Let’s take a little trip down memory lane, with a left turn on nostalgia street, and pull up to some favorite restaurants of decades past.
We’re not dipping into ancient history here. What follows is a story that former Dayton Daily News food editor and restaurant critic Ann Heller wrote in January 1994, listing her “Top 10 Restaurants.” The story’s headline proclaimed that the local dining scene had “moved into the ‘90s.”
Not all of those restaurants, however, made it OUT of the ‘90s. And sadly, more than half of them didn’t make it to 2018. But four are still around.
On a personal note: I miss The Savory the most. The restaurant on Smithville Road closed not long after this story ran, operated as several other establishments, and is now vacant. But back in the day, The Savory’s rack of lamb was outstanding. And the chef changed the sauce on that lamb every week.
And what can we say about l’Auberge, once Dayton’s most credentialed fine-dining restaurant? Well, we can say it was torn down and replaced by a bank.
>> L’Auberge furnishings, equipment to be auctioned (January 2013)
But we digress. Settle in and enjoy the ride as Heller writes about the best Miami Valley restaurants of a quarter-century ago. -- Mark Fisher
By Ann Heller
Originally published in January 1994
Good food alone isn't enough anymore for a restaurant to survive. In Dayton, as with the rest of the country, customers want more for less money. They want atmosphere and action, and they want it on their terms. For most diners, that translates into a casual and lively setting.
With that in mind, I looked at the major restaurant players and some that are trying to scramble to the top. The competition is fierce, and some restaurants have faced up to that, lowering prices or adding music. Special menus, seasonal menus, wine tastings and ethnic accents are becoming the norm. A few restaurants, with at least one foot mired in the last decade, are barely struggling to meet the challenge. A few restaurateurs have simply buried their heads.
So this year's list of the best is viewed through a different lens. I also want to note that there are other strong contenders vying for a position on the list. One is El Meson, the West Carrollton restaurant that started out as PQ International and brought us the cuisines of many of the countries where Spaniards touched their swords a few hundred years ago. Weekends are a cacophony of lively sounds, and the menu is ever changing as the Castro family explores cuisines beyond its native Colombia. They're "this close" to the top ten. Continued improvement in service and consistency will make the difference.
I-zu, the little Japanese restaurant on North Dixie Drive, offers more excitement per square foot than any other restaurant in town. It may be too narrowly focused for mass appeal, but both American and Japanese customers can share in exotic appetizers and conservative options. Owner Aiko Retterbush is always at hand to explain rituals — there is a precise pairing of certain sauces to certain foods — and to elaborate on the preparation of the creations of talented chef Shin Sakai. Diners should be aware of it.
And Kettering's Peasant Stock has the opportunity to move into the first string under the ownership of chef-owner David Glynn. This year will tell the story.
But the newcomer to my top 10, listed in no particular order, is TW's, the evolving restaurant that captures the spirit of the '90s.
Charm and vitality give thumbs up to this Miamisburg restaurant. Owners Catherine and Chris Cavender have a passion about what they're doing on the property, which once was the Capitol Hotel and has been approved for landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places. It's a white-tablecloth restaurant (a rarity these days), but casual in tone. Assets include a good wine list, warm and accommodating service, weekend piano, and colorful tableware. And if the food sometimes falls short of the ambiance, there are still good selections, such as a fine Caesar salad made traditionally with anchovies in the background, grilled chicken over mascarpone-laced polenta and maybe a peach crisp.
Upstairs, new facilities furnished with antiques include a private dining room, sitting room, bar and even a small apartment that can be rented for private parties, such as wedding rehearsal dinners. The sitting room, designed for pre-dinner cocktails, is the place for after-dinner coffee/cappuccino and dessert in front of the fireplace. The antique upstairs bar, brought from Cincinnati, will feature tastings of single malt scotches when it opens next month. The energetic Cavenders' long-term plans include a second-floor patio at the rear and they've even added cooking-class dinners. As they like to say, there's always something happening at TW's, 67 S. Main St., Miamisburg. 859-7782.
This restaurant stepped right into the mid-'90s with the opening of Bistro l'Auberge, which, like its summer patio, offers a more casual setting and a downscaled menu in counterpoint to the formal French dining room in the front.
The restaurant continues to hold its Mobil Travel Guides 4-star rating, one of only two in the state, and the dining room remains the spot for foie gras and caviar and special occasions. If you want to understand the excellence of the kitchen, order the oysters Rockefeller. Chef-owner Dieter Krug takes what is often a hackneyed dish and elevates it to the sublime. Perfect plump oysters are bedded on fresh leaf spinach under a silken sauce, without a shell in sight. It's perfection.
Classy printed menus are seasonal, but specials may be even better choices. In the dining room, commit the veal chop under silken cepe mushrooms to memory and order it when you can. Ditto the artichoke stuffed with a mushroom stuffing.
But it's the stylish Bistro that's hot right now, as Daytonians enduring their worst winter chills look for comfort in the likes of lamb shanks and mashed potatoes. The white piano may be a bit of overkill, but a little music adds pizazz. 4120 Far Hills Ave. 299-5536.
