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Published: Friday, 7/25/2003

Restaurant review: Whitehouse Inn ****

If you're sensitive to the distinctive vitality of small-town America, come with me to dinner in the Whitehouse Inn in Whitehouse, five miles north of Waterville.

Implicit in the menu is the traditional structure of a dinner: Would you care for a drink? There's a full bar, a polished rustic setting, not overdone, at the far end of the room. (That's the only place to smoke, by the way.) And an appetizer? Chicken quesadillas are the only touch of Tex-Mex on the menu, but another attractive appetizer, not often seen, is a crab dip, served with lightly toasted slices of a tasty brown bread on which to spread it.

An appetizer is the first hint of how much food is a serving; the crab dip appeared on a good-sized oval plate, enough to pass as a moderately generous lunch. It was rather bland, and a shake of salt went only part way to the spiciness that would have made it unforgettable.

The size of the appetizer - and two or three others I could see without looking over anyone's shoulder - was an honest foretaste of what more to expect. I suppose that rural life still involves a fair measure of demanding physical labor and meals to match.

The bed-sheet-style menu is laid out in a fashion that's not altogether easy to digest; it's the kind where it's easy to overlook some dinner that, had you seen it, you would have preferred to what you've ordered.

What is surprising is that, apart from specials, beef, long the mainstay of the roadhouse table, does not enjoy pride of place. It comes in as a third-place choice, behind seafood - another surprise, given that the Whitehouse Inn is not in a seaside or even a brookside setting - and chicken.

Four sizes of prime rib are featured, and there is a “senior cut” offered between 4 and 6 p.m. Other beef offerings are a filet mignon, a New York strip, a delmonico, and 12 ounces of hamburger. Prime rib, the delmonico, and a small New York strip are also offered in tandem with a seafood choice.

What was left undone of my Whitehouse Inn prime rib - deliciously roasted - one evening would have been steak sandwiches and pan-warmed suppers for a week; the serving, smallest of four, was intimidating, and a large bowl stuffed to overflowing with twice-baked potatoes gathered under a slice of cheese didn't make matters any easier.

Something I had forgotten from previous dinners, by the way, is the impossibility, I believe, of managing the potatoes without dropping a good deal on the table; and the spray with which many restaurants clean table tops is reason enough not to recover any of the droppings. A standard dinner plate would solve the problem.

As I settled into a place at table, a customer who was leaving declared to all and sundry that he drives out from Toledo regularly to enjoy the best deep-fried chicken anywhere, and that spontaneous endorsement is the best advice I can offer you.

Set back well from the streets in front and alongside, the restaurant is not difficult to find. A sturdy modern building faced with graying rough-sawn logs, it has a small parking lot around the corner from Waterville Street. The Whitehouse Inn does not invite formality but offers a relaxed and friendly, undemanding welcome.

And as aging buildings are being replaced by contemporary structures, reminders of America's 19th-century past may themselves be slipping into that past. It's worth a visit for a cultural reflection and a striking dinner.

Contact Bill of Fare by e-mail at fare@theblade.com.

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