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A century of serving: Restaurants with recipes for success

October 6, 2018

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — The restaurant business is not for the faint of heart.

Grueling hours, finicky customers and high overhead expenses are a few of the challenges facing restaurant owners.

How tough is the industry? An Ohio State University study found 26 percent of restaurants close within their first year and 60 percent shutter over three years.

The Lehigh Valley is no exception, with eateries coming and going like overzealous servers looking to snatch dinner plates while you’re still nibbling.

Some restaurants throw in the towel after a few years, including recently shuttered spots such as Allentown’s Centro, Forks Township’s Skewerz and Lower Macungie’s Poblano Med Mex Grill, while others, such as Black’s Luncheonette in Pen Argyl, Uncle Wesley’s in Easton, Minsi Trail Inn in Bethlehem and Walp’s Restaurant in Allentown, call it quits after several decades.

Some Lehigh Valley restaurants, on the other hand, have achieved landmark status by pulling in customers for more than 100 years.

Owners of three restaurants open for more than a century explain how they’ve stood the test of time.

Youell’s Oyster House

Like the resilience of oysters, which produce pearls as a defense against parasites and other irritants, Christian Filipos is good at overcoming difficult situations.

Over the last 30 years, the owner of Youell’s Oyster House in Allentown has helped his restaurant — whose roots date back 120 years — survive and flourish. He’s taken it from a 60-seat eatery in Easton to a 160-seat restaurant in Allentown’s West End.

The most trying time came in 2013, when an electrical fire destroyed the restaurant at 23rd and Walnut streets. Filipos, who lives a mile from Youell’s, rushed to the scene and immediately began brainstorming about a comeback.

“Youell’s is my livelihood,” Filipos said. “And at that point, it was also the livelihood of 24 employees; we now have about 50 workers. So there was really no time for dwelling or doubt in my mind that Youell’s would return.”

Youell’s, which two brothers began as “Rice’s” in 1895 at the current Hotel Easton site on Northampton Street, has evolved over the decades, including moving to Easton’s North Front Street, along the bank of the Delaware River, years later.

In 1938, Bob Youell bought the business and renamed it before selling it to local politician Gene Ricci in 1953.

Ricci moved the restaurant in 1955 to Easton’s College Hill neighborhood, where he expanded it a few years later.

When Filipos’ father, Constantine Filipos, bought the restaurant in 1984, the restaurant’s fan base had grown. Customers would wait hours to be seated, often grabbing a drink at the nearby College Hill Tavern until their table was ready.

When Christian Filipos came on board in 1987, he mapped out an expansion that would lead him and his father to open a second location — the original west Allentown restaurant — in 1992.

“I saw the limitations of having only 12 tables,” Christian Filipos said of the Easton restaurant, which closed in the mid-1990s under a former chef.

Youell’s continues to stay a premier dining destination by embracing its roots, Filipos said.

“We’re still a top regional seafood destination,” he added. “We get people from Philadelphia, Scranton and beyond that come here and, of course, our local customers are our bread and butter. We always get comments like, ‘I was down at Hilton Head or up in New England, and I’m glad to be back in the Lehigh Valley because we enjoy your seafood better. It’s better prepared and more affordable.’ ”

Youell’s goes through about 20,000 oysters in a three-month period. It honors tradition while stretching its culinary creativity by mixing decades-old dishes such as broiled stuffed shrimp and seafood combination platters with daily features such as scallops casino and Rhode Island cod.

Filipos has a summer home on Peaks Island, in Portland, Maine. He gathers inspiration from the bevy of restaurants in the city.

“Some people like to eat the same thing month after month and some people don’t, so our menu is constantly changing,” Filipos said. “Seafood, in general, is not inexpensive, so we want to ensure people get the most bang for their buck.”

Filipos, who enjoys beekeeping and sells honey from his restaurant’s rooftop apiary, believes business acumen plays a huge part in any restaurant’s success.

“No matter how great of a chef you have, food costs, employment costs, etc. must be managed properly,” he explained. “It’s all a numbers game, and sometimes factors are out of my control — the economic crisis in 2007 and the malaise of the next several years, for example.”

