I rarely write one-word reviews — and by rarely, I mean never — but if I did, my one-word review of Checkers Bistro in Lancaster would be "WOW!"
This chic little street-corner joint at the intersection of Mulberry and James offers an extensive menu of real options with some French/Asian flair.
The food is wonderful.
I can't imagine any diner, regardless of tastes, not finding something to his or her liking. And I liked everything I tasted.
The place is upscale, but there's such a variety — salads, pizzas, small plates, sandwiches, pastas — that patrons can spend as much or as little dough as desired and still enjoy a night out in a great and friendly venue.
The atmosphere is hip with a black-and-white checkered tile floor, painted walls, large, fun artwork, a nice bar in the front of the house and multiple rooms filled with nicely spaced tables with candlelight.
Service was exceptional. As first-timers we were given a full rundown of the menu, including advice on house specials and favorites and a tip that Chef is known for dishes made with fresh seafood.
Our server was a constant overseer without being cloying or annoying. Very professional and very much appreciated.
Cocktails are generous and well-made. There's a great roster of seasonal draft beers from Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware, interesting specialty drinks and a large and excellent wine list.
Warm, house-made whole-grain bread is another highlight.
The only bit of navigation required is figuring out the difference between "small plates" and "bistro plates" and getting to realize that some "small plates" are large enough to easily serve as entrees.
More on that in a minute.
First, examples of the range of offerings: Salads are big or small, pre-dinner size or large enough to serve sufficiently as a meal. And Checkers goes beyond the routine. Yes, there are Caesar and house salads, but there's also a large Cobb salad, a crisp apple salad with greens, bleu cheese and caramelized walnuts, and a roast beef and goat cheese salad, all ranging from about $5 to about $12.
Sandwiches include a crab cake, a turkey/avocado melt, a "Chubby Checkers" cheeseburger made with Lancaster County grass-fed beef and a Po-boy of blackened tuna with chili-garlic mayo and Asian slaw on a French baguette. Prices run from around $10 to around $13.
Pizzas — and one is enough to serve as an entree for one — include a prosciutto and fig pie with roasted garlic and a lobster pizza with pine nuts and baby arugula, each priced around $12.
And the thing is, as good as all this sounds, we haven't yet gotten to the real highlights of the menu.
That would be, in my view, the dozen-plus "small plates," some of which are large enough to serve as a meal. Just ask. Staff, as I said, is more than helpful and happy to explain each dish, its size and whether it's enough food to make an entree.
For an appetizer, I had Peking duck tacos, a dish that sounds like a culture clash but that, trust me, is a small plate of heaven: barbecued duck with guacamole and greens in paper-thin and wonderfully light and crispy wonton taco shells.
There are three to an order (you won't want to share) for $10.50. If you go, get them.
I also had seafood bruschetta, another "small plate" but of sufficient size that I had plenty to eat. This is a version of bouillabaisse, with scallops, shrimp, mussels, clams, diced tomatoes and scallions in a white wine broth and served with a tasty grilled baguette, $15.50. It's a quality dish, and a great bargain.
My dining partner raved about a half-sized beet salad special followed by a fish-of-the-day special of monk fish ($26) served with thinly sliced eggplant and a piquant Asian sauce that, truly, had a unique and extraordinarily good, fresh flavor. I'm telling even people who don't like fish they would like this dish.
Our server was right about leaning toward seafood.
Other "small plates" include lobster and shrimp tamale, lollipop lamb chops, seared diver scallops, baby back ribs, fish and chips, and tuna carpaccio with lemon zest and shaved fennel. Most of these are in the $10 to $12 range.
Regular pasta dishes include black fettuccine with mussels, linguine with clams and pappardelle with bolognese. There's also a Thai rice noodle dish with shrimp, fish sauce and cilantro. Pastas are $18 and $19.
Like I say, there are lots of choices at Checkers.
"Bistro plates" are full entrees such as the fish du jour. They also include a seared eight-ounce filet mignon with roasted potatoes and green beans, a 10-ounce flat-iron steak with frites, and crab cakes with potatoes gratin and sautéed spinach. These are priced in the $20s.
Dessert was the largest crème brûlée I've seen in captivity and real French-press coffee. It has been some time since I've had a better meal in Central PA.
I've often noted Lancaster's longtime penchant for good, high-quality eateries. Checkers Bistro is another example and adds to that city's earned reputation as a good place to go out to eat.
300 West James Street
Street parking and some parking in rear; takes major cards; full bar; open for lunch and dinner Tue-Sat; reservations recommended; cell phone use discouraged
Published in Phantom Diner
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