This article is a part of our inaugural Next Wave Awards. For the full list of 2021 winners, check out the whole series here.
Horse Inn is the kind of tavern rarely seen in America’s major cities any more — and rarely seen in the smaller ones as well. A place that can act as an early evening restaurant for families and an all-hours “local” for, well, locals (they offer a clawfoot bathtub full of cheap, canned “mystery” beers at the front bar), as well as an elevated lounge for cocktail enthusiasts and late-night whiskey snobs. You can buy a $27 Glencairn of Thomas H. Handy rye or play a game of quarter foosball if you want. Like most bars in the world, it is also a tavern whose insides haven’t been seen by any drinkers whatsoever for most of 2020 and early ‘21.
Almost immediately during that first weekend of Northeast lockdown in mid-March 2020, Horse Inn had shifted to curbside pickup. By late spring, it was selling bottled cocktails like Old Fashioneds and its Saving Grace, made with vodka, pomegranate, and lavender. Nothing revolutionary, of course, and surely not why it merits our bar program of the year.
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As used to dining outdoors or bringing burgers and beers back home as we all have become, a recently reopened Horse Inn reminds you why we like to go out in the first place. Located in lovely Lancaster, Pa. — a somehow still-underrated gem just 90 minutes from Philly and Baltimore, or three hours from New York — the dark, atmospheric, two-story venue is one of the city’s oldest continually operating restaurants, dating back to Prohibition.
The second floor, where all the action happens today (are there really this many hip people living in Lancaster?!), is the site of a former hayloft. The high-backed booths — literally reclaimed horse stalls — are perfect for hiding the diners from the drinkers at the 1800s-era wooden bar, sitting atop barstools that were once Conestoga wagon wheels.
Chef and co-owner Matt Russell (the fourth owner of Horse Inn, along with his wife Starla Lane Russell) made his bones sous-ing for Sean Brock at McCrady’s in Charleston and, not surprisingly, Horse Inn offers pub grub par excellence. Go for the tips ‘n’ toast, don’t skip the hot wings or shrimp and grits, and be prepared to have some of the best produce a bar has ever served you — things like warm-roasted squash and eggplant and sauteed kalettes, often sourced from nearby Amish farmers. But you can have just as much fun simply drinking.
Always laid back, crank up your own personal pretensions however flush you’re feeling, opting for a cold pull of $3 Yuengling or a craft cocktail that could easily stack up with the best offerings in Manhattan, San Francisco, or London. These are not simply sugary crowd-pleasers; many drinks toy with an unexpected tartness, herbaceousness, and/or savoriness.
Like Russell’s dishes, head bartender Andrew Burton’s cocktails are inspired by the incredible produce from the area. Late spring brought HAL 9000, a milk punch utilizing seasonal strawberries. When it got hot, Burton offered a frozen Summer Melon Marg, made with Lapp Family Farm’s floral cantaloupe blended with tequila and Manzanilla sherry. The Tejuino-esque Mas Maiz features corn cob-infused tequila, fermented corn, and Demerara syrup, along with chipotle bitters, smoked salt, and a mezcal rinse. Starla explains that new cocktails come on the menu so fast these days, the change from tangible menus to QR codes has sure saved a lot of paper.
Horse Inn likewise has a deep whiskey lineup that will please the most tuned-in neat sippers. Yes, there’s the requisite unicorn bottles like Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and Pappy Van Winkle, though better to opt for Horse Inn’s own private barrel of 13-year-old Weller, a steal at $14 a pour. Just be sure to make a reservation, as the first-come-first-serve system that used to elicit long lines every single night had to be scrapped in the age of Covid.
“Our vision was to make going out special again,” says Starla. “We wanted it to be a three-hour event. We wanted people to come inside and forget about the troubles of the day and relax and let us show them a great time.”