Never would I have guessed such a thing possible from our last visit eight years ago, when we found little more than a soulless gallery of national chains.
No doubt, the Hershey Hotel and Lodge have always acquitted themselves reasonably well with legitimate, albeit pricey, fine dining. And our dinner at the Hershey Grill, which brought the surprise of venison osso bucco and Asian skirt steak in what looks like a converted Howard Johnson's, was adequately ambitious, even if it lacked finesse.
But I was most impressed by the relatively new places we discovered beyond the confines of the resort's corporate reach, as it seems the food revolution sweeping the rest of the country has finally, at last, landed around Hershey, too.
Here are four places you shouldn't miss:
Let the little Jolly Ranchers have their spin on the Comet coaster and circle the cocoa-bean life-cycle ride of Chocolate World as many times as they want. Parents are going to want to bank as many points as possible to spend their own quality time with the Mad Elf and Troegenator right next door to the amusement park at Beer World - my name for the craft-brew wonderland that is the new headquarters for Tröegs Brewing Co.
Opened just a year ago, this vast and shiny new facility is 10 times the size of the brewery brothers John and Chris Trogner started with in 1996. But as they've steadily grown, they've landed in a space that does justice to what is now easily one of the region's best and most inventive breweries. The self-guided tour allows for easy access to Tröegs' world, from the steel tank fermentation hall, to the quality control lab, the barrel-aging room, and the "Scratch Beer" brew system where limited-edition beers (such as #79 pumpkin ale with saison yeast) keep Tröegs' experimental spirit vital.
The best part, though, is the vast beer hall set right into the heart of the brewhouse, where at least 15 house-brews are on draft and the "Snack Bar" run by chef Christian DeLutis goes well beyond the usual brewpub nibbles. Some recipes still need tweaking: The house charcuterie platter shouldn't be ice-cold, and the pot pie needs either a crust or dumplings (anything but croutons!). But with cast-iron crocks brimming with everything from popcorn in herbed brown butter to duck confit with beans, and a hearty triple-cheese fondue topped with cherries steeped in Mad Elf ale, there's more than enough to buffer a pint of high-octane Dead Reckoning Porter. Any coincidence that its dark malts taste like bitter chocolate? I don't think so.
Chocolate is everywhere around here, perfuming the air, tinting the butter, passed along with the hotel room keys.
But Hershey isn't the only name. And the fact that Anthony Morgan makes a simple mole for the pork burritos at his Black Gryphon in nearby Elizabethtown with dark chocolate Wilbur buds from Lititz (18 miles away) instead of Hershey Kisses (from just 10 miles away) says a lot about the independent streak at this eccentrically ambitious and casual pub. Aside from its stellar craft-beer program (five rotating taps, 50 bottles, and 60 more on cellar reserve), Morgan may also serve the only Welsh-inspired menu in Pennsylvania.
That is to say, "stwmp" is not a misprint. It is the often pink-hued mash of nine root veggies (with local beets and sweet potatoes lending color) that accompanies the excellent grilled apple sausages made at nearby Groff's meats; it also stuffs the centers of butter-fried pierogi inspired, however loosely, by Cornish pasties. Morgan, originally a social worker, is a self-trained but conscientious cook. He sources his ingredients seasonally as much as possible, bakes his own white bread in a Welsh-style "tin," roasts chickens from nearby Shady Acres over Lord Chesterfield Ale, and has even created one of my favorite new starches, "leeky potatoes." It's an homage to the symbol of Wales and St. David, the leek, butter-cooked and milled with creamy spuds, and it's the perfect base for juicy pork chops drizzled in apple gastrique.
There must be something daring in the Elizabethtown air these days, because the Black Gryphon has been joined in the last month by an even more exceptional venture: Rooster St. Provisions. Tony and Kristina Page's artisanal charcuterie shop, just opened in E-town's charming little shopping district, brings to mind something out of Brooklyn more than a tiny borough in Lancaster County. You won't find any of the sweet bologna favored by Lancaster butchers here. Instead, Tony's pork projects, inspired in equal parts by a trip to Europe and his years at Emeril's restaurants in the Harrah's Bethlehem Casino, lean toward Italy, France, and Germany with impressive results.
From a beautifully seasoned country pate with pistachio and plums to thick-cut bacon cured with Creole mustard and brown sugar, deeply smoked Westphalian ham, a garlicky breakfast sausage, links of stunningly creamy and smoky liverwurst, and sheer slices of pig's head porchetta ribboned with herbs, Page's early offerings are simply stellar. With recent government approval to start selling the hang-cured meats, the spicy and spreadable Calabrian nduja, salt-cured culatello, bay-scented lonzino, herb-rolled guanciale, and fennel salami are following close behind.
Along with the store's excellent house-made maple mustard and spicy pickled carrots, these are quality products that seem destined for a wider regional audience. Someday, at least. Meanwhile, don't forget to pack a cooler for this must-stop address before heading home - since even Philly has few producers that can compete.
Not far away in Middletown, local traditions are given their due at the Brownstone Cafe with the kind of genuine home-cooked diner fare that has become too hard to find of late. Owner Keith Matinchek trained at the Culinary Institute of America, but never forgot his local roots. So when he got a chance to buy the 1892 bank where he was once a customer, he knew it was destined to be his place, a family-style restaurant where most all of the preparations are made from scratch or locally sourced, from the hearty soups to the turkey croquettes (from fresh-roasted birds) to Kunzler kielbasa smothered with caramelized onions, and even the Brownstone's 10 or so old-school pies, including a seasonal special made from the gooseneck pumpkins that Matinchek grows. Off-season, I happily dive into the fluffy coconut or rich peanut butter cream pies.
The Brownstone's flaky-crusted chicken pie is rightfully renowned, filled with meat and creamy veloute gravy. But the Pennsylvania Dutch-style "pot pie" served with dumpling-esque noodles may be even more coveted, if only because it's offered just on Wednesdays, and as an all-you-can-eat special.
That may seem like a ruse, given the challenge of cleaning merely one of those massively hearty plates, easily a pound or two of gravy, meat, and noodle. But Matinchek says one regular easily downs three to five helpings - with ketchup: "A pretty big guy," he concedes.
The culinary wonders in and near Hershey, thankfully, have only just begun.
If You're Hungry in Hershey
Tröegs Brewing Co.
200 Hersheypark Dr.
54 Mount Gretna Rd.
Rooster St. Provisions
17 W. High St.,
1 N. Union St.
Hershey Grill at Hershey Lodge
325 University Dr.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, on Twitter @CraigLaBan or firstname.lastname@example.org.