GETTYSBURG - A long day scaling Little Round Top and touring the battlefield here can be an engrossing experience - and one that leaves a sudden hunger for a good meal.
The choices in this tourist mecca have traditionally been a cyclorama of junk-food horrors, from endless options for chicken fingers (with an optional ghost tour) to all-you-can-eat Salisbury steak and nachos at a buffet named for Gen. Pickett's Charge.
A quiet but serious culinary revolution, though, has been growing in the Adams County countryside surrounding this historic town. Ambitious wineries such as Hauser Estates have recently popped up, cultivating grapes amid the rolling hills of Biglerville's apple orchards. The Gettysburg Festival, which runs June 18-27, has placed food events at the core of its celebration.
Even more impressive are the everyday efforts of some of the area's best restaurants, including three that feature locally bred chefs who've returned from pedigreed gastromomic adventures farther afield to bring some sophisticated flavors back to their home turf.
House-made charcuterie and wood-roasted Spanish tapas at a tiny apple-country BYOB? A lavish industrialist mansion where the chef creates inventive seasonal fare inspired by local organic farmers and the owners' own herd of cattle? Or how about an elegant meal at a colonial-era tavern in East Berlin from a chef who once ran the four-star kitchen at Manhattan's Lespinasse?
I wouldn't have believed it, either, until I tasted these meals myself. But after visiting this spring, I found that each of these three restaurants add a flavorful new reason to visit Gettysburg this year.
The Sheppard Mansion
Chef Andy Little knows his way around B&Bs, having trained at Virginia's vaunted Inn at Little Washington (after school at the C.I.A.) and made his reputation with Philadelphians as a seasonally minded chef at EverMay on the Delaware north of New Hope. Coming back to his meat-and-potatoes hometown of Hanover, he says, was an unexpected turn. But the rebirth of the Sheppard Mansion as an inn and a serious restaurant has been an ideal opportunity to craft a special fine-dining destination from the ground up.
Owned by the family behind the Hanover Shoe Co., the mansion is a gracious inn and perfect all-in-one stop for a night on the way to Gettysburg, which is just 25 minutes west. The guest rooms and dining rooms are gorgeously restored to their pre-World War I elegance, with dark wood paneling, silken walls, Tiffany lamps, and polished silver in the dining room stating a period theme.
Little's cooking, though, is a thoroughly contemporary expression of seasonal New American cuisine with the occasional Southern accent, drawing inspiration from local farms when ingredients can't be found in the mansion's extensive box gardens or the Sheppard family's own produce and cattle farm.
On the current menu, edible nasturtiums grace deep-fried softshell crabs marinated in a savory Old Bay-scented creme brulee custard. In early spring, buttermilk-fried frogs' legs came over garlic cream, while baby turnips accompanied seared rockfish over lentils stewed with ham hock. Mustard and crumb-crusted halibut "schnitzel" served over silky pureed cauliflower was an homage to the area's German roots, as was a tender duck breast with mustard-spiced spaetzle.
As for dessert's highlight - a deep-fried apple pie turnover topped with homemade brown butter ice cream - Little concedes a play on the pop culture favorite: "McDonald's, naturally! . . . And, of course, apple country, too."
Biglerville sits at the picturesque heart of Pennsylvania apple country. What a surprise, then, to come across the exotic flavors of Spain and Italy emerging from a wood-fired oven in this tiny 28-seat BYOB tucked behind the Gettysburg Baking Co.
Chef Shaun Wolf, an East Berlin native and Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College grad, was on the opening kitchen crews at both Osteria and Zahav, where he learned to work the searing 800-degree heat of a wood oven. And Osteria's lingering influence is obvious in the extensive selection of charcuterie that Wolf has been crafting, from the clove- and pepper-cured smoked beef bresaola to the richly textured porchetta head terrine and a country ham braised in apples and apple brandy.
