EPHRATAH One gets the sense that not much has changed at Saltsman’s Hotel in its 199 years of existence.
Certainly there are modern conveniences that didn’t exist in the early days — electrification has occurred, they have a telephone, a website and a TV in the bar — but they still ring up your dinner check on an old hand-operated cash register, there are taxidermy specimens round every corner that are nostalgic and discomfiting at the same time, and there’s the food, old-time country cooking served in epic portions.
If you go there at the right time, the vegetable of the day is milkweed, and later in the season you can order elderberry pie for dessert.
As for their entrées, don’t expect to finish yours in one sitting. (Wife Beverly ordered the lamb chops ($20.95). They arrived cooked to a perfect medium rare — all four of them!)
WHERE: Routes 67 and 10 in Ephratah, Fulton County. 993-4412. www.saltsmans.com
WHEN: Open from Easter weekend to just after Halloween; closed Mondays and Tuesdays; Call for hours and to make reservations
OTHER INFO: Cash or local check only; children under 10 served half portions for half price; $1.50 plate charge for children under 3 who share adult’s plate
It was a warm Saturday evening when we hopped on the Thruway and drove to Fonda, then to Johnstown and on to Ephratah where we met friends Howard and Debbie and Skyke and Wilda, who has been going to Saltsman’s since she was a child and encouraged us to make the trip. She promised us an interesting time, and we weren’t disappointed.
A BIRTHDAY PLACE
Besides tourists like us, Saltsman’s is the place for local celebrations. On the evening we visited, it was everyone’s birthday but ours, judging by the number of times we heard “Happy Birthday” sung.
The hotel sits close to the highway where Routes 67 and 10 converge. It was built in 1813 to serve the busy carriage route in the farm country of Fulton and Montgomery counties. Besides the restaurant, there was lodging for travelers and a popular ballroom on the second floor called Apollo Hall. But Saltsman’s, which has been owned by Jim and Tammie Subik since 1979, no longer functions as a hotel.
There is a small reception room off the center hall where members of a Lutherans’ group were assembling when we arrived, and beyond that is the bar with a few stools and a few round tables where you can enjoy a drink before the main event. The menus are displayed in various rooms. Behind the bar is the long dining room, with many tables, old pictures and a china cupboard filled with old Blue Willow crockery.
On the evening we visited, many, but not all, of the tables were filled with patrons chatting amiably as they ate. (Acoustics are such that it’s difficult to carry on a conversation with your tablemates without raising your voice and, when everyone’s raising his voice, the problem is compounded. Let’s just say it’s not the venue you want if you’re planning to whisper sweet nothings to your date.)
Saltsman’s prides itself on the quality and quantity of its food. Entrées include nightly specials (like prime rib) besides the standard menu items. Standard sides come with all entrees, though there are a few options.
Every entrée comes with cole slaw and bread baked on site, a choice of fresh fruit cup, homemade soup (chicken and rice), tomato juice or seafood salad; hot corn fritters dressed in maple sugar syrup, creamed potatoes, creamed onion casserole and a vegetable of the day — milkweeds on the day we visited. We were told that Tammie Subik personally harvests the milkweed, which is delivered to the table in a bowl, is bright green and in taste and consistency resembles asparagus. It’s only available during a short window in spring, and if your heart’s set on milkweed, definitely ask about it before you make your reservation.
JUST THE SIDES
You can order just the sides ($9.95), which are served family style, if you don’t have the hearty appetite that the main courses require to complete. You can also order a light portion of the main dishes for less money, and you can substitute a baked potato or french fries for the creamed potatoes for a nominal charge, but I wouldn’t do that. The creamed potatoes were a savory delight, and how often do you get to sample dishes like creamed potatoes, creamed onion casserole and corn fritters?
I went for the fried chicken for which Saltsman’s is noted. I wasn’t disappointed at the lightly breaded half-chicken — a half breast, drumstick, thigh and wing. In fact, I think it compares favorably with Hattie’s fried chicken in Saratoga Springs. I didn’t finish all of it, however. Beverly gave me a lamb chop (and I gave her a drumstick) but we still would up with enough to take home for lunch for two the next day.
Another example of the servings at Saltsman’s: Debbie ordered the grilled pork chops ($14.95). She got two, each of which looked like a half-pounder. She managed to eat one of them and carted the other home.
I found nothing serious to carp about as to the quality of Saltsman’s homestyle food, though if I were in a nit-picking mood I would note their white bread isn’t memorable and their seafood salad is a shredded mystery. (Beverly asked Jim Subik what was in the salad, and he mumbled something vague and headed back to the kitchen, revealing nothing.)
The cole slaw, which was already at every place when we were shown to our table, was a treat — crispy, fresh and dressed in a not-too-sweet sauce and served with a little nugget of pineapple. Similarly pleasing were the corn fritters with maple syrup.
What else might you order at Saltsman’s? There’s a shrimp and scallop deep-fried combo for $17.95, and Sirloin for 2 for $32.95, described as “for two hearty appetites.” There’s also a “small” sirloin steak for $17.95 (1 pound) and a “generous” ham steak for $12.95. Other seafood choices include haddock — “a healthy portion” baked in milk and lightly seasoned for $14.95 — and a baked salmon center-cut fillet topped with dill sauce for $16.95.
We opted for some dessert with our coffees. I had a slab of raspberry rhubarb pie ($4.75) and Beverly chose the creme-de-menthe parfait, vanilla ice cream with green creme-de-menthe, for the same price, but was disappointed that it didn’t come in a parfait glass.
Our server, Lea, took good care of us, confirming the orders we had placed while at the bar and checking on us occasionally but not hovering too closely.
One other thing about Saltsman’s old-fashioned ambiance. It seems to extend to its prices. Our tab for the two of us, excluding a couple of glasses of wine (at $4.50 each) came to $61.19, including tax and tip.
We will return I’m sure, though probably not until next year. I’m not planning to shop for bigger pants this summer.
There’s an old hotel register on display behind a glass case at Saltsman’s Hotel. Previous guests included Franklin D. Roosevelt, who then was president-elect, and New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. Curiously, former United Press International White House correspondent Helen Thomas also was once a guest.