Some of Filipos’ favorite local restaurants include Aqui Es in Bethlehem, The Trapp Door in Upper Milford Township and seafood restaurants 3rd & Ferry Fish Market in Easton and Henry’s Salt of the Sea in Allentown.

“I’m a pessimist,” Filipos said when asked about advice for budding restaurateurs. “I always tell people, ‘If you want to make a small fortune in the restaurant business, start with a large fortune.’ ”

Spinnerstown Hotel

John and Susan Dale know a thing or two about running a restaurant.

The husband and wife are third-generation proprietors of the 19th-century Spinnerstown Hotel in Milford Township. They bought it from John’s parents, John Sr. and Sis Dale, in 1987.

John Dale Jr. grew up in the business, with his grandparents, John and Kate Jenks, who operated the former Cottage Diner in Montgomeryville before taking over Spinnerstown in 1959. He grew up living above the Bucks County landmark, and his family has now been at the helm longer than any previous owner.

“We’re brainstorming ways to celebrate our 60th anniversary next year,” Susan said.

The Spinnerstown Hotel has been serving the public since 1811, when David Spinner Jr., a descendant of village settler Ulrich Spinner, obtained a license to operate a tavern across from his family’s home.

Although Spinner Jr. remained the owner of the property, which he simply called The Inn, until his death in 1866, he rented the tavern to a succession of innkeepers, including his son, Edwin Spinner.

The business, which this year received an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine for its more than 100 wine labels, has evolved greatly over the past few decades, with the Dales establishing an extensive beer collection and renovating the three-story building every few years.

Improvements include enclosing the front porch and overhauling the bar in 1989, converting the second floor into a banquet room and office in 1992, adding a taproom adjacent to the bar in 1995 and expanding the main dining room in 2004. The couple also built a 50-person covered deck.

Plans for the coming months include new hardwood flooring and dining tables in the main dining room.

The 200-seat restaurant, which has attracted celebrities such as actor Billy Bob Thornton and Blues Traveler singer John Popper, has become known for unique dishes such as an ostrich quesadilla and Irish breakfast (corned beef, potatoes, smoked cheddar, grilled tomato and a fried egg), as well as its reputation as a “really good beer house,” John said.

“We started pushing beers in the ’90s, before craft beer really exploded, and they have definitely carried us through some hard times,” John said. “Back then, it was mostly Belgians, Germans and other imports. Our first list had 22 beers and last year, around Christmas, I think we were at about 400. We also have a large vintage selection.”

Beer expansions aren’t the only changes at Spinnerstown. The restaurant’s eclectic food menu features seasonal dishes that incorporate local ingredients such as corn, tomatoes and rabbit from Weisel Farm up the road.

It maintains longtime favorites such as ribeye steaks, grilled chicken croissant sandwiches, lemon herb crab cakes and Manhattan clam chowder “to keep the locals who pay the electric bill happy,” John said.

“They are the reason we’re here,” John added. “On the other side of the coin, new hotels have popped up near the turnpike, so that has changed our offerings a bit. We’re now getting travelers from all over the world.”

The Dales label themselves “hands-on owners,” holding daily staff meetings before shifts, collaborating with chefs on monthly features and coming in on days when the restaurant is closed for bookkeeping and building maintenance, John said.

“We typically log 16-hour days, but that’s not the hardest part,” Susan added. “The biggest challenge is balancing the past with the future. We remember where we came from, but we can’t rest on our laurels. So we continue to update the building, introduce new dishes and hire workers who buy into our vision.”

“The restaurant business is always an uphill climb — always,” John added. “When you think you’re at the top and plan to coast down, you’re so wrong. Our success comes from blood, sweat and tears, literally.”

The Dales, who enjoy dining at Bolete in Salisbury Township, Oak Steakhouse in Easton and Savory Grille in Hereford Township, acknowledge that today’s aspiring restaurant owners have it harder than they had it 30 years ago, especially due to rising costs related to insurance, liquor licenses, credit card processing and more. The advent of social media and online review forums such as Yelp also can be detrimental, John said.

