Breathing new (culinary) life into a historic Hershey location
“The Best Thing I Ever Ate” is a show on the Food Network where famous chefs rave about things like New England lobster rolls and New Orleans beignets.
So, imagine my surprise when I cut into a piled-high fried chicken “sandwich” served between two rosemary waffles with sautéed red onion, crispy house-smoked bacon and maple cayenne mayo topped with a crunchy batter fried onion ring. If I were a famous chef, I might just have to rave about the fried chicken sandwich at The Mill in Hershey.
The Mill opened in September after extensive renovations to the brick feed mill on Old West Chocolate – just off the more well known West Chocolate Avenue that serves as Chocolate Town’s main street.
“I grew up right in this neighborhood and passed by the old mill every day,” says chef Joe Mishler.
It’s a pleasant irony that a landmark building of Mishler’s childhood is now his showcase for creating innovative dishes drawing on regional American cuisine and fresh, local ingredients. Along with co-owner Jim Rafferty of Hummelstown, they’ve joined forces to give the old mill a brand new life as a dining and gathering spot for Hershey and beyond.
First of all, there is the building. The Mill was once known locally as The Curry Feed Mill, dating back to 1880. It’s the kind of place that elicits more than a few “ooh’s” and “aah’s.” Three stories high, the brick exterior towers into the sky from the spacious parking lot. Every 20 minutes or so, a freight train on the Norfolk Southern line whisks past, with a comforting chugging sound and occasional railroad whistle.
“I love that sound,” says one of the bartenders, as the early evening train breezes past.
Inside, The Mill is packed with history. As Rafferty explains, renovations were a massive undertaking, but one that was heartfelt. After seeing the old mill abandoned and falling apart for nearly 40 years, it was almost a civic duty to invest in rebuilding the structure and give it a new life. Besides, it seemed to cry out to be a restaurant, says Rafferty.
It took two years for Rafferty and co-owner Bill Delinsky of Maryland to complete the breathtaking renovations. They kept the integrity of the building with its original wood beams and exposed brick. From the third floor, beams look up toward the sky and allow natural light from the oversized windows to stream into the restaurant.
“An addition was built onto the east end of the building and houses a kitchen and restrooms as well as an elevator,” says Rafferty, adding that there are three dining rooms – one on each floor.
Each floor – from the first floor basement to the third floor mezzanine – has its own bar too, and an open stairway pulls them all together with lots of wood, brick and metal. The bar tops are made of zinc with a polished sheen, and there are industrial touches throughout. The second floor dining room serves as a private room for groups to rent for small gatherings like weddings, birthdays and holiday parties.
As Rafferty explains, they were attracted to the building for its aesthetics, history and charm. The Mill shouts “character,” and that doesn’t even include the food. Yet.
For Mishler, The Mill is a stage for his culinary magic, with assistance from sous chef Nick Martino and pastry chef Daria Astorino.
There are local influences, as seen in the deviled egg appetizer – made with red beet eggs, house-smoked bacon and topped with honey Tabasco sauce. The thick-cut house-cured bacon is an appetizer all in itself, accented by Brussels slaw and apple and beet dressing. Calamari is on the menu (although obviously not a local dish), which Mishler highlights with shallots, banana peppers and chile vinaigrette.
Mishler certainly knows his way around seafood. He was the original chef of Hershey-based seafood restaurant Devon’s for six years. Known for its fresh catches, that restaurant has been popular for oysters, fresh fish and shellfish.
At The Mill, Mishler is anxious to avoid the seafood-only “trap.” He wants to delve into all sorts of foods, from bacon (who doesn’t like bacon?) to grits to hearty poultry and meats, as well as fresh vegetables and greens. Of course, there is still plenty of seafood on the menu, like Nantucket scallops, oysters and blue crab chowder with corn, potato, bacon and tarragon.
Uncle Pig’s Crabcake sandwich – named for Martino’s uncle – features bacon, frisee and caper mayonnaise on a brioche roll. There are also steamed clams, Atlantic grilled salmon and broiled crab cakes.
The menu at The Mill changes seasonally, so Mishler encourages guests to try something new. A few standards include the Mill Staple salad with field greens, smoked tomatoes, apple, ricotta salata, sunflower seeds and scallion vinaigrette, as well as the Mill Standard burger with a half-pound of certified Angus beef, porter cheddar, bacon and onion rings with dijonnaise and barbecue sauce.
Entrees include the Rettland Farm half chicken, which comes from the Gettysburg area poultry farm. Meat-lovers can savor the house-smoked sausage with mashed potato and caramelized onions, the tender veal short ribs with celery root slaw and the 8-ounce filet mignon with kale, bacon jam, onion ring and lemon grits.
The grits, by the way, hail from the South, which Mishler puts a fresh twist, with real citrus. They are light, airy and refreshingly tasty as a sidekick to the Angus beef.
There are other sandwiches like the fried chicken sandwich, the crabcake sandwich and the smoked beef brisket sandwich (porter cheddar and horseradish). From the garden, the grilled salmon and spinach salad has red onion, bacon, orange, almonds and balsamic vinaigrette.
“The mill was built in the small community that was largely an Italian neighborhood, known as ‘Little Italy’ at Swatara Station,’” recalls Mishler. He says Swatara Station also had a train depot, post office and hotel, with the original building operating as a feed mill.
Locals know all about the Italian accent of “Little Italy,” and Mishler is planning to include a changing menu of Italian dishes like shrimp pesto or chicken Romesco with penne pasta and spinach.
The dessert menu is a work in progress, notes Mishler. Astorino makes focaccia and other breads, along with a tempting array of desserts. In a town like Hershey, chocolate is a must. She uses fresh cream, fruits and caramel to create tarts and other sweet treats. When asked if he has a favorite, Mishler has a simple answer.
“I haven’t tried anything that Daria makes that isn’t amazing,” he says.
Save room for dessert, but first try the fried chicken sandwich or the veal short ribs or the Rettland Farm chicken or the blue crab chowder or the lemon grits. They are far from run-of-the-mill at The Mill.
• 810 Old West Chocolate Avenue, Hershey; 256-9965
• Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-12 a.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.