In honor of this publication’s 25th annual restaurant survey, editors asked me to travel back in time and reprise my own top five Central PA eateries of this past quarter-century. On the one hand, that’s not easy. On the other hand, no one need hold a gun to my head.
For starters, dear readers, you must appreciate that as a native of the region and a resident for much longer than 25 years (and in my 23rd year as The Phantom), I remember: The Jolly Bull in Cumberland County when it was maybe the best steakhouse around; Chez John in York, when it was the hot new French place; and the Hill Café at Harrisburg’s 13th and Market Streets, when it was the city’s and maybe the region’s top seafood restaurant.
All which is to say your Phantom goes back. Also, the local restaurant scene is totally different than it was when the survey started and the local franchises of national chains (Mr. Steak and Red Lobster) would win a category or two.
Many of our readers’ top choices in those days are long gone. Casa Rillo in Camp Hill, for example, won numerous years in multiple categories, including “Best Italian.” Other favorites in the past included Zorba’s Lounge, Harry’s Tavern and the Maverick. I still miss Caruso’s on Chestnut Street in Harrisburg with its strolling violinist; and it left in the 1980s.
Still other eateries weathered all the years: The Circular Dining Room at the Hotel Hershey comes to mind, as does the Stockyard Inn in Lancaster, the Progress Grill in Harrisburg and the Commonwealth Room in York’s Yorktowne Hotel.
My list is by no means objective; it merely reflects the five restaurants in which I’ve had the most memorable meals most often during the time in question. So here goes, in alphabetical order.
Number 1: The Accomac Inn in Wrightsville outside York is on land that housed an inn since the 1700s. They say Samuel Adams visited the site. Throughout the past few decades it has been simply a wonderful place to eat. Every visit I’ve made, no matter the season, meant a view of the Susquehanna River, a seat in the gorgeous Colonial dining room and a meal as creative and delicious as any available in the region. I’d go back for the flamed-at-table bananas Foster alone.
Number 2: Alfred’s Victorian in Middletown has been around since 1970 and consistently has been a special place to dine. Located in a magnificent old house on the National Register of Historic Places, it offers excellent food in lush surroundings and makes one feel transported back to an age of simple elegance. In countless visits during more than 25 years, I’ve never had a bad meal there; and the menu today includes classics served throughout the restaurant’s history: escargot in puff pastry, steak Diane and beef Wellington.
Number 3: Au Jour le Jour in south Harrisburg’s distinctive Shipoke neighborhood is both long gone and re-created (more on that in a moment). The “day-by-day” French bistro offered a truly unique Central PA dining experience back in the days when unique Central PA dining experiences were very hard to come by. The original was just that, original. Tiny venue, small menu and great food served in a lovely old city corner property. It was ahead of its day for the region. Eventually it changed owners, it became Politesse for a while and now is Char Magaro’s Bella Mundo, an absolutely charming American bistro, redone and refurbished but maintaining the exceptional quality (oh, the pâté, the osso bucco, the Cornish hen) of its predecessors. I loved the original (I know I’m kind of cheating here), and I also love the modern version — which I’m told is relocating. If so, I only hope another restaurateur with taste and gustatory style moves in. It’s a terrific site.
Number 4: Mangia Qui on North Street in Harrisburg is catty-corner to the Capitol and is a gift that keeps on giving. Chef Qui Qui Musarra is a regional treasure, and her artistry must be experienced by any who love fine food. This smallish restaurant (there’s a tapas bar upstairs) offers a changing gourmet Italian/Mediterranean menu with a variety of amazing fish and pasta dishes unmatched in Central PA. The “Tuscan grill,” a hand-cut rib-eye steak rubbed with Adriatic Sea salt, is a noteworthy staple. Remember, this list is alphabetical. If I had to chose one place to eat, Mangia Qui’s the place.
Number 5: Trattoria Fratelli in an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood of Lebanon opened in 1996 and has been a consistent “Best Italian” winner in the readers’ survey for a decade. And rightly so. I’ve written in the past that I believe it to be the best traditional Italian restaurant I’ve eaten in between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It’s quite a place. The bread, the wood-stove, the cozy atmosphere, the intimate bar, the herb garden, excellent mussels, wonderful pizza, extraordinary pastas and (if you’re lucky) malted-milk-ball gelato combine to keep bringing patrons back. The restaurant takes no reservations because it doesn’t have to. And I have no reservations about naming it among my five favorites of the past 25 years.
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