WEYMOUTH TOWNSHIP - You have to be of a certain age to remember when the trip to the Jersey shore from Philadelphia could only be made through a series of numbered roads and "shortcuts" through the Pine Barrens along winding backwoods blacktop. The watering holes and eateries that flourished along those old byways are now gone for the most part. Just past the intersection of Routes 40 and 50 in Mays Landing sits Merrill's Colonial Inn, in a green and white wooden building from another era, with a homestyle menu and a familiar atmosphere from a simpler time and place. And just like going home for dinner, mom is busy in the kitchen and daughter is out front clearing tables.
The dining room inside Merrill's in Belcoville, is hardly fancy. White curtains with pink roses and red oilcloth table covers with assorted pasta shapes give the dining room that homey feel. Family pictures adorn the walls along with not-so-recent restaurant reviews in a room time seems to have passed by. Memories are sprinkled around the room like kitchen seasonings.
The menu is simple and straightforward. If one had to guess, it has changed very little since the first menu 50 years ago. The theme is Italian-American but expect the servers to laugh you out of the place if you ask for something smarmy such as a plate of pasta. Order spaghetti or macaroni with meatballs and red sauce, nothing more complex. The kiddie menu offers things including spaghetti with a meatball or ravioli with a meatball, perfect kid food.
The fanciest thing we saw at Merrill's was the hot rolls wrapped in an embroidered cloth napkin.
Remember those round woven woodenware salad bowl sets with the matching fork and spoon that were all the rage in the '60s? Merrill's uses them for the house salad that comes to the table family style. Iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, grated carrot and red cabbage were all tossed in a basic vinegar and oil dressing and seasoned with plenty of dried oregano. Maybe that combination didn't bring back memories.
Hot food began with a cup of turkey noodle soup ($2) and an order of roasted sweet peppers ($4.95) the only two items on the menu that could be termed appetizers. The soup was tasty and hot and the peppers were sweet and local. Our server mentioned the peppers had been just picked.
Homemade ravioli ($12.95) was served with a basic tomato sauce and a large handful of thickly sliced and sauteed mushrooms. We recognized the filling inside as the classic ricotta, egg and grated cheese filling. The fried flounder platter ($14.95) was composed of two large fillets of fresh fish, evenly coated in crumbs, and so hot we had to blow on each bite just to cool it down. The tartar sauce has a yellow look about it, homemade, not store-bought. Sturdy french fries were served on the plate along with a monkey dish of steamed fresh broccoli. The kitchen didn't make cole slaw that day, our first choice, so we ate what was fresh, what mom had made that day.
Desserts also are homemade at Merrill's and two slices of pie seemed like the perfect finish. One slice each of coconut custard and banana cream pie, both sweet enough with a basic flaky crust underneath. A fresh pot of coffee was brewed to order.
Food at Merrill's is basic and good. The kind we remember from those long trips to the shore, and just like mom used to make. The plates are heavy-duty diner style and served ungarnished. The chef/owner will visit your table to see how you liked the food. Maybe you can go home again.
Our waitress was not an Eagles fan, or at least that's what she claimed while egging on a nearby table of regulars. We caught her watching the game, between tables, on the flat screen TV near the bar area. Telling, we thought, that the television is in the bar not the restaurant. Our service could not have been friendlier.
The fireplace in the corner of the bar reminded us that this was at one time a house turned bar/restaurant. The mantle held a load of trophies from various dart tournaments. Surprisingly, we didn't see a shuffleboard table but there was a shuffle bowling machine, unplugged, covered, and abandoned in the corner, although it was cleverly hi-tech in its day.
The number 50 in gold dangled from the ceiling over the bar, reminding us that Merrill's has been around for more than years because they do so many things right, even with all of the changes in the outside world around them.
You'll have to decide for yourself whether Merrill's is a blast from the past, or a relic from another restaurant era. The food was so simple, good and honest; the atmosphere so pleasant, we remembered we should really give mom a call.
C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Features Editor Steve Cronin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.
Merrill's Colonial Inn
1309 Route 50
Hours: Dinners from 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: Cash only
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Entrees $11.95 to $24.95
Our bill for two: $50 plus tip