Having lived in New York City for nearly two decades, my family has taken just about every weekend road trip possible. Out to Long Island’s North Fork to crawl the wineries and enjoy oysters straight from Greenport’s waters. Up to the Hudson Valley to visit farm stands and orchards, breweries, and quaint little window-shopping towns. We’ve taken longer drives to Boston and Washington, D.C., all the way up to burgeoning places like Portsmouth, Kittery, Portland, and Burlington. All of these are great trips to great places with plenty of great things to drink, but this time, my wife and I were thinking we both wanted to try something new.
“What about Lancaster, Pennsylvania?” I offered. “I heard it’s pretty cool.”
“Pennsylvania?!” my wife responded. “I’m not vacationing in Pennsylvania.”
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Forgive my wife’s slander, Ben Franklin.
A day later she texted me. She’d done a little research and had taken the liberty of booking us an Airbnb.
Nestled in a remarkably accessible location some 75 miles from Baltimore, 80 from Philadelphia, and 165 from where we live in Brooklyn, the south-central Pennsylvania city has deep roots; it was founded nearly 50 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. These days, Lancaster is a small town that’s hardly small, with a metro area of about half a million residents. To casual observers, it is still seen as the cradle of horse-and-buggy living, and, indeed, a large Amish and Mennonite community still dominates the farmlands around the city.
But in the last five years or so, the city has experienced a food and drink renaissance that’s thanks, in several cases, to skilled chefs from bigger cities moving home. As the culinary scene has evolved, so too has its drinking scene.
If you’re coming from the New York area, like we did, you’ll pass quite a few excellent Pennsylvania breweries, including Forest & Main in Ambler, and Bonn Place Brewing in Bethlehem. (Sadly, the locally beloved Stoudts Brewing, with its epic German-style beer hall in Adamstown, is soon closing as matriarch Carol Stoudt has decided to step down.)
If you want to arrive in town sober, however, stick with a stop at the Dutch Haven Shoo-Fly Pie Bakery for a slice of this knick-knack shop’s namesake dessert and a glass of Amish-made root beer, which offers a funky, yeasty aroma. As a sign on the faux-wooden barrel it pours from reads, “Some like it, some don’t.” Personally, I liked it. And, most everyone will find something to like during a weekend drinking their way through Lancaster.
Assuming that you arrive on a Friday afternoon, here’s where to go after dropping your bags and settling into your accommodations.
Head out to happy hour at The Fridge. It looks like your typical suburban pizzeria, with counter-service pies behind glass, wobbly square tables and a few high-tops. But take note of one far wall, where eight convenience store-style fridges are located. These are absolutely packed with perhaps the widest-spanning and most diverse selection of beer you’ll ever see, from longtime bottled international favorites to cult cans from East Coast hot spots like Lawson’s Finest and Bissell Brothers to countless pounders of local Pennsylvania offerings. Grab some beer to go or get a few for your table to drink while noshing on a pre-dinner snack of a flatbread topped with bacon, smoked cheddar, and sweet potato mash.
My intrigue in Lancaster actually started due to friend and fellow drinks writer Brad Thomas Parsons — a year or two ago I started noticing, via Instagram, that he sure seemed to be in Lancaster a lot. What the heck was going on there? I wondered. As author of the seminal books “Bitters” and “Amaro,” Parsons does a yearly residency at LUCA, a wood-burning Italian restaurant that has a killer amaro program as well (try a flight of lesser-known bottles like Amaro Dente di Leone). Though the multi-level venue is large, weekend reservations can be tough to come by; when the doors open at 5 p.m. on Friday, there will already be folks lined up, ready to sprint to the first-come seats available at the lengthy bar. There are adventurous small plates like beef tongue, pasta dishes like braised rabbit pappardelle, and entrees like bone-in lamb cooked in a hearth, but you’ll want to grab some Neapolitan-style pizza as well. Chef-owner Taylor Mason spent his early cooking years in Napa Valley and he still has a passion for introducing offbeat wines like Vending Machine’s Horror Show to customers who may be more accustomed to drinking fizzy yellow beer with their pies. The amaro-centric cocktails like the Phroaigian Slip — featuring Laphroaig, Pasubio, and Chartreuse — are excellent as well.
Now Lancaster doesn’t exactly offer the latest late night, but that’s fine. Valentino’s Cafe keeps the lights on until 2 a.m. A barber shop that was turned into a bar room in 1937, the spot “Where good friends meet” is still run by third- and fourth-generation Valentinos. This is dive-bar drinking at its finest — pitchers of Yuengling and half-liter carafes of house wine. The cocktails on the menu are stuck at least a generation back (think Fuzzy Navels and Amaretto Sours), but at least they’re cheap, too. And, if you’re still hungry, Valentino’s is famous for its spaghetti, which can be ordered until 10 p.m. After that, as the night deepens, more and more industry folks getting off their shifts will begin filing in.
