It's an hour and a half due west of Philadelphia, not really that much farther than some of our suburbs. But Lancaster and its surrounding countryside is very much a distinctive place, a unique blend of historic city charm and idyllic farmland rusticity that's now experiencing a booming scene of sophisticated restaurants to counter the old shoofly kitsch of its Pennsylvania Dutch tourist trade.
Lancaster has always been the agricultural heart of the Mid-Atlantic. But it has grown into a culinary destination in its own right because of a push to take ownership of homegrown treasures that once were exclusively sent to pedigreed kitchens in bigger cities, with the boost of a local audience that has enthusiastically embraced some cosmopolitan dining concepts. The seeds of that movement were clear in my last visit four years ago. A recent weekend jaunt with three more notable meals proved that spirit has only flourished.
One of the best wood-fired Italian trattorias in Pennsylvania? A jewel box French patisserie with a rainbow of macarons, exquisite pastries, and bistro fare that could be mistaken for a corner of Lyon? Or how about a whole-animal butcher turning pasture-fed local meats into top-notch salumi and steaks cooked to order for a casual meal just beyond the retail case? It's all happening in the Lancaster region now. In fact, my 36-hour stay was hardly enough to partake of all the recent arrivals. I'm still determined to grab a cocktail and burger at the no-reservations Horse Inn speakeasy on my next visit, and perhaps some island fare at breezy Callaloo Trinidadian Kitchen.
Still, these three restaurants alone were worth the trip.
Luca 436 W. James St. #101, Lancaster; 717-553-5770, lucalancaster.com
If Lancaster has a star chef who could draw national notice for taking the city's scene to the next level, it's Taylor Mason, 32. The talent was obvious in 2011, when the D.C. native debuted with Ma(i) son, an intimate Philly-style BYOB with 30 seats and a menu inspired as much by seasonality and his relationships with local farmers as the French, Québécois, Italian, and Californian influences that guided his cooking.
But the leap from that little nook to the vast converted warehouse trattoria of his second project, Luca, is stunning. The soaring modern space, with 100 seats between a mezzanine, a humming cocktail bar, and a patio in fair weather, is impressive enough, fragrant with the smell of smoldering apple wood, and bustling with an inviting casual-rustic vibe. The open-hearth Italian concept is hardly innovative. (Hello, Osteria 2007). But Taylor's rendition feels genuine and personal — crusty house sourdough that comes grilled beneath creamy burrata and maple-glazed figs; tender artichokes (a nod to his training at the C.I.A. in California's wine country) that take on char from the grill with the tang of salsa verde and a smoked paprika aioli. Smoked scamorza made from house-pulled curds turns molten in ceramic crocks glossed with truffled honey. A pot of polenta simmers high over the live fire to accompany roast chicken.
The pizzas left me less impressed, the bready dough designed more for sturdiness than for the delicacy I prize in the Neapolitan style. But dishes from other corners of Luca's menu were satisfyingly layered and complex. An echo of smoke added depth to ground chicken ragù that filled the wide hollow elbows of house-extruded lumache pasta. A hint of clove lent a northern Italian accent to unctuously rich cotechino sausage nestled into lentils. For its risotto, Luca uses the best rice one can buy, aged Aquerello Carnaroli, and it paid off in a luxuriously silky texture. When blended with pureed butternut squash, it was the ideal winter backdrop for a duck ragù dusted with crispy crushed duck skin.
With a butterscotch budino and long list of amari to ponder for a finish, I knew this first meal at Luca would not be my last.
Bistro Barberet & Bakery 26 E. King St., Lancaster; 717-690-2354, 26eastlancaster.com/barberet
Downtown Lancaster is a long way from Mar-a-Lago, not to mention Le Bec-Fin. But considering French pastry wiz Cédric Barberet spent a decade between those two places, working for a pair of the most demanding bosses imaginable, who could blame him for seeking the solitude of the Pennsylvania heartland to open Bistro Barberet & Bakery in 2015?
"Very egocentric but always fair with me," Barberet said of Donald Trump, a seven-layer chocolate cake man by habit, for whom Barberet also crafted a five-foot-tall Grand Marnier cake covered in 1,200 spun sugar roses for Trump's wedding to Melania. "Personality-wise, he was kind of like Georges [Perrier]."
It was Lancaster's affordability and a silent investor, though, that lured Barberet and his wife, Estelle — whom he met at his parents' bakery outside Lyon — beyond the Philadelphia suburbs where they were looking.
"We've fallen in love with Lancaster," he said. "It's up and coming. It's much more than the all-you-can-eat Amish buffets we used to hear about. And it's a playground for rare fruit and produce from young farmers like Alex Wenger and Tom Culton."