“We always had a good reputation, but if customers ever had a bad experience, for whatever reason, they would just let us know and we would take care of them,” John said. “Now, people seem to keep us in the dark until they let the whole world know within 15 minutes of leaving the restaurant.”

The Dales’ oldest daughter, Anna Kate Dale, has been the restaurant’s manager for nearly 10 years.

Whether she chooses to follow in her parents’ footsteps or another operator takes the reins down the road, John wrote a message for Spinnerstown’s next owner on a wall behind newly installed stonework: “You should’ve bought a boat.”

Limeport Inn

The picturesque countryside of Lower Milford Township is on full display at one of the Lehigh Valley’s oldest restaurants.

The Limeport Inn, which also has been known as Country Carriage Inn and Limeport Hotel throughout its history, was built in 1842 as a stagecoach stop for people traveling between neighboring cities, co-owner Mark Jamison said.

Jamison, along with his wife, Angelica Megaro Jamison, bought the rustic stone building in 2001 from Dick and Kay McGowen, who operated it for 18 years before retiring.

Tranquil fountains, lush greenery atop a pergola and dimly lit bar and dining rooms — complete with Windsor chairs, exposed wooden beams and walls resembling barn doors — evoke an ambiance more like the European countryside rather than a few miles from bustling Route 309.

The 100-seat restaurant was perceived mostly as an Irish bar during the McGowens’ tenure, and the Jamisons aimed to “shake that image,” introducing “New American cuisine” to appeal to a broader clientele, Jamison said.

Another challenge has been physical restrictions — narrow hallways, a small kitchen, etc. — going hand-in-hand with the 175-year-old building.

“The original structure is solid stone,” Jamison said. “So, the walls are 2 feet thick and you can’t just bust a hole through them like you could with wood. It’s a production just to put a piece of pipe or wire through them.”

At the same time, Jamison finds Limeport’s 19th-century charm “a big part of its draw.”

A woodworker and former blacksmith, he’s made many improvements over the last 17 years, including building dining tables, cabinets and a bar top.

At one of the restaurant’s main attractions — a 65-seat, tree-lined patio — he constructed fencing, retaining walls and an entrance to the kitchen.

“We added the patio’s rear fountain in summer 2002, and I built the middle fountain about 10 years ago,” Jamison said. “Everybody used to fight to sit next to the one in the back, so someone suggested I build one in the middle for everyone. I kicked myself for not thinking of it sooner.”

In addition to cozy dining rooms and a whimsical outdoor space, Limeport’s food, including staples such as a lobster white truffle pizza, New Zealand lamb rack and soy-glazed sea bass, keeps customers coming back, Jamison said.

Most ingredients are sourced regionally, including chicken eggs from the Jamisons’ home in Lower Milford, organic produce from Lancaster County and pasture-raised beef from Tioga County.

Jamison, who bartends a few nights a week, also cites his wife’s carrot cake and other desserts as big hits.

“Her black bottom white chocolate peanut butter mousse pie is a mouthful in more ways than one,” he joked.

The Jamisons do not envy entrepreneurs just getting their feet wet in the business.

A growing number of cooking shows has led to more sophisticated palates, and many diners think they are “professional food critics,” Jamison said.

“Fortunately, the general public also is becoming more sophisticated and can figure out which of these online reviews are legitimate and which are exaggerated,” he added.

The couple welcomed the challenge of operating another local landmark when they bought Jamison Publick House eight years ago.

The Pennsburg restaurant, previously known as Geryville Publick House, is even older than Limeport. It’s been serving food and drinks since at least 1745, when King George III issued a license to dispense “spirits” on the property.

Employing hard-working and trustworthy staff members at both restaurants gives the Jamisons peace of mind.

“We can’t be everywhere at once, so it’s comforting to know our workers take great pride in what they do,” said Jamison, noting one day he hopes to pass the restaurant down to a talented chef — his daughter, Emily Fischer. “My advice to up-and-coming restaurant owners would be to learn how to delegate and be a chef-owner. Be prepared to do anything and everything — from replacing a sump pump to making a creme brulee.”

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Online:

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Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com

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