Three wise chefs

Medway’s The Tavernette

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Fried Green Tomatoes at Medway’s The Tavernette

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about places that have been around forever and have a loyal local following. (There’s one in my neighborhood. I don’t eat there.) These sacred cows, for the most part, are places that have been doing the same thing for decades without regard to modern tastes and dining trends. Food has changed, and what the dining public wants has changed. The demand now is for food that is fresh, seasonal, and local, not highly processed and mass-produced. A lot of longstanding restaurants get by on the strength of the public’s sentimental attachment—it’s the place you went to with your family as a kid. But if these places opened today, most wouldn’t survive. Not so with The Tavernette in Medway, which has been around since 1939. PIP (Palate In Progress) and I were introduced to Tavernette by lovely friends Barrister Greg and Super Cyber Sleuth Elizabeth.

Tavernette defies expectation as well as description. Where to begin? Probably with Mr. Pat. Mr. Pat (it says that on his name tag) greets you formally at the host stand to inquire if you’ve got a reservation. In his tuxedo. He also serves as bartender. Mr. Pat began working at Tavernette in high school. His mom worked there when he was a kid. A tall elegant man in a tuxedo is certainly not what I expected when we pulled up to the roadside building, a modest structure with siding and a small parking lot.

Tavernette also defies the odds. When I learned that owners Kelly and John Hill had no restaurant experience, and that Kelly has a full-time job in the Springfield court system, I was astounded. Lack of experience and a separate career would normally be kisses of death for new restaurateurs.

“We wanted to go into business for ourselves and we were looking for something,” Kelly explains. “This place had been struggling under previous ownership and closed for a while.”

The Hills took over, hiring back most of the previous staff (including Mr. Pat). But, what else did the Hills do to makes Tavernette as good as it is? They hired talented trained chefs and charged them with serving most of what was on the previous menu, but upgrading to the highest quality and freshest ingredients. Dressings and sauces are all homemade. The pies are baked fresh every day. What gets dropped in the fryer doesn’t come from a freezer bag, it’s hand cut and battered. What about expanding into new menu territory?

“We’ve got three terrific chefs who are working and experimenting to add new dishes. We’re sort of sneaking them onto the menu,” Kelly laughs.

Three chefs? That’s why this is working.

Toy Story

So, I’ve mentioned the backstory, but I haven’t even touched on what you see when you walk into the dining room. Everywhere you look, built into the walls above the booths, plus some just free standing, are custom display cases filled with amazing collections of antique trucks, cars, trains, and other toys. (They belong to a previous owner who displayed them in the restaurant under orders from his wife, who didn’t want them cluttering the house.) The tiny booths are vintage, too (along with the wood paneling). If you’ve got more than two people and plan on ordering a lot of food, go for a table instead. Or try the great outdoor patio overlooking a protected creek out back. There’s an additional bar out there, plus TVs for game watching or a nightcap, which is what we did after eating.

And what did we eat? Fried Green Tomatoes and Mini Crab Cake Corn Dogs ($7.95 each) to start. Crab cakes dipped in corn dog batter and skewered with toothpicks was a playful and tasty beginning. We particularly loved the tomatoes. They came nicely plated, thick slabs with crispy tasty breading and a ribbon of firecracker sauce dribbled over them. SCS Elizabeth doesn’t like tomatoes. Her reaction?

“Do you mind if I have another one?”

I was OK with that—the portion size was more than enough to share!

Prime Time

Barrister Greg is a fan of the steaks at Tavernette, particularly the 12-ounce NY Strip ($22.95). It arrived cooked to order, thick and juicy with a deep beefy flavor. There are a few other steaks on the menu, plus Prime Rib (featured on Friday and Saturday only), but we arrived a little too late for that. It tends to sell out regularly, according to Kelly. Greg is also a fan of Tavernette’s green bean side dish. These are the kind your grandma makes with slow cooked beans, ham, and onions. I tasted them and found them particularly good with hunks of sweet onion and not overly salty, something that usually puts me off with this preparation. SCS Elizabeth sampled the evening’s special, a Stuffed Pork Chop ($17.95) with homemade stuffing made with ham and a sweet glaze, and Tavernette’s smashed potatoes, all well prepared and delicious, perfect for a fall meal.

Our side of the table went for fish—me with Tavernette’s signature Lake Erie Walleye ($16.95) and PIP with Fish and Chips ($10.95). My walleye was thick and flaky, fried crisp and light. I had it with a side of delicious crunchy hash browns, sort of my own version of fish and chips. PIP’s version featured two sizable hunks of seasoned battered cod. We very much enjoyed the batter, but Kelly informed us that will be changing for the fall.

“We’re experimenting with a more traditional beer batter, so look for that soon.”

“We plan to,” PIP responded.

Upper Crust

We also planned to have pie, after learning Kelly has someone who comes in to do all the pie baking. We tried Peanut Butter Chocolate ($6.95) and traditional Pumpkin ($4.95). The first was a buckeye candy in pie form, clearly the table favorite. My vote went for the pumpkin, with its flaky crust and spiced orange brown custard.

John and Kelly Hill have pulled something off—they’ve dived in headfirst and have been able to navigate the tricky currents of the restaurant industry. They’ve retained beloved staff and added new talent. They’ve honored and preserved the legacy of a local landmark, and made it their own. I can’t wait to go back.

The Tavernette is located at 111 W. Main St. in Medway. For more information, please call 937.849.0423 or visit TheTavernette.com.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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