OK, kids, it’s a hot summer month with lots of grilling and cookouts, some vacations or staycations, a time when the livin’ often is easy before the grind of back-to-school, work and the pending chores of fall return.
So, maybe a daytrip or two before summer ends? Perhaps a break from the charcoal, propane, or Green Egg smoker, replaced by a night out to beat the heat at a cool dining spot?
I’ve got one for you: Checkers Bistro.
It’s an old Phantom Phav that’s held up well. In fact, it’s held up better than well. It’s a great place for happy hour with snacks, and a better place for dinner.
It’s been part of the Lancaster dining scene since it opened in 2006, originally at James and Mulberry streets, in a quaint corner neighborhood tavern with checkered black and white tile flooring.
It’s since relocated. But, at its heart, it hasn’t much changed.
And the Lancaster dining scene continues to boom. Hope y’all saw last month’s huge New York Times piece on the growing diversity of Lancaster restaurants. It ate up the print edition food section on July 24.
But back to Checkers.
In 2014, it moved a few blocks further into the city’s West End, not far from Franklin & Marshall College, into what once was a famous foundry, home of the Champion Blower & Forge Company.
I’ve been back several times, including recently, and can report that my 2011 assessment stands. I like everything about Checkers.
Its atmosphere is urban chic. The place is bathed in clean, elegant, muted, blacks and greys on pillars and walls, leather chairs. There’s a long, winding bar with a couple high-tops for two. There’s a multi-level dining room, part of which abuts a large floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed wine rack. The wall art includes blowups of historic black and white Lancaster photos. And lighting throughout is elegant, soft and comforting. Just like the dining pace and the service.
But to the food. The menu is seasonal. It’s fun and varied.
A dining partner and I started at the bar with well-made cocktails and (despite my general aversion to the ubiquitous crispy calamari; much preferring the grilled version) a “small plate” of lightly-crisped, as in tempura-like, calamari with hot and sour sauce. The dish was delicious, anything but small and more than enough for two to share.
There’s also a brilliant wine list. And by-the-glass orders draw generous pours.
After moving into the dining room, we each ordered salads: a Caesar with Parmigiano-Reggiano and anchovies; an apple salad with grilled onions and caramelized walnuts. These were wonderful, fresh and large; even though we each ordered “small” sizes, $8 each.
There’s also a roasted beet salad or humus and veggies. And there are salad add-ons such as shrimp, salmon, tuna and grilled tofu.
(Another plus for Checkers is it offers smaller servings of most salads and small plates, which is smart and something more restaurants should do. A small plate for you. A larger serving for the table to share.)
Small plates include crispy risotto cakes ($8 for three, $11 for five) with Gruyere and Muenster cheese and honey whole-grain mustard; Peking Duck tacos (three for $14, seven for $28); eggplant rollatini ($15.25); and lobster Mac `n Cheese ($12).
The lobster Mac “small plate” was exceedingly tasty but exceedingly rich and much too much for one sitting. It went home for a day-after lunch.
Regular entrees, labeled “bistro plates” run in the $20 to $30 range and include grilled salmon, pappardelle pasta with Bolognese, a coffee-cured petite filet, diver scallops and roasted chicken.
Every plate I saw was beautifully presented. Everything I tasted was excellent.
And Checkers offers “seasonal plates” such as duck a l’orange, meatloaf and “Buddha’s Autumn Garden,” a quinoa and kale salad with roasted sweet potato.
Plus, there is a burger and 10-inch grilled pizzas ($15), including one with lobster and brie, pine nuts and arugula.
Desserts range from crÃƒ¨me brulee to sorbets, from specialty coffees to a “CB Sundae,” which is vanilla and chocolate ice cream with pretzels, brownie bites, caramel sauce, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and bourbon cherries.
If you’ve been to Checkers, it’s definitely worth a return trip. If you’ve never been, I strongly suggest you (sorry) check it out.