40 South Grove St, East Aurora, NY 14052
Web: Roycroft Inn & Restaurant
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Buffalo has aged. Some of its buildings - particularly homes - have rotted and need to be removed. And there are good reasons to oppose efforts to preserve old structures merely for the sake of preservation. But there are some wonderfully impressive historic sites in Western New York that deserve every bit of attention they can receive, and The Roycroft Inn in East Aurora is one of them. We'll leave the extended history lesson for its Wikipedia entry, yet it suffices to say that this is one of the area's cultural treasures - the sort of charmingly restored piece of American heritage that's worth visiting just for fun - and the fact that it happens to have a really nice restaurant on site is just gravy. Great gravy.
Surrounded By History. Sit down at a table at the Roycroft Inn's restaurant and you'll literally be surrounded by Roycroft arts and crafts dating back a century, plus recreations and period-matched pieces: light rooms are populated with classic dark wood clocks, tables and chairs that start immediately behind the massive, engraved wooden front entrance and continue through several dining rooms large enough to accommodate several banquets at once. In addition to handmade lights on the tables, the recreated plates, silverware, and bread cutting boards all bear the Roycroft logo and the signs of years of use - but also care. The Inn was reopened fifteen years ago after a full restoration, and the people in charge took great care to make the place look and feel warm. Like most of the patrons, the uniformly young servers are dressed well, and even when they're a little slow to pick up plates, they're unflinchingly polite and responsive. It's just easy to like this place. A lot.
A Special Touch. If there's any single way that an American restaurant can let patrons know they're in for something special, bread's it, and the Roycroft cutting board that arrived was good for an instant wow or two: three different types of fruit muffins - mini-muffins, really - plus a small loaf of bread, its layers inside unravelling to reveal chunks of mild orange cheese. Who needs butter, even the good sweet kind served here, when you have all these other flavors to enjoy?
Strong Signs. Putting the Roycroft Inn's food in proper perspective is simple: the dishes we sampled weren't perfect, or the best we've ever had, but they were all good enough to order again. The Asparagus Puff ($11), for instance, was a phyllo dough wrap with roasted red peppers, goat cheese, and asparagus inside, served alongside white rice, broccoli, fruit slices, and a delicate dill and white butter sauce called beurre blanc. Due in part to the sauce, the puff wasn't as crisp as it could have been, but it was warm and gently rich, with no shortage of the soft cheese or strong asparagus; the fruits - pineapple, melon, and cantaloupe - offered fun, sweetening touches. Another appetizer, the Shrimp and Lobster Bisque ($4/cup, $6/bowl) had a deliciously thick, brandy-like broth with more small pieces of shrimp and lobster meat than we'd expected for the price - fine rather than great in quality - but the saffron croutons on top were charmingly crispy and tasty enough that they could have been the star attractions in a less powerful soup. More of them would only have been better.
A Limited Lunch Menu. Though it's a large single page, and augmented by a second sheet with daily specials, Roycroft's standard lunch menu is pretty simple: five appetizers, six salads, eight sandwiches, and seven entrees, some of which are merely "of the day" placeholders for the specials. We went with two of the standards: the Maple Glazed Rack of Lamb ($18), and the Roycroft Inn Cobb Salad ($10), each plate enough to fill a hungry patron with a little help from an appetizer and a dessert.
The bigger surprise of the two was the Lamb, which arrived in a beautiful, rustic presentation with two sets of two chops interlocked at the bones, atop a significant bed of white rice and vegetables. To Roycroft's credit, the "Maple Glazed" Lamb is further described accurately on the menu as having been served with a mint, walnut pesto, but only on our first bite did we detect a hint of the maple glaze, which quickly yielded to the strong, seriously enjoyable pesto. It wasn't what we expected, and we were never asked our preference for the grilling - it arrived medium - but we enjoyed every single bite, including the vegetables. Roasted asparagus, a hash made from matchstick-thin sweet potatoes, and the rice provided a sweet counterbalance to the minty, nutty, and savory lamb; we cleaned off the entire plate, leaving only the bones.
Apart from the fact that the Roycroft Inn Cobb Salad arrived with its ingredients separated into piles, including balls of Gorgonzola cheese rather than crumbles - a small turn-off if you like your food ready to eat, rather than in need of tossing - we had no complaints about this dish, either. Everything from the basil vinaigrette dressing to the bacon, grilled chicken, cucumbers and other vegetables was tasty, with a brighter, fresher presentation than the typical Cobb.
Smiles By The Sliver. As much as we liked the rest of the dishes, the highlight of the meal was the dessert menu, which offered an option you just don't see every day: "Slivers." Want to try two of the homemade, regularly $8 desserts rather than just one? Roycroft offers half-sized Sliver portions for $4 each - just the right price for a little piece of happiness. And oh, were we happy with these desserts. We're not going to suggest that the Chocolate Truffle Cake was in any way incredible; it was quite simply a split-layed flourless chocolate and chocolate ganache cake, with each layer so similarly moist and cocoa-rich that you couldn't tell them apart. Chocolate and caramel syrups were in abundance, alongside a strawberry and a dab of whipped cream topped with almond slices. Firm rather than gooey, sweet and clean rather than overpowering, and just wet enough to have no problem sliding off the fork into our mouths, the cake was everything we'd expected, nothing more, nothing less.
The real treat was the Toffee Bar Cheesecake, which used similar garnishes - chocolate and caramel sauces, whipped cream, walnuts rather than almonds, and toffee chunks - to load up a piece of similarly fresh, toffee-hinted cheesecake with a thick graham cracker crust. It is virtually impossible, we'd say, to have serious problems enjoying a dessert with the sauces, the crunchy toffee, and the nuts on this plate. Roycroft could have put something far less appealing than the cheesecake in the center and still pleased a lot of people, but the cake was an equal match - as solid and enjoyable of a homemade cheesecake as we've had around here. Kudos to the kitchen at this place for delivering such consistently high-quality items from course to course.
So should you visit the Roycroft Inn? Definitely. Bring your appetite. Be prepared for a few surprises. Don't expect perfection. But from the look of the place to the taste of its food, anticipate good things. This is a microcosm of what Western New York can be like if the best of what's old here is brought up to meet modern expectations of class and quality.