Friday, August 12, 2011

Miller's Smorgasbord, Lancaster, PA

I have written about many of the buffets in Lancaster, PA - perhaps, by now, just about all of them, but I have never written about Miller's Smorgasbord except a quick mention here or there. It is not that I have not been there or that I did like it. As a matter of fact, Millers Smorgasbord was the first buffet restaurant that I ever ate at and that was over fifty years ago. Yes, I said fifty. I was a regular at Millers Smorgasbord for many years. Family would give us gift certificates to dine at Millers. Before I started writing this site and when I was going there regularly, it would be one of the first restaurants that I would recommend to anyone going to Lancaster. So what happened? Sometime around 1996, whenever I would eat at Millers I would get ill. Those with me where fine. My wife was fine. Something there did not agree with me and we stopped going. There are so many other places it was not really a problem to not go. But since I have started writing this site I have been contacted many times by readers asking about Millers. I have explained just what I have explained to you - and I felt that it was not fair to write about the restaurant if I had not been there recently.

On this last trip over several days to Lancaster, I decided that I would go back to Millers and have dinner. I would be careful what I chose to eat and my wife felt that she knew exactly what was causing me problems there and I would take her guidance and see what happens.

Millers has been in business and in this location for 80 years. It has changed considerably over that time and it is not the little one room restaurant with a serving window at the side of a wall that it was when I went there fifty years ago. In the past fifty years it has changed several times. It has expanded and expanded again. It has added shops on its property. Since I was there the last time around 1996, it has changed again inside - and now it not only serves buffet - here called smorgasbord - but it also has added a menu for menu dining and has enabled you to take purchase parts of the buffet if you don't want the whole smorgasbord.

One thing that is significant about Millers and should be noted right off is that this is the only local buffet restaurant that is open on Sundays and it is also open an hour later than the other buffet restaurants in the area. Millers is open until 9 pm. Being open on Sundays makes Millers standout if you are visiting this area on vacation and want to dine at a local restaurant. We went to Millers on this trip on a Sunday night. It was crowded. You can make reservations by calling ahead, but you will still wait, but not as long.

We waited over an hour to be seated. You give your name at the desk in the lobby of the restaurant and you are given a ticket with a number. You will hear your number called over a loudspeaker that you can hear around the property and in the shops. There is a small gift shop in the lobby with a baked goods area. That lobby was packed so we headed over to the quilt shop to wait and look around. The quilt shop closed well before our number was called and we went back to the lobby. The lobby was warm and crowded.

If you want to dine in Lancaster County with the local people and see Amish and Mennonites dining around you in the restaurant, don't go to Millers. Millers attracts the tourists and you will be waiting with and be dining along side tourists. This is not a problem, as pretty much, I am a tourist myself - but sometimes you encounter the stereotypical tourist - a bit rude, a bit pushy, and just what you have come to this rural farm area to get away from - and that is who is at Millers. I eat in a lot of restaurants in tourist areas and I have told you about so many Lancaster restaurants and I have never said this before - because I never had this feeling in any of the others - in the height of tourist season - but it just so much stuck out here. Don't misunderstand - I am not talking about race, nationality, or anything else like that. I am talking about Mr. and Mrs. Tourist and their teenage kids from the city or the suburbs. I am not sure why they annoyed me so waiting to get in - but it was not just one family or couple - it was so overwhelmingly many. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe I am getting old. I was very happy when they called out number and I could get inside to our table and even though everyone outside would be inside eventually, I would be able to tune it all out.

We got inside and the decor and room arrangement had changed considerably since we were there last. You could make out what used to be where and what is gone and what has remained - all not significant to anyone but my wife and myself who have been gone from this place for so long. The room is decorated now in browns and their are large photos on the walls of the restaurant and staff in its former days. It had been much lighter and airier inside in the past. The buffet is a circle of servers around a grill area that also is somewhat in a circle with two distinct sides. When you are seated you are handed a menu. You can order from the menu or part of the buffet or all of the buffet. Not everyone at your table has to order the buffet - but there can be no tasting from your buffet plate if someone orders from the menu. If you order from the buffet, walk around the entire serving area to see what there is being served as it is not the same from side to side, even if there are some items the same on a buffet server. Also of note now is their liquor license and this is the only buffet restaurant now in this area that serves liquor, beer, and wine. Perhaps to the desire of those tourists in the lobby that annoyed me, but my wife was very disappointed that they added this to what should be and always was a family-oriented restaurant/buffet.

