What Executive Chef Chris Bellino likes best about working at the Smithville Inn is that it is not another cookie-cutter restaurant.
"We weren't just built in the last 10 years," Bellino says.
When you walk through the front door you are immediately struck by the old nostalgic building and a history that stretches way back - to 1787.
There are few restaurants that can make a similar claim.
"We were married here 40 years ago and we come back every year for our anniversary," is something Bellino hears quite often.
A book in the front of the restaurant allows customers to write in their favorite memories about their visits to the Smithville Inn.
Long famous for its wonderful brunches and weddings, Bellino knows why the restaurant has remained popular for so long.
"There are plenty of catering halls around - we are a restaurant first," Bellino says.
Of course, the 40 quaint shops that comprise the historic village of Smithville only add to the mystique of what Bellino describes as an "outdoor mall" around the restaurant.
Many visitors come to the inn for lunch, then take a leisurely walk around the lake to do some serious shopping. At Christmas, the village is decorated and the inn serves breakfast with Santa, while a carousel on one side of the bridge attracts crowds of all ages.
Mother's Day at Smithville offers an expanded brunch. Mayfest, held the following weekend, features 100 juried crafters, vendors, bands and entertainment.
It also is that time of year when kids going to their proms stop by to take a picture at the gazebo near the lake.
Smithville is definitely not a shopping mall with an anchor restaurant, but, instead, a place to enjoy an entire day.
Bellino says the building holds "stacks and stacks" of Ethel Noyes' original recipes that the chef can go through for inspiration at any time. The menu at the Smithville Inn changes twice each year; the new spring menu will begin in May.
Bellino has downsized the menu a bit, but that allows him to offer more in the way of daily specials at both lunch and dinner.
Appetizers include classic dishes such as fried calamari ($13), lightly dusted in seasoned flour, flash fried, then served with lemon aioli and Cajun remoulade. A popular choice is the warm crab dip ($10), which is composed of jumbo lump crabmeat, spinach and boursin cheese, and baked in a sourdough bread bowl.
Among the appetizers regulars expect to see on the menu is the fried tomato appetizer ($9) with slices of panko-crusted tomato, served with melted Gorgonzola cheese, roasted red and yellow peppers, and a balsamic reduction.
Bellino says the smoked salmon and trout appetizer ($13) is more his style, served with goat cheese, cucumber, capers, red onion, horseradish cream and toast points. This international appetizer features trout from Maine; the salmon is Scottish.
He thinks it's even better served with a bottle of wine.
Ron Lucas, the wine director at the Smithville Inn, has created an extensive list for the restaurant.
While a cheese plate is presently available on the lunch menu, on the new menu it's going to be called "The Wine Kit." This plate will include a sampling of melon, prosciutto and cheese.
Cheese choices change weekly, but may include favorites such as Spanish manchego, French brie, Dutch Prima Donna or Beemster.
Featured soups include two classics: a New England corn chowder ($3/$5) is the chunky and hearty version with plenty of corn, diced potato, carrot, celery and bacon that Bellino, who says the Inn is known for the chowder, inherited it from previous menus. The French onion au gratin ($6) has all that you would expect from the onion, herb and beef broth concoction, along with the addition of a crouton, three cheeses and fried crispy onion on top for crunch. Bellino likens the effect to eating a bowl of crisp cereal and adds the ball of crispy onions to give his soup crunch long after the crouton has given up all texture to the broth.
Instead of Swiss alone, Bellino also adds parmesan and provolone for even more flavor.
Bellino has added his own touch to the Smithville Inn Salad ($9), preferring sundried cranberries, sliced pears, candied walnuts and salty shaved Grana Padana cheese over the typical iceberg, cucumber, tomato and carrot salads that pass for a house salad in other establishments.
The balsamic dressing used on the Smithville Inn Salad is homemade, along with their raspberry, citrus and roasted garlic-basil dressings. Frequent salad specials served on the weekends always feature a specially made house dressing.
The Smithville chicken pot pie ($19) is another one of those dishes that has become one of the restaurant's mainstays. Made completely from scratch - including the dumplings, the flaky homemade top crust and a classic chicken veloute sauce - Bellino wouldn't even consider changing the recipe.
He gets a kick out of the looks on customers' faces when you place the overfilled, 9-inch bowl of homemade chicken pot pie in front of them.
"Most people can't finish it," Bellino says.
Braised short rib Forestiere ($22) includes wild mushrooms, broccolini, Grana Padana, truffle butter and paccheri pasta, a fresh extra large rigatoni that soaks up all the juice from the truffle butter. The boneless short rib dish gets a finishing pinch of truffle salt which pulls all the flavors together, after the tender beef is piled on top of the pasta.
Another longtime favorite is the prime rib of beef ($32) served with a traditional Yorkshire pudding and a natural au jus. Made from the beef drippings, flour, milk and eggs, Yorkshire pudding is more souffle than custard, airy and light, presented on top of a hand-sliced king cut of prime rib with au jus ladled over all.
"It's a healthy-sized portion of prime rib for sure," says Bellino, noting it is offered Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only.
For those who prefer seafood, pan-seared crab cakes ($29), stuffed flounder ($27) with crab Imperial or sesame salmon ($26) are always available.
"We get a lot of repeat business, we have a nice little following," says Bellino, who says he is very fortunate to be in his position.
While many restaurants struggle to find new customers, The Smithville Inn always seems to be busy.
Two customer favorite appetizers include the smoked salmon and trout platter and the fried tomato with Gorgonzola cheese. Popular entrees include the braised short rib Forestiere and the stuffed pork chop with Fontina cheese and prosciutto, mashed Yukon gold potatoes and apple demi.
Making it special
One only has to walk around the grounds of The Smithville Inn to appreciate why so many weddings and special functions take place there every year including private parties for groups of 10 to 200. Special wedding package information is available on the website or by calling Heather Cramer, the banquet and event manager, at 609-652-7777.