A change in ownership of this family restaurant should cause barely a ripple as Carl Allyn and his wife, Sun Hwi, officially take over the restaurant founded by his mother, Yei Won Allyn. The three have worked alongside for years, and for the time being Mrs. Allyn will still be a presence in the kitchen two days a week.
It is not the Chinese food that earns the Huber Heights spot its place among the top 10. The family heritage is Korean, and that's where the restaurant's strengths lie. Educating customers who cleave to moo goo gai pan to the delights of Korean specialties has taken years, but those dishes finally have earned a place of respect on the menu, and on weekends they may account for half the orders. Many, though not all, of the Korean dishes are spicy hot and first-timers up to the challenge won't go wrong with jampon, a hot seafood noodle soup, or bibim naengmyun, an unpronounceable and fiery noodle dish. A safer choice, and a personal favorite of mine, is due-ji-ko-ki, an Asian-style barbecue of thin slices of marinated pork wrapped in lettuce and eaten out of hand, with just as much of the hot sauce as you like. A mixture of Asian influences produces an easy-to-like grilled mahi mahi with ginger sauce. Because of a steady Japanese clientele, noodle dishes also star on the menu.
If ambiance is important, make a reservation and specify one of the nicely appointed tatami rooms. 5186 Brandt Pike. 233-7764.
It may sound like an advertiser's mantra, but beef is back, at least in restaurants, if not at home. And the steak houses of the Midwest never went out of favor, though fabled waits for tables in popular restaurants may not be as long as they once were.
Pine Club owner David Hulme mulls over the possibility of dipping a toe into the '90s with the addition of a grilled fish, but so far, he says, the numbers don't work. High-quality fish such as fresh swordfish is so expensive it would crack the $20 barrier.
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So customers settle for nibbling on perfectly fried little Nantucket scallops as the seafood of choice. Trout is, after all, not salmon or swordfish. While beef is back, the one outstanding, one-of-a-kind dinner on this menu is lamb chops, bigger than a lumberjack's fist. No one in town comes close. 1926 Brown St. 228-7463.
A case can be made that Yellow Springs isn't a part of the greater Dayton area, but it's a favorite destination for many Daytonians and just 35 minutes from downtown Dayton.
Excitement spans the changing menu, with as much attention paid to producing a good curried sweet potato soup as a saffron risotto. Indeed, the appetizers, salads and bread often outshine the main course. Ingredients are top quality, and it shows in the food — and the prices. An option for budget-minded diners is the new Monday night fixed-price menu that includes three courses and a pitcher of wine for $15.
This year the Winds also expanded its kitchen horizons by adding red meat — essentially lamb — to the menu, which reverentially features one vegetarian entree. But the stuff that memories are made of may be the bread, with multiple choices of the kitchen's creations in each basket. I can't pass up the focaccia — the pizza bread topped with caramelized onions or oil-bathed artichokes. That and a salad made with Peach Mountain's stunning organic greens is a meal, best enjoyed on the patio in summer. 215 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs. 767-1144.
CHINA COTTAGE (Far Hills)
Of the more than 75 Chinese restaurants in this city, China Cottage has been the most successful at tapping into the American taste for Chinese food. In the hands of Linda Weiss and her sons, Tiger and Wen Wang, that food has translated as bold-flavored options to the Cantonese/American fare of yesteryear. However, much of the food is fried and abundantly sauced — which is the problem that the Center for Science in the Public Interest identified last year when the advocacy group focused on high-fat Chinese food.
But China Cottage can do better when pressed, and the popular restaurant is responsive to customers. Witness this year the addition of a wine list offering choices beyond the usual Chinese restaurant plum wine options.
An added menu section formalized the more creative dishes such as mussels with black bean sauce and a five-spice beef soup guaranteed to warm your soul this season. And daily specials, a rarity in most Chinese restaurants, round out options. Creations such as steamed salmon with a dark ginger sauce reflect the changes being made to lure the '90s customer. Good, knowledgeable service and the accommodating personalities of this family add mightily to the attractiveness of this restaurant, but in these highly competitive times, the restaurant needs to continue to stretch. 6290 Far Hills Ave. 434-2622.
As an indication of the continuing appeal of this restaurant, consider this: During the recent bitter cold, 80 people showed up to pay $35 for a wine-tasting lunch on a Saturday when most people refused to leave their houses, except to go to the grocery store. The restaurant has a devoted following, and owner Jay Haversticks love of wine has wedded the two.
The wine list is simply the most remarkable in town and pairs with a seafood menu of impeccably fresh fish. It may be too much to wish that vegetables and salad were other than perfunctory. The kitchen's preparation of seafood is generally simple and flawless. Some of the preparations that shine have added flair, but nothing new has been added in about a year. Haverstick seems to reserve the innovation for those wine-tasting lunches.
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Currently, the best dish on the menu is the rare tuna, a waiter may tell you, and he may be right. Try matching one of the restaurant's fine steaks alongside and you can barely tell the difference.