Millers had always been the most expensive of the buffets in the past. The price has come down now to $22.99 for the adult dinner buffet. Add to that $2.25 for the beverage (unlimited). The price for the meal is more in keeping with other higher priced buffets in this area but once you add the drinks it is back to being the most expensive buffet in Lancaster. Yet, not as expensive as it once was. The price in the past had passed $25 and went up from there. You can order only the Salad, Soup and Bread Bar and the price for this is $11.99. And as I said, you can order ala carte from the menu. (I just took a look at their website to recheck the prices - and guess what - the dinner price is now listed at $23.99. I paid a dollar less just a few weeks ago - July 4th weekend. In addition, the Soup and Salad bar is now listed at $12.99!) Lunch and dinner are the same prices. The Soup and Salad Bar is $9.95 at lunch. Children pay $9.95 ages 9-12, $6.95 ages 4-8
3 and under eat free. That is a lot for kids.

I will take you through the whole meal. We ordered the full smorgasbord and beverages at that ridiculous price of $2.25 for soft drinks. (I complain about the $1.99 at OCB!) After a walk around the whole buffet serving area we came back to the soup bar which was extensively laid out with hot pots of eight soups. There was a wide variety of soup being served and it makes the soup and salad bar alternative to the full buffet very tempting. There was chicken corn soup, full-bodied beef stew, seafood bisque, sausage and cabbage soup, vegetarian vegetable soup, potato soup, vegetable chili, and ham and bean soup. Of these the chicken corn soup is the most local. In the past they served beef vegetable soup that we have made from their recipe for Thanksgiving family dinners for many years. That was gone - but may appear when you are there as we overheard a waitress saying that the soups do change and twice a year they make snapper turtle soup. I tried the chicken corn and the seafood bisque. The chicken corn was a thin broth version - which is the more traditional, local version. It was OK. The seafood bisque was very good. I was tempted to try other soups but there was a meal ahead of me and I moved on.

The salad bar offered Caesar salad, mixed greens, and spinach leaves. There were a number of the usual salad toppings and dressings including the local hot bacon dressing. There were a number of prepared salads including turkey salad, potato salad, macaroni salad, cole slaw, cottage cheese and apple butter, chow chow (PA Dutch style), beet eggs, cold sliced beets, and seafood salad. Years ago, Millers was known for serving 7 Sweets and 7 Sours - sweet and sour salads and appetizer salads. There is no mention of this any longer but there were remnants of some of these items on the salad bar like the apple butter and the chow chow. Also on the salad bar there were breads and rolls including hard rolls, potato rolls and cinnamon raisin bread with white sugar icing among others. I enjoy Caesar salad and take that whenever a buffet offers it. The one here had way too much dressing on it. Now, more dressing is better than too little dressing but this was way too much and I prefer buffets that let you add the Caesar dressing yourself. Here it is pre-mixed. If you order only the Soup/Salad/Bread Bar, stop here because this is all that you get. The full smorgasbord moves on...

There is another cold and hot buffet server that is considered appetizers. Much on it would be considered to be on a salad bar, but because there is a separately offered salad bar option, these more expensive items have been separated away and this server is found on the other side of the circle. This is where you will find two types of cold peel and eat shrimp - one with Old Bay seasoning and spices and one that is plain. There is also shrimp salad. There are cheeses including cheddar and Swiss. There was also an unusual local specialty that has been called Amish Caviar - though it has nothing to do with caviar except for the appearance. It is simply red pepper jelly on cream cheese. If you see this, try it. On an end there is a hot section that was serving Swedish meatballs and sauteed mushrooms. The meatballs were good as was the seasoned shrimp. The shrimp salad was pretty good as well.

This brings us to the hot foods. These are served on two buffet servers, one on each side of the circle and then also at the grill and serving area at the center of the circle. Let's start with the grill. There was a char grill and when I went past at one point I was certain that I saw what I believed to be steaks or chopped steaks being grilled. When I went up to get something from the grill there were no steaks of any kind. We wondered later if perhaps they were cooking here also for the ala carte menu. At the grill were chicken breasts and ham being grilled. There were also grilled vegetables that included zucchini, red and green peppers, and onions. All of this was cooked on the grill and them moved to serving trays at the side of the grill where you took what you liked. The ham when placed in the serving tray was covered in sweet cider sauce. At the other end of the grill were two carvings - Sirloin of Beef and turkey breast. There was also fried fish. Around to the other side of the circle there were a few serving trays. In one was Turkey Divan. In another was shrimp Alfredo. At the opposite end was the dish that made Millers famous 80 years ago - chicken and waffles. There are different variations of chicken and waffles and in soul food restaurants this is fried chicken served with waffles. In the Lancaster Pennsylvania Dutch Country it is different. Here chicken with waffles is a creamed chicken poured over thick waffles. There was a tray of quartered, large, Belgian waffles and a tray of chicken chunks in cream sauce. You take a waffle and spoon the creamed chicken on top. If you are so inclined you can take just the creamed chicken or just a waffle.

