Creme de Menthe Parfait (explanation for people born after 1955…..).
Occasionally someone in the small mountain town where I live these days mentions a local semi-secret restaurant reputed to serve extraordinary locally-sourced steaks. Having managed to try every other local eatery EXCEPT this one over the years, it was time to brave what I was sure was going to be an intimidating dining experience.
There is no advertisement at all for this place – and no sign outside. Local lore has it that it was a speakeasy during Prohibition. The woman I’d spoken with for reservations wanted me to know that their menu is very limited, that payment is on a cash-only basis, and that “gentlemen are NOT ACCEPTED IN SHORTS”. Her pleasantness made things sound less exclusive than I’d feared, and on the day of our reservation, my husband texted to joke that he was NOT WEARING SHORTS. I texted him back to ask him if he’d remembered to at least put on some tighty whities.
Not my husband……
Like most small, isolated mountain villages, there are regular folks who have always lived here and who provide necessary goods and services with their labor and their small businesses. They are the backbone of the community. There are also many who have discovered the town and come here at retirement age, and still others who are lucky enough to be able to work from any locale and so choose to live in this beautiful mountain area. I personally got here in a more roundabout way and am glad to be here.
Otherwise, there are the people who live in the secluded enclaves outside town among country clubs and hunt stables. They are pleasant and surprisingly unostentatious when they show up in town, and aside from the fancier cars and the jodphurs they sometimes wear, you might hardly know that they have the last names of titans of banking and industry. I’m told they are the habitués of the secret steak house.
Two famous frenemies in town for golf, one of them a local, 1965 (Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer).
America in the 1930’s and 1940’s saw the rise of affordable automobiles for families, but the superhighways hadn’t been built yet, so when families went on outings from the cities, all went on the backroads (the U.S. had less than 1/3 of the population that we have now, so things in general were much less crowded). This newfound mobility by car produced wonderfully-tacky roadside attractions and rustic eateries and accomodations all over the nation.
Noah’s Ark, Shellsburg PA (gone now, overlooked 3 states) and Another Roadside Attraction, Bedford, PA
The mountains were a summer retreat for families fleeing the red-hot blast furnaces of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, where much of the nation’s steel for railroads and skyscrapers was made between 1865 and 1959. Old-timers spoke of leaving their houses in Pittsburgh in white shirts at 8 a.m. and coming home for lunch at noon in the same shirts turned gray by the soot from the mills. As such, getting out of the heavily industrialized city was (and still is) a welcomed relief.
“The Beach” – filled by springwater from the mountains.
We found the secret steak speakeasy: an obscure and weathered old white clapboard house off a quiet backroad. The house is enveloped by towering pines whose branches drape over an old porte-cochere in front of a nondescript entrance with a discreet buzzer to announce one’s arrival. There is a small square peephole in the door. When the door opened, we slipped quietly through a time warp and found ourselves in a dark roadside-style clubhouse, seemingly straight out of the late 1930’s.
The entrance was flanked by plastic-and-chrome gas station chairs, and there was absolutely NOTHING to indicate wealth or status. We were asked if we wanted to have a cocktail (a cocktail…..) at the bar before dinner. Evidently this is de rigueur because every group who arrived after us gathered briefly at the large, rectangular bar for a quick before-dinner drink. The adjoining dining room was dark and claustrophobic with dim yellow lights and thickly waxed linoleum tile squares covering the floors with deep shades of red and green. The ceilings were low and the walls were paneled with dark wormy-chestnut – like a rustic hunting cabin. There was a yellowed plastic Budweiser clock on the far wall and an ancient cigarette machine with art deco font.
As groups of patrons entered and took their places, it became apparent from their comfort and familiarity with each other that a sedate, predictable routine was in progress.
The menu consisted of two steak options and a salmon option. The salad options were tossed or wedged lettuce (thousand island dressing possibly mandatory for the wedged lettuce). The vegetables: plain lima beans or plain boiled mixed vegetables. Husband joked that this was the kind of place where a creme-de-menthe parfait might still feature prominently on the dessert menu. We were a little weirded out to be find that, indeed, one of the two desserts on offer was a Creme de Menthe parfait.
Another local retro place that probably went through a lot of creme de menthe back in the day.
There was nothing trendy or camp in the demeanor of this place – it had simply stayed fixed in time, seemingly with no awareness at all that the world outside had been adjusting and changing itself for 80 years. I wondered if Rod Serling might stroll in to narrate the scene. It was later explained that the original owner had wanted this original ambiance preserved, and so the family members who operate it now kept things the same in his honor.
As we departed, we were warmly greeted by diners we’d never met, almost as if in this one strange little place frozen in time, things could still be as they once were so long ago. It was a good and interesting experience, and we’ll go again someday.
And now, because sometimes it is necessary to get as far away from small towns as possible: