From Prohibition to present, the downtown Lancaster classic gets a fresh new vibe
So, a gal walks into a bar… and is greeted by a towering cowboy on a black horse. It’s merely a painting on the wall, but it’s a grand greeter nonetheless. If this is what you see when you enter, it’s likely that you’re of the younger generation, new to the Horse Inn, and you entered via East Fulton Street.
Today, that would be the restaurant’s main entrance, which takes you up a flight of stairs and into one of two bar areas. This bar features a clawfoot tub repurposed as a beer cooler and filled to the brim with a variety of canned beer, including the house “signature cheapy” – $2 cans of Olde Frothingslosh. You’ll also find paintings of colorful scenes of Lancaster County adorning the wall by artist Doug Panzone (the same artist responsible for the cowboy in the entryway), and the crown jewel – a 1950s jukebox stocked with some 2,000 45s (which will be restored to working order soon).
But longtime patrons tend to prefer accessing the Horse Inn from the unmarked alley between East Fulton and Chestnut streets – the one customers have been using since the establishment’s Prohibition-era incarnation as a speakeasy. If you choose that door, you’re led upstairs into an open and airy dining room, which is the former hayloft to the building, which dates to the mid-1800s.
Matt Russell – a Lancaster native – and his wife, Starla (originally from western Tennessee), always wanted to open their own place. In 2012, with a young son, they knew they were ready for a change from the party-town vibe of Charleston, SC, where they had been living. They decided to head north.
“I knew I’d come back to Lancaster eventually,” says Matt. Starla fell in love with the area when she would come to visit: “I could tell there was something special about Lancaster; very family- and community-oriented.”
After looking at seven or eight different properties, the Russells stumbled upon the Horse Inn, owned by Al Medved since 1972 and for sale for a few years.
“Al wanted the right family to take it over,” says Starla. “It was his baby for 40 years. As soon as I walked in here, I knew – this is it. The feel of this room; the history.”
From the wagon wheel and lantern light fixtures to the shuffleboard table and horse stalls serving as semi-private seating areas, the Russells did a number of renovations upon taking over the Horse Inn in January. But they were sure to preserve the antiquated feel.
“People pay millions of dollars to make their restaurants look like this, and this place just looks like this organically,” says Starla.
Under the direction of award-winning mixologist Ben Hash, artistic touches like the fresh cucumber syrup in the Pimms Cup, the honey syrup in the Sazarac or the fresh pineapple and orange juices used in the Rum Springer take the Horse Inn’s cocktails to a splendid new level.
“We squeeze all our own juices and make our own syrups in-house,” says Starla.
The same care given to the classic cocktails and other libations behind the bar is also evident behind the scenes in the kitchen.
While not wanting to be a slave to the former menu, the Russells were smart to maintain a few of the Inn’s signature dishes, particularly the crab cakes and the tenderloin tips on toast.
“Everybody – every single person we talked to – asked us about the tips on toast,” says Starla.
Of course, they’ve put their own special twist on the standards. For the crab cakes, they use only the freshest Maryland lump crab meat that they can find, often caught the day before. For the tips, Matt uses a molecular gastronomy technique called sous-vide, sealing the tips in a vacuum bag with butter, herbs and spices, adding it to a water bath and cooking to the perfect temperature to retain all the nutrients and flavors. He sears the tips on the grill, toasts an Alfred & Sam’s roll and tops it off with house made jus of veal stock and demi-glace.
Matt honed his culinary skills in Charleston, where he studied at Johnson & Wales University, then spent more than a decade at the renowned McCrady’s Restaurant, working alongside James Beard-award-winning chef Sean Brock. Starla found her way to Charleston in 2001.
“I always wanted to live by the beach,” Starla says. “I knew no one, but I packed up me and my dog Leo and we moved. It was the best decision I ever made.” She also got a degree in restaurant management at Johnson & Wales, which is where she met Matt.
To create a menu that’s easy to duplicate and keep consistent, while also taking advantage of the fresh bounty available in Lancaster County, Matt shops at Central Market every day it’s open and plans the menu accordingly. He’s looking forward to developing relationships with local farmers who will grow produce specifically for his restaurant.
“That’s what I had in Charleston, whether it was heirloom watermelons or cauliflower; they’d call me before planting season and ask what I’d like for the next season,” Matt says.
While the couple sorts through the growing pains of running a new business, they have a number of ideas on the horizon – whether it be adding a Sunday brunch or evening supper club, live music during the week or a late-night menu – it’s clear the new Horse Inn has successfully merged its history with its future.
“We didn’t want the Horse Inn to just be a special occasion, fine dining place,” Matt says. “We wanted to create a place people will come once or twice a week.”
• 540 East Fulton Street, Lancaster; 392-5528
• Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-12 a.m. and Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. 1 a.m.