It is not an inexpensive place to dine, given the price of good fish and fine wines, but the budget-minded could settle for an appetizer of fried smelt or maybe a heaping plate of steamed mussels or tender little West Coast manilla clams and a salad.
Desserts are marketed with enthusiasm. Recently I got around to the cheesecake; it's as wonderfully dense as any good New York-style version will be.
Notably, Jay's finally made a concession to the '90s last year by adding a real cappuccino to the menu. For those brought up on his "original," that whipped-cream version is still available. 225 E. Sixth St. 222-2892.
This restaurant, which showed so much promise when it opened, had been coasting, but the realities of competition opened eyes; owners Mike Shampton and Fritz Montgomery responded just last week with a menu that incorporates a new concept. Old favorites, both appetizers and entrees, are listed separately, but a whole page is devoted to Best Buys under $12. They are a good choice for those who want a lighter meal at a lower price, though the addition of a salad will add a dollar or two. The buys include a half-dozen pasta dishes, including a powerfully rich pasta with blue cheese, mushrooms, Parmesan and red radicchio served in an individual casserole. Entree salads include a cold Thai chicken salad with cellophane noodles, which will be more appealing when the weather warms a bit. Other new entrees include a $12.95 club steak and a whole grilled Cornish hen served with couscous for $14.95. Montgomery also has left himself room on the menu for daily specials using seasonal ingredients.
If your pocketbook is not a concern, you can still get one of the best veal chops in town, for the top menu price of $23.95. An excellent rack of lamb, with a changing sauce, carries the same price. But those are Savory favorites.
New to the dessert tray is a hot chocolate cake that really caught my attention — and I don't even like cake. I won't share the secret ingredient, but you may taste it on the second bite.
The menu isn't the only overhaul at The Savory. Paintings have been added to the rooms, which have cried out for some enhancement. And the pink tablecloths are gone. I just hope they don't stop there. 2335 Smithville Road, Kettering. 256-8007.
No place is as lively as Kitty's on a theater night. And if you're not one of the downtown diners rushing to make curtain time, you can relax and enjoy some of the more innovative food in town, plus the rotating artwork of local artists.
There's an Italian accent to much of the food, which reflects the tastes of proprietress Kitty Sachs. What I find special at the restaurant is the attention to the second-string players, which are often ignored at most restaurants. The salads and desserts are simply the best in the area.
The restaurant got the benefit of a burst of enthusiasm with the arrival of chef Diana Alspaugh in '93. She brought a passion for desserts, among other things.
Entree favorites rotate on the seasonal menus, but those with jaded tastes can find something new. This season it may be perfectly cooked, roasted loin of lamb with a curried fruit sauce, or bouillabaisse, a dish that is finally showing up on Dayton menus. The daily whims of the chef show up in salads and desserts. One of the best may be a sampler that includes miniatures of three favorites: lemon curd in puff pastry, creme brulee and a slice of dense chocolate "rattlesnake" cake. While evening customer counts rise and fall with theater performances, lunch is a happening, inevitably crowded by customers lured by a wide-ranging and modestly priced menu that runs from Jasper's meat loaf and garlic mashed potatoes to such upscale creations as grilled polenta with marinara sauce. It's definitely a '90s kind of place. Citizens Federal Centre, Second and Main streets, downtown. 228-3333.
If I had to pinpoint the restaurant where I tasted the most exotic food all year, it would be Steve Kao's. It is a place for adventure, a daring dip into authenticity. Witness, on weekends, the large tables of Chinese families who come from as far as Cincinnati for the food of their homeland. There is a separate Chinese menu in addition to seasonal specials that are on neither the English nor Chinese menus. But the exotic dishes are available to all who are willing to explore the possibilities with owner Steve Kao, a dedicated restaurateur who personally oversees the selection of tiny beans at the summer farmers' market and travels to Cincinnati for produce such as water spinach and pea-pod leaves.
The chef does shrimp in infinite variety, never seeming to repeat herself. They may be crispy, heads-on shrimp, quickly fried with hot peppers, ginger and lots of garlic. Another time they come stuffed with minced shrimp and served with steamed garlic. Or they may be simmered in wine and served with a ginger sauce — a dish that gives lie to the charge that Chinese food is high in fat. The specials may be as non-threatening as a bacon-wrapped scallop or as novel as a snack of boiled peanuts cooked with star anise, ginger and hot pepper — an addictive alternative to the ubiquitous pot stickers. Surprises come as clams or even frog legs crowned with a pile of basil; comfort food arrives as beef braised until it is spoon tender. Even pan-fried doufu (tofu) becomes regal when it's stuffed with shrimp and ham and brought sizzling to the table on an iron plate. The doufu is silken, a counterpoint to firm shrimp — and it's No. 51 on the Chinese menu.
Of course the printed menu has the full range of traditional dishes found in Chinese restaurants, from Peking duck to twice-fried pork. But that just skims the surface of what can be tasted here. 8270 Springboro Pike. 433-2556.