A requirement from that investor is also the reason Barberet created a full-service restaurant, not just a pastry shop. So he's taken a cue from Brasserie Perrier for a contemporary look of modern earth tones to warm the boxy back dining room and bar, where chef de cuisine Michael Savitsky turns out fine takes on updated bistro fare. Perrier's classic escargots in champagne hazelnut butter make a cameo beside a brunch offering of grilled lamb merguez with a lightly poached egg. Frisée salad tangles with warm duck confit, and a crispy salmon fillet poses over textbook lemon-caper butter sauce. If there's a quiche Lorraine with a flakier crust, I haven't tasted it lately.
The best reason to visit, though, sits behind the jewelry store-like cases of the pastry boutique in front, where delicate macarons paint a rainbow of flavors (bananas Foster with salt caramel is Barberet's latest creation). Exquisite jams are made from local elderberries and Mara des Bois strawberries. Deeply caramelized cannelés pastries are stacked to go. And chocolate is displayed in all its many glorious shades, from bonbons touched with Moroccan mint tea to a parade of exquisite minicakes. A classic flourless chocolate delight is small but mighty, its seven layers of dark mousse gleaming with a mirrored gloss of bittersweet ganache gilded with a plume of gold — a regal flourish befitting a tycoon. I was drawn to Barberet's more textured chocolate fantasy, a triangular chocolate beauty sprayed with a velveteen chocolate finish that harbored a heart of dark mousse sparked with the exotic notes of Thai basil and tart cranberries. Destination pastries? Barberet's sweet Lancaster detour is delivering just that: a patisserie worth the drive.
The historic Moravian borough of Lititz, just 20 minutes north of Lancaster City, has of late gained some culinary cachet of its own. It has definitely acquired some serious charcuterie, based on my recent visit to the Rooster Street Butcher, where, at a dining room table beside its retail counters, we feasted on an epic platter of silky duck prosciutto, air-dried bresaola, spicy dry-cured coppa salami, and lushly smoked liverwurst.
Of course, Lititz has always had the draw of the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, a 157-year-old institution with one of the most engaging pretzel tours around. The 125-year-old Wilbur chocolate factory sadly closed in 2016, but a candy store across the street is a satisfying place to go deep into the sample buckets to satisfy my Wilbur Bud obsession.
A younger movement of food businesses, though, is clearly rising, perhaps in sync with the celeb-magnet of the Rock Lititz music studio and production complex nearby. A new craft distiller called Stoll & Wolfe pairs the Wolfe family (including Lititz-raised Erik and his wife, Avianna Ponzi) with whiskey veteran Dick Stoll, a former master distiller for Pennsylvania Michter's, where he also made A.H. Hirsch bourbon. S&W is still too young to bottle aged whiskeys of its own making (the brown spirits are currently sourced), but the little cocktail bar is already a fun and funky place to drink.
Rooster Street nearby, is the perfect example of a mature artisan food business that's become a destination. I first encountered owners Tony and Kristina Page in their original retail shop in Elizabethtown (now closed), followed by a stand in Lancaster Central Market (still open). The move to this larger shop in 2015 has allowed them to add a casual restaurant complement to their butcher counter that, with 30 seats, contributes to the sustainability of the business.
The menu's sandwich focus keeps it casual and showcases what are simply outstanding locally sourced meats at a fair price. Berkshire pigs raised 10 miles away are used for the irresistible bacon burgers and unique charcuterie like the dried "Smoke and Whiskey" links touched with bourbon, smoke and ginger — Page's updated homage to Lebanon bologna. The best-selling spicy fried chicken sandwich comes from Pottstown birds, crisped and glowing with heat before a cooling drizzle of herbed buttermilk ranch. The burgers are so outstanding we took several fresh patties from the butcher case to go, along with frozen quarts of beef stock for stew.
But Rooster's kitchen might also offer the best steak frites deal around, at $14 for a small sirloin. But you can upgrade from the butcher case. Page sells grass-fed beef raised on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border that gets the unusual finish of a fermented fruit and vegetable mash that mimics the deep marbling associated with grain. Pick any cut retail — I chose a rich and tender hunk of tri-tip — and the restaurant adds just a $12 cook fee to the retail price. It's an even greater bargain when you realize Page, who previously cooked at Emeril's steak house at the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, has the chops to deliver it with big-time restaurant finesse, and the bonus of truffled demiglacé and herb-blasted fries cooked to crispy perfection in rendered beef and pork fat. Tubs of that fat are available to go, of course, for those who frequently use lard at home. But some things at this unique butcher shop cafe — like those stellar frites — are likely best left to the pros.