee roaster, art gallery, vegan and gluten-free restaurant, plus indoor playground (starring lovely made-here wooden toys and climbing structures). It's also a handmade linen clothes shop (the noble old building's former occupant was an upscale clothier). Despite its multifaceted offerings, the food here is terrific.
After a refreshing Pineapple Tango Smoothie ($5) that was like a tart, foamy and booze-less margarita, I enjoyed the "ZLT" sandwich ($9). Served with a superior massaged kale salad, it was like a vibrant Ohio harvest-zucchini in flavorful spread form, organic romaine, herbs and beautiful tomatoes on dense house-made ciabatta.
Want a beer? Continue scaling up Main Street to The Lodge, a rambling and mammoth old manse (and former Elks Lodge) near the William Tecumseh Sherman house and museum (Sherman was a Lancaster native). Get a locally brewed Rockmill or Buckeye Lake ale on tap. For a snack, try the cheesy jalapeno dip ($6). For dinner, go grilled swordfish ($17) with cilantro lime butter.
Like pizza pie? Everything old is new again at shiny Diamond Jim's Pizza. A daughter's love letter to her father's pioneering, long-shuttered Lancaster pizzeria, Diamond Jim's has red-and-white-checked tablecloths and spins oldies from 45s on a Wurlitzer jukebox. And it serves alluringly ultra-thin-crusted pizzas made with original family recipes from the 1960s. Garlicky homemade meatballs ($15) make a hefty and good topping for Diamond Jim's remarkably snappy pies.
No trip to Lancaster is complete without venturing to venerable Shaw's Restaurant and Inn. Stately but welcoming, Shaw's has a reputation for in-house aged steaks and country-club-style seafood. Lately though, this member of Local Matters and Dine Originals has been focusing more on seasonal and contemporary fare.
Head to the jazzy, dark and handsome bar, where you can enjoy Shaw's full menu along with free popcorn made the old-fashioned way. During my late summer visit, after great $7 cocktails (a Kentucky Mule-like Whiskey Spritzer and the herby, citrusy and gin-based Rosemary Clooney), I savored an incredible bowl of pesto-topped, world-class golden gazpacho ($3.25). Following that, the fresh Grilled Eggplant and Tomato Stack ($16) was another farmers market bonanza. It showcased more local flavors of grand-and-reinvigorated old Lancaster.
Where to Stop in Lancaster
Ale House 1890
151 W. Main St.740-277-6069, alehouse1890.com
Diamond Jim's Pizza
111 N. Columbus St.740-974-6060, diamondjimspizza.com
29 E. Main St.740-654-5823, lodgeinlancaster.com
Shaw's Restaurant & Inn: Steaks
123 N. Broad St.740-654-1842, shawsinn.com
157 W. Main St.740-785-4495
203 S. Broad St.740-573-7011, facebook.com/thewelllancaster