LANCASTER - Amish buggies and all-you-can-eat buffets. Those are the images that have long defined Lancaster County for most outsiders - with the added bonus of outlet shopping.
And there is ample truth to feed the cliches along the tourist honky-tonk of Lincoln Highway, where faux windmills spin over signs touting shoofly pies, and seniors come by the busload to gorge on bargain smorgasbords of brown-buttered noodles, gloppy gravy platters, and dry roast chicken.
But there's another, far more sophisticated food culture finally sprouting through Lancaster's famously fertile earth. From the Italian red corn and fraises des bois strawberries blossoming on Tom Culton's farm of rare heirloom wonders in Silver Spring, to the whole-animal cookery at John J. Jeffries restaurant, a thriving beer culture, a bustling historic Central Market, and a growing downtown scene of food artisans, there is a palpable new excitement here when it comes to the pleasures of the table, and the drinks beyond.
"Lancaster is totally happening now," says Andrew Martin, who in December opened a rye distillery called Thistle Finch in a rehabbed old tobacco warehouse. Set back on an obscure downtown side street, and marked only by a black-painted bird on the building's exterior, a speakeasy-style bar open three nights a week pours cocktails with the spicy but smooth white liquor made just feet away in Martin's handmade copper still.
In a synergy that feels very Brooklyn, Martin also rents space to a direct-trade coffee roaster, Square One, a recording studio upstairs, and soon a microbrewer in the basement. "Compare Lancaster to any other [midsized] city in Pennsylvania," he said. "It's suddenly so vibrant here now - it feels like an exception."
With 60,000 residents in a walkable city with historic charm surrounded by some of America's richest farmland, the current food awakening makes perfect sense. Until relatively recently, though, Lancaster's agricultural riches were mostly shipped off to New York and Washington, which would pay a premium.
The Brendle family's Green Meadow Farm has been making that connection to Philadelphia's restaurants for more than two decades, with Lancaster Farm Fresh, a cooperative of 75 small organic farms, now also making an impact on menus. But few individuals are as responsible for igniting Philadelphia's consumer awareness of Lancaster's artisan new wave as Tom Culton, the free-spirit farmer who has been a fixture (usually barefoot) at the Headhouse Sunday Farmer's Market since it rebooted in 2007. It debuts for this year on May 4.
With his 83-year-old step-grandpa, Pete Herchelroth, working the 53-acre ancestral farm in Silver Spring by his side ("We're the dream team!"), Culton's rare curiosity, old-school methods, and European travels have produced some unique (and usually expensive) delights, including precious spring garlic, rare varieties of extraordinary tomatoes, tiny artichokes, and both heirloom Piedmont polenta and Basque Espelette peppers that made it back through U.S. Customs as seeds hidden in his boots. The unorthodox approach, though, is part of his appeal: "The way I view it, farming nowadays is like abstract outsider art . . . . It's who you are, not a farm manual or text. It's a feeling, a smell, and if it takes time, it's worth it."
As Culton and his farming contemporaries have pushed Lancaster agriculture away from pantry basics toward a more innovative approach, the county's restaurants, finally, appear to be embracing it as their own.
"There was an export mentality," says Taylor Mason, 29, the chef-owner of Ma(i)son, an ambitious BYOB. These ingredients "were going everywhere else but here."
The local culture change began to seriously shift, however, with the opening of John J. Jeffries in the Lancaster Arts Hotel in 2006. Vail-based chef Sean Cavanaugh, 49, and his Baltimore-based business partner, chef Mike Carson, 38, had searched the country for a location where they could surround themselves with the agricultural resources they needed to create a comprehensive farm-to-table restaurant. They considered the Pacific Northwest and the Hudson Valley, but ultimately the Pennsylvania-born chefs settled on Lancaster, where there were both ducks raised in their natural element - "on pond" - nearby and a reasonable cost of living that made business sense.
The restaurant, named for the 19th-century tobacco company that once occupied the converted warehouse space, has followed through admirably on its mission. Everything from the extraordinary beef tartare, butchered from whole Thistle Creek cows (along with tallow rendered to make the excellent fries), to the Pennsylvania wines that dot its list has a local provenance. The restaurant even employs a forager.
"People didn't think it was going to work in Lancaster," Cavanaugh said. "But things are changing here."
Mason, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America's Napa Valley campus, says the affordability, rising arts community, and wealth of local ingredients also attracted him and his wife, Leeann Robustelli, to open their seasonally driven Ma(i)son, a Philly-style BYOB, in 2011. About 70 percent of his ingredients in season are custom-grown for the restaurant by young farmer Alex Wenger. Veteran Mennonite farmer Earl Groff ("the rock star of the Lancaster Central Market," Mason says) supplies much of the rest.
"I've been monitoring his pea crop, and he's got pattypans the size of a thumbnail," Mason says. "I came from the utopia of incredible produce" in Northern California, "but in many ways that has really translated here."