Wolf makes fine variations on pizza, too, like the unusual pie we savored topped with gossamer rounds of "fresh dug" local potatoes over parmesan cream sauce with pancetta and mint. But he's been paring back the pizzas lately toward more unusual Spanish "coca" flatbreads (like the one topped with tuna and white beans), to reserve oven space for the rest of his intriguing menu.
Among the best items roasting beside the blazing coals are bundles of scallions that emerge charry and wrapped in paper, ready for a dip in red pepper romesco. Big-barreled canneloni came stuffed with a slightly dry but flavorful mince of local applewood smoked rabbit. Tender brook trout was crisped in the oven on an iron plancha, streaked with purees of green parsley and garlicky white almond-bread sauce, then posed over a platter of duck-fat fingerling potatoes.
My favorite, though, was a cazuela brimming with plump shrimp basted in a garlicky butter electrified by lemony aleppo pepper, bay leaves, and a cuminy spice blend. I owe that winning choice to the urging of our neighboring table, a foodie couple from Carlisle, half an hour to the north.
"It's date night," they said, licking the shrimp butter from their fingers. "And we knew exactly where we were coming."
Few people will speak about the challenge of building a serious culinary enterprise in the midst of tourist territory as frankly as Neil Annis.
He had grand plans when he returned to his childhood region six years ago to open Sidney in East Berlin after a career in the stratosphere of Manhattan and Washington restaurants - with stops at Bouley, Lespinasse, Compass, and several upscale capital hotels.
But he's found gastronomy to be tough sledding in central Pennsylvania.
"I was enormously naive and nostalgic when . . . I opened this nice little restaurant in the middle of frickin' nowhere," he said. "I had aspirations and a vision. But I also had to stay afloat - so now I've got a tavern menu with a burger on it."
In his frustration, Annis might be selling Sidney short. Because even though it offers a $36 prix-fixe alongside its $30 fine-dining entrees, half-priced wine Tuesdays and yes, an inexpensive tavern menu, it also happens to be one of the most satisfyingly complete restaurants I've dined at in rural Pennsylvania.
The focaccia breads and corn muffins are homemade. His signature chopped salad - 13 different perfectly diced vegetables piled high in a tangy Maytag blue cheese vinaigrette - is as addictively tasty as it is virtuous. A spring special of blanquette de veau, a slow-braised roulade of veal breast, pan-crisped, then laid atop ribbons of creamy, truffled pasta scattered with baby vegetables, is a deft retro update that betrays Annis' classic roots.
But the same skill is applied to Sidney's earthier value fare - a sublimely moist chicken kebab beside curried yogurt and a basmati pilaf jeweled with spring vegetables; and a hearty turkey steak, marinated in whiskey and paprika, that came atop a buttery onion puree and tangy red cabbage beneath the crunch of beer-battered onion rings.
It's enough to make one wonder what this chef can do in a no-holds-barred gastronomic setting. But we may not have to wait long: Annis has plans for a grand new restaurant within the next year that, though its location cannot yet be reported, is in the grand old heart of Gettysburg.
"I want it to be remarkable," he says, "something to bring Gettysburg into the 21st century . . . because I'm from here."
The region around this tourist town, surprisingly, is already well on its way.
Dining near Gettysburg
The Sheppard Mansion
117 Frederick St., Hanover, Pa., 17331
Dinner, Wednesday through Saturday, 5:30-9 p.m.
Entrees, $21-$28; three-course prix-fixe Wednesday through Friday, $30; seven-course prix-fixe tasting Saturday, $70.
All major cards.
213 E. York St., Biglerville, Pa., 17307
Lunch, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday, until 2 p.m. Dinner, Wednesday though Thursday, Sunday, 5:30-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m.
All major cards but Amex.
Reservations highly recommended.
101 E. King St., East Berlin, Pa., 17316
Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday though Saturday, 5-9 p.m.
Entrees, $26-$31; tavern entrees, $11-$16; three-course prix-fixe, $36.
All major cards but Amex.