VAN WERT, Ohio -- It's a bit of authentic Americana, a place where the waitresses call you "hon" and pie is always on the menu.
Balyeat's Coffee Shop, in this town about 25 miles west of Lima, has been packing 'em in since 1922. It's a good, old-fashioned restaurant of the sort usually only seen in the movies -- and even then it was mostly seen in the movies of the '30s and '40s. It is the kind of restaurant that lives proudly in the soul of America, where the food is cheap and filling and good, where the service is friendly, and where the food selections seem to have come from a simpler time.
Balyeat’s Coffee Shop in Van Wert, Ohio.
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Swiss steak, meat loaf, roast beef, roast pork, Salisbury steak, and veal loaf are always on the menu, if you get a menu, which you usually do not. The waitresses assume you know what they serve, so they reel off some of the more popular items as well as the day's many specials (on Tuesdays they include beef-and-noodles and ham-and-beans, on Wednesdays it's liver-and-onions and barbecued ribs).
I was there on a Friday at 1:30 p.m., a bit late for lunch but the place was still doing a brisk business. Though corned beef and cabbage was available, which I love, and though boiled tongue was one of the day's specials, I knew I had to get the fried chicken because of the sign.
The sign is a little bigger than you might think, and it sticks far out over the sidewalk on Main Street. It reads "Balyeat's Coffee Shop/Young Fried Chicken Day and Night." It's a gorgeous sign, reportedly the first neon sign in Van Wert when it was installed in the late 1920s or early 1930s. It was a picture of the sign, as much as an enthusiastic recommendation, that enticed me to make the trip to Van Wert.
The chicken is no longer fried, though; now it is briefly pan fried and then baked. The result is moist, tender, juicy, and delicious, and just a touch or two from a fork separates it from the bone. It was served with hot and creamy mashed potatoes, and I also got a small bowl of long-cooked green beans and a glass of iced tea that the waitress cheerfully kept filled.
But the best was yet to come. I had heard about the pies there, which is one thing, but actually seeing them -- pans and pans of them -- is something else altogether. The only problem was deciding which one to pick.
The choice was daunting. They offer cherry, apple, banana, butterscotch, chocolate, lemon, peach, black raspberry, raisin, custard, and old-fashioned cream pies, plus pumpkin pie and fresh fruit pies when they are in season. Partly because I had never had one before, and partly at random, I chose butterscotch.
The crust was so light and flaky it needed the weight of the filling to keep it from floating up to the ceiling. The butterscotch filling was sinfully rich, and the meringue topping was ethereally light with just a hint of stickiness to give it that down-home, made-from-scratch feel.
You take one bite of that pie (and it's impossible to take just the one bite), and you know, you just know, there is a woman in the kitchen who has been making those pies for years and years. Her name is Barbara Silance, and she is a genius.
Running the restaurant, and the man at the heart of it all, is owner Dale Davies, who at 79 still mashes the potatoes and carves the meat for each order right off the bone. He bought the place from Don Balyeat in 1964, and has worked there -- except for a period of seven years -- since he was 13 or 14 years old. Mr. Balyeat bought it in 1924 when it was called The Lincoln Way, because the Lincoln Highway ran right out front.
It is tempting to suggest that at Balyeat's, time has stood still since the Lincoln Highway was the only cross-country road in America. But of course, time can never be slowed. Still, two cars were parked outside the door that day: a 1951 Chevy Coupe and 1955 Chevy Bel Air.
They looked right at home.
Balyeat's Coffee Shop is located at 118 E. Main St., Van Wert, Ohio. Open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Tues.-Sat., and 6 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Sunday. No credit cards. 419-238-2175.
Contact Daniel Neman at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
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