The go-local awareness isn't limited to upscale restaurants. At craft-beer-centric venues such as the Fridge, seasonal produce drives the chalkboard menu of small plates and pizza toppings (local raw cheddar and chard; house-made kimchi with pork). Even at Rice and Noodles, a Vietnamese restaurant from the former owners of New Orleans' classic Pho Tau Bay who took refuge with family in Lancaster after Katrina destroyed their business, the ingredients are homemade or local.
But the definitive clear indicator of Lancaster's rising appetite for its own foodcraft is ultimately seen in trending sales.
After more than 200 years of family tradition as dairy farmers, Andrew and Mary Mellinger of Linden Dale Farms decided in 2005 to swap their milk cows for goats to make cheese. It was a bold move to buck six generations of history, but a smart one, given the vagaries and limited income of the current milk commodity market: "I don't know if we'd still be farming otherwise," said Andrew, 52, cheerily tending to a vat of goat's-milk feta.
Growing their business, though, has been a slow but rewarding process. In the early years, they regularly schlepped to five farmer's markets a week, including as far as Rittenhouse Square until 2012. But ever since landing a stand at Lancaster's three-day-a-week Central Market in 2009, demand has steadily grown. And this past year, the Mellingers nearly sold out of cheese. With six children but no employees, their Central Market sales were finally enough that they no longer needed to travel to make their small family farm tick.
"It was our goal to make cheese for our community," says Mary. "And now we barely make enough to feed Lancaster."
A sampling of Lancaster County's best:
Restaurants, bars, cafes
Bull's Head Public House (at Sutter Inn), 14 E. Main St., Lititz, 717-626-2115; generalsutterinn.com. An impressive craft beer list anchors this Brit-style tavern near Lititz's foodie attractions, the Wilbur Chocolate Co. and historic Sturgis Pretzels. But the classic pub fare also impressed, from flaky chicken-leek pot pie to earthy Cornish pastie, and an excellent burger.
The Fridge, 534 N. Mulberry St., Lancaster, 717-490-6825; beerfridgelancaster.com. With 400-plus beers in the cold box and paper-thin-crust pizzas rolling off the conveyor-belt oven, this cozy hangout feels like a marriage between the Foodery and Jules Thin Crust. The seasonally inspired pizzas are best: Try the truffled ricotta with potatoes, Moroccan olives, and local cheddar.
Himalayan Curry & Grill, 22 E. Orange St., Lancaster, 717-393-2330. The Indian fare is above average. But go for the exotic (and rarely seen) Nepali specialties, including chicken-stuffed momo dumplings and a "samayabajee" Nepali snack platter that brought a generous bento box of spicy chicken, tangy pickled radish, lentil cakes, and crunchy flakes of "beaten rice."
Hunger-N-Thirst, 920 Landis Ave., Lancaster, 717-208-3808; hungernthirst.com. The Neff brothers' sprawling modern gastropub, bottle shop, and market near Franklin & Marshall has a menu with bar-plus ambition, from tempura-fried asparagus to burgers and duck confit tacos. But an ever-changing list of hard-to-find brews (sour Japanese Hitachino Nest gose?) is the highlight, especially in the beer garden during warm weather.
John J. Jeffries, 300 Harrisburg Ave., Lancaster, 717-431-3307; johnjjeffries.com. Lancaster's farm-to-table pioneer delivers exceptional local specialties with international inspirations, from pristine Thistle Creek beef tartare to pork confit gorditas over farmer Alex Wenger's heirloom grits, buttermilk-crusted Meadow Run chicken with chimichurri, and a delicious "Jim" Bim Bop riff on the Korean classic with house-fermented kimchi. Carefully selected local wines and sophisticated cocktails are also worthwhile.
Ma(i)son, 230 N. Prince St., Lancaster, 717-293-5060; maisonlancaster.com. This 28-seat downtown BYOB has a rustic-chic vibe and blackboard menu that could do well in Philly. A close partnership to farmers keeps flavors seasonal and hyper-local, but the cooking is pure bistro, with impressively crusty house-baked bread anchoring platters of foie gras-liver mousse, house-cranked cannelloni filled with porcinis and braised Cornish hen, and a soulful, pastry-topped Tourtière pie filled with pheasant and smoked pork gravy.
Rice and Noodles, 1238 Lititz Pike, Lancaster, 717-481-7461; riceandnoodlesrestaurant.com. The Pho Tau Bay name was renowned for Vietnamese cooking in New Orleans until Katrina destroyed the chain. The owner-siblings who took refuge with family in Lancaster have flourished in this bright cafe, where classic Vietnamese fare is made in-house, including the pho, the mayo and pate for the banh mi, the grandfather's famous sweet yogurt, and surprisingly sophisticated macarons influenced by the Paris-based branch of the family. Soon to open a second location downtown.
Square One Coffee, 145 N. Duke St., Lancaster, 717-392-3354; squareonecoffee.com. Owners Josh and Jess Steffy have forged strong relationships with Kenyan coffee farmers since buying this charming cafe in 2007. Their growth as a notable roaster of single-varietal beans from around the world is evidenced by the two employees competing in this week's coveted U.S. Barista Championship. By June, they'll make waves in Philly's coffee scene, too, with a planned second cafe for 249-257 S. 13th St.