Neil’s Heritage House Mixes Tradition with New Offerings
By Tom Baker
First, I have to point out that I’d never been to Neil’s until recently. After closing in 2006, Neil’s was reopened in late 2011 by Eric and Serena Leventhal. Seeing as Neil’s had been around since just after World War II, I wanted to experience the rebirth of this Dayton institution firsthand. Bringing both culinary and architectural knowledge back with them from California (Serena grew up here and is Neil’s granddaughter), they performed extensive renovations and thus Neil’s was born again. Featuring lunch and dinner, as well as catering, they are clearly working towards a harmony of old and new.
Their story tells of a quarter of a million dollar upgrade to the interior of the space, and as you walk in, you see the results of some of that work (however many of the changes took place in the kitchen and back of house). The colors and décor are modern; however old family photos are artfully presented around the dining room reminding visitors of their rich history. The dining room reinforces the theme of old meeting new, with classic furniture set against a backdrop of the simple and contemporary bar. Serious orchestral music completes the setting of the tone.
On a recent weekend, we decided it was time to check it out. Expecting it to be busy and without reservations, we arrived just after opening as staff appeared to be finishing their pre-shift lineup. We were seated promptly as we were one of the first tables in and decided on glasses of wine from their small but well-rounded list. There are featured wines, as well as a nice range of styles, prices, and regions represented. Overall, the list seemed appropriate to the concept and menus. With items ranging from traditional Beef Wellington for Two ($60) to more contemporary Chicken n’ Waffles ($19), Neil’s menu certainly reflects what the owners set out to do.
Let’s talk for a moment about chicken and waffles. Likely also a transplant from California, I felt like I had to order this dish, especially at a place like Neil’s. Billed as a perfect combination of sweet and spicy, a waffle is paired with fried chicken and a root beer glaze – unique, to say the least. The actual result, however, was two breaded and fried breasts of extraordinarily salty chicken, drizzled with what appeared to have been a burned root beer sauce, all atop a very spicy waffle. Sometimes you roll the dice and you lose. That said, our server took it back and off the bill without a word, and rightfully so. On the other hand, we also tried their 10oz. Filet – at $32 we hesitated just a bit, but I must say it was one of the best steaks I’d had in a long time. It was cooked so perfectly, I could have cut it with a spoon. Served simply with a red wine sauce, mashed potatoes and really excellent green beans, it was the highlight of the evening and a sure bet for future visits.
At lunch they offer burgers, pasta, salads, and sandwiches. I stopped by to try the Pork Belly Sandwich I had seen online, but it was no longer on the menu. I opted instead for the Fish Tacos ($11 and served with a house salad). I was a bit disappointed when I discovered there was no lime in the sour cream as stated in the menu, but otherwise they were very good – grilled Corvina, a spicy tropical salsa, lettuce, and sour cream on grilled corn tortillas. With burgers hovering in the $12-13 dollar range and almost everything at lunch over $10, this is no cheap lunch date. Add a soft drink or adult beverage, and you’re inching your way up to twenty bucks a head. There is no dessert menu proper, as they offer a very limited selection that changes from day to day, sometimes only including one option.
So considering the updates, the pricing, and the rich history, does Neil’s really deliver the experience one would expect? The short answer is sort of. I say this because there was some dissonance that I couldn’t ignore. Service was always friendly, but tentative and a bit nervous at times, especially when answering questions. At dinner, staff wore fine dining black and white, but was flanked by management in shorts, and at lunch, jeans. There was no host any time I’ve visited – on a Saturday evening it almost appeared to have been closed. The website needs to be updated, and posted menus, if on the site at all, didn’t accurately reflect what was actually being served. I know that there are often changes to menus, especially when trying to cook seasonally/locally (they pride themselves on lacking a microwave or a freezer), but updating a menu online can happen in mere moments, and these days updates would be worth the time, as so many of us are plugged in and actively seeking out this information before committing to what can quickly become a very costly and potentially disappointing endeavor.
Only time will tell if Neil’s can reconcile the old with the new, but there seems to be just a bit of work yet to be done.
Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com.