Start the day at the Lancaster Central Market, the oldest farmers’ market in the country. There’s nothing boozy among the 60 often-Amish-run stands, but there are plenty of things you can grab to aid in your future imbibing. Long’s horseradish, freshly made on site, would be perfect for a Bloody Mary, for example. Grab some citrus for cocktails. And the fresh-pressed sugar cane juice at Havana Juice would work wonders in a Daiquiri.
Cabalar Meat Co. (with Voodoo Brewery)
Think of this spot as a hybrid butcher shop, sandwich shop, and brewery; it’s the place to go in downtown Lancaster for a base-laying brunch. Opt for the beef and cheese sandwich made with braised beef neck and jalapeño cream cheese (and plate of beef gravy poutine wouldn’t hurt either). Last year, Calabar also began a unique collaboration with Voodoo Brewery. One of the state’s best breweries, Voodoo now has a small satellite location in the back corner of the shop, where it serves draughts of geek-beloved beers like the Slimer-green Lacto-Cooler and Big Black Voodoo Daddy, an imperial stout.
You could certainly find worse places to day drink the day away than Decades, a boutique bowling alley (only six lanes!) and retro arcade attached to a full-service restaurant and bar. The food surpasses “bowling alley” fare with offerings like crawdad hushpuppies, duck and bacon corndogs, and pulled pork sandwiches. The drinks are equally well considered, with hazy IPAs, Jungle Birds, and house cocktails like the color-changing Tesseract, made with Bluecoat gin and St. Germain served atop a butterfly pea flower tea ice cube. If you need even more fun and games (and beer), head to Spring House Brewing with its Hell’s Attic Arcade.
The whiskey list at Horse Inn, a former horse stable and Prohibition-era speakeasy is ample, featuring not just “unicorn” bottles but several private house single barrels, including an Old Weller Antique at 14 years old that is remarkable. The cocktails are incredible as well, often focusing on seasonal ingredients like in The Squashbuckler, made with a honeynut squash-infused rum and pumpkin-seed orgeat. “Living so close to the amazing farms that Lancaster has to offer is a unique benefit,” says co-owner Starla Russell. “Whether it is on our food menu or our drink menu, we try to follow the seasons and only use ingredients that naturally grow at that time.” Her husband and chef, Matt Russell, came up under the renowned Sean Brock in Charleston and he brings an ethos of elevated comfort food to the establishment. Tips ‘n’ Toast — tenderloin tips on French bread with red wine demi glace — is the signature dish, but their buffalo wings and fried green tomato BLT are also great. There are no reservations, so once the dinner crowd has died down, it’ll be easier to get into the door to play foosball or other bar games. By then, you’ll probably just want to grab a $2 “mystery” beer (“You get what you get!” says the menu) from the bathtub at the front bar.
Conway Social Club
The recently opened Conway Social Club is an elegant space, outfitted with vintage chandeliers and gallery walls. There, bar manager Benjamin Hash serves classic cocktails with a modern twist, often using (say it again with me) fresh, local ingredients. A drink like Jansen to Kyushu features Irish gin, matcha tea, Chartreuse, coconut cream, and pandan leaf. Another favorite, Shapes of the Carousel, is a fascinating melange of rye, mezcal, marshmallow-infused rum, pineapple soda, and popcorn foam. This is the perfect spot for a relaxed — and seated — Saturday nightcap, given that no one is admitted into the establishment after midnight.
Sunday mornings are admittedly quiet in Amish Country, so its probably best to sleep off last night’s late night. Once you’re ready to face the world, you’ll learn that Lancaster has a pretty killer coffee scene as well with places like Passenger Coffee, Square One, and Mean Cup. But before heading home, consider stopping in the even smaller town of Lititz, six miles north of Lancaster, for a fun afternoon.
Bulls Head Public House
There’s a reason that many drinks professionals call Bulls Head Public House the best British pub in America, or the best overall beer bar in America; it’s a perfect slice of Liverpool in Lititz. Like a pub across the pond, there’s no waiter service, so immediately head to one of the two bars to order a hand-pumped pint of cask ale and perhaps some fish ‘n’ chips, too. With no televisions or blaring music, and cozy seating, this is a place to while the afternoon away in friendly conversation and session drinking.
Stoll & Wolfe Distillery
Located a couple blocks from Bulls Head, the new Stoll & Wolfe Distillery hearkens back to the now-shuttered Michter’s Distillery, which was established nearby in 1753 and at one time was the nation’s oldest distillery. Thus, the Wolfe family tapped Dick Stoll — the last master distiller at Michter’s — to make its whiskey. According to the Wolfes, rye whiskey was actually born in Lancaster as the farmlands around the area were then full of rye grain. Fittingly, this craft distillery produces a rye (as well as bourbon) that can be enjoyed in the tasting room neat or in a number of craft cocktails.