By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2001 Gourmet Magazine
A YEAR IN THE south of France is nice, but it cannot compare to a week in the south of Ohio. For us, a short vacation in Dayton and its surroundings was a delight. Our decision to holiday in the City of Neighbors was not mere whimsy. We came so we could eat at The Pine Club, a local supper club of some renown. But The Pine Club doesn’t open until four o’clock (for cocktails) and doesn’t start serving food until five, so we spent our days driving north of the city, in the farmland around Urbana and West Liberty. We marveled at the Crystal Sea and the Devil’s Tea Table (formed from stalactites and helactites) in the Ohio Caverns; we toured Mac-A-Cheek and Mac-O-Chee, two late-19th-century Gothic-style castles filled with sublime woodwork and surrounded by waves of cornfields; and we came upon a stupendously good lunch at the Gathering Place.
“We have girls who come in at four in the morning to make the coleslaw and macaroni salad,” the Liberty Gathering Place waitress boasted when we asked if the side dishes were good. Good turned out not to be a good enough word to describe them. The little bowl of macaroni salad set before us was inspired: blue-ribbon, church-supper, Independence Day—picnic fabulous. It was creamy, with a pickle zip, dotted with hunks of hard-boiled egg and a few crunchy shreds of carrot, the noodles themselves cooked just beyond al dente but not too soft. Understand that macaroni salad usually is not a dish to which we pay much attention, but at the Liberty Gathering Place, it was a bowl of revelation.
Our noodle rapture proved to be a paradigm for the dining experience at the Gathering Place, which may appear to be a typical Main Street café but is, in fact, an extraordinary one. It became our destination lunch stop for moist ham loaf and deep-flavored smoked pork chops with mashed potatoes and breadcrumb—enriched scalloped corn. We were astounded by the fried tenderloin sandwich—totally unlike the brittle-crisp, foot-wide tenderloins typical of Mid-west cafés. Here, it’s a thick pork steak with only a hint of crust—a slab of meat folded over inside the bun so you get a double layer of pork as juicy as a pair of chops. For dessert we had pie—peach crunch, served hot and veined with melted butter, and cool coconut.
It was still daylight when we arrived at The Pine Club, but when we walked in the door we were suddenly blind. This is the darkest restaurant you can imagine, darker than when you walk into a movie theater for a sunny-day matinee, so dark that the hostess literally led us to a booth by holding Michael’s hand while Michael held Jane’s, as if we were sightless people without dog or cane. Even an hour later, after our eyes had adjusted to the camera obscura, we were shadow people across the table from each other. The primary gathering points of light in the room were the radiant Manhattans, Martinis, and Cosmos in their stemmed glasses, trailing the alluring perfumes of gin, vermouth, and blended whiskey as they passed.
The bar is at the center of The Pine Club. It spans two small dining areas, which seat a total of 98 people, with stools all around to accommodate those waiting for a table. Because there is always a wait, the bar dwellers are an improbable mix of serious drinkers with shooters and beer, church ladies sipping Rock ‘n’ Rye, and youngsters burbling through their straws on a Shirley Temple or a Roy Rogers. A big, good bar is one of the essential elements of a supper club.
What else defines a supper club in these parts? According to the general manager, Dan Nooe, a supper club is a restaurant that has honed the evening meal to its fundamentals. “We have no party rooms, no specials, no lunch, no soup, and no dessert,” Nooe says. Credit cards are not accepted, nor are reservations. Open weekdays until midnight (1 A.M. on Friday and Saturday), The Pine Club is known for sirloins, filets mignons, and porterhouses that are cut and aged for 21 to 28 days on the premises and broiled by Majid Arabi, only the second chef to work the broiler in the past 30 years.
Good as the deluxe cuts are, what really wows us is The Pine Club’s chopped steak—made daily from sirloin and filet mignon. We order one medium-rare; inside its crust it is pink toward the edge and velvety red at its soft center. The flavor is essence of beef, as intoxicating as steak tartare, but with the added pleasure of warm, dripping juices.
All steaks come with a tangle of skinny onion rings and a choice of potatoes that includes a style of hash browns listed in many other Midwest supper clubs as a “haystack” but here called lyonnaise: a crusty pancake of shredded spuds with veins of sautéed onion running through it. A mesclun mix was put on the menu a while ago, but the traditional (and proper) Pine Club salad is iceberg lettuce—cold, crisp chunks of it either topped with the house vinaigrette or served “red and bleu,” meaning it comes with jolly sweet French dressing loaded with enormous hunks of dry blue cheese.
Other than liquid confections such as Golden Cadillacs, Grasshoppers, and Pine Cone Cocktails (crème de cacao and crème de noyaux), there’s nothing at The Pine Club that might pass for dessert. And that’s fine, because the best strategy for anyone with a sweet tooth in southern Ohio is to save it for a road trip outside of Dayton.
An hour east, in West Jefferson, is an extremely humble café called Henry’s, a dilapidated former gas station on the old National Road where cook Shelly Kelly makes a butterscotch pie that is the stuff of dreams. An hour south, in Cincinnati, you’ll find Graeter’s ice cream (best in the Midwest?) as well as Putz’s Creamy Whip, a picnic-table drive-in where lovely turtle sundaes are constructed in clear plastic cups. A swirl of ivory-smooth custard is piled onto a foundation of caramel sauce and then crowned with chocolate syrup, whipped cream, chopped nuts, and a cherry. Putz’s has been a dessert destination in Cincinnati since 1938, so well liked that the street on which it is located is now formally named Putz Place. Try finding a place like that in the south of France.
Henry’s (permanently closed)
6275 U.S. Route 40
West Jefferson, OH