I tried the grilled chicken and it was very dry - too dry. The beef sirloin was just roast beef and was fine. Of everything at the grill I enjoyed the grilled vegetables the best. I went around to the other side of the circle to try what was there. The Turkey Divan was turkey in a mixture of broccoli. I only took a taste but was not impressed. The Shrimp Alfredo was OK. The Chicken and Waffles - as expected was very good.

At the hot buffet servers there was broasted chicken, a local dish called Chicken Bot Boi (sounds like chicken pot pie but very different), Macaroni and Cheese, Broiled Blue Fish, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, another local specialty - Dried Corn, Brown Butter Noodles, boiled cabbage, and baked broccoli casserole. The Chicken Bot Boi was good - this is a stew like dish of chicken in a clear but thick broth with celery, carrots and large square dumpling noodles. Brown Butter Noodles are always good - how can they not be? These are curly flat noodles covered in brown butter. When you keep melting butter in a pot to the point that the butter starts to burn and form brown/black flakes, you have made brown butter. It has a nut like taste. They, of course, are not all that heart-friendly, but most things that are really good never are.

With all that I have told you was there to eat, when I went around the buffet looking for what to take to eat - and not just a spoonful to taste - I was having a hard time finding something that appealed - and I love PA Dutch cooking. I wound up having the Chicken Bot Boi, which is a favorite of mine and I went back for more of the Chicken and Waffles (without the waffle).

At one end of the dining room, near the entrance, is a half circle counter around an open serving area. On this counter are the desserts. In the open area in the center are people to serve hot pies and scoop ice cream. The selection of desserts looked a lot more impressive from a distance than it did when you got up close and saw that much of what was there was duplicated around the counter. There was Shoo Fly Pie, Peanut Butter Cream Pie, cheesecakes with different fruit toppings, Chocolate Pecan Pie, "Gourmet Apple Pie", and Oatmeal Pie. If you wanted your Shoo Fly Pie, Gourmet Apple Pie or Chocolate Pecan Pie warm, one of the people behind the counter would put it in the microwave for you. Around the counter there were server trays with tapioca pudding, ambrosia, cookies, honey dew melon, watermelon, and fudge brownies. There was also Cool Whip to put on your pie or dessert. Yes, it was labeled "Cool Whip" - it was not whipped cream. There were some sugar free desserts also - sugar free jello, sugar free chocolate pudding, and sugar free peach pie. (Now it was this sugar free peach pie that my wife feels is what started making me ill when I ate here those last several times back in 1996. This was before we knew about sugar alcohols used as a sugar substitute in desserts and the laxative effect that they have on your digestive system. It is likely that she was right because that was exactly the effect that eating here had on me way back then and I do remember eating that sugar free peach pie.) The restaurant is known for its baking. The desserts looked good. I am sure that the pies - the regular ones and not the sugar free - are very good. Chocolate pecan pie is gooey and chewy with chocolate and nuts. Shoo Fly Pie is molasses and crumbs in a pie shell. "Gourmet Apple Pie" is full of large chunks of apples and raisins. Pies like these deserve to be covered in better than Cool Whip and I was surprised that this is what they were serving. Skip the Cool Whip and have them scoop some ice cream on top.

The service on this night - despite the crowds - was good. Our dishes were cleaned off the table each time that we went up for another plate and our drinks were refilled without our asking.

Over all, some of the food was very good, but much of it was just OK. I have had better - even of some of the same dishes - at other local buffets that I have written about. What I felt most of all was that there was nothing special here and certainly nothing that justified the high price of the meal. Remember, there are many buffets in Lancaster County and for a lot less money and a little less money you can have a great all you care to eat meal at many of them. In fact, and this is going far for me to say, I have had some better meals at chain buffets for a great deal less money. Is there any thing wrong at Millers with the food? Absolutely not! Is there value for what you are paying? No.

I must say that after the meal I felt fine. I did not have any of the problems that I had after eating here as I had fifteen years ago. Perhaps it was that sugar free peach pie back then.

Would I go back? If I went back, I would not have the full smorgasbord and I would have the Soup, Salad, and Bread Bar. This is overpriced as well - as much as a full buffet meal at some of the other buffets but the selections of soups and the salads would have made a satisfying meal. The beef stew alone would have made a meal. If you combine that with salad and some of the meat salad and seafood salad - with the bread, you have a good meal and it is all you care to eat. Is that worth what appears now to be $12.99 - well, not really. If you ask my wife if she would go back, she will say, "no". She felt that there was not enough to take that justified the price - and remember, for those who read this site regularly, my wife is a very picky eater and she was basically eating the turkey and some of the vegetables and finding little else that she wanted or that she should eat.

Millers often runs coupons on its website and we found coupons for $3 off each meal. The meal was still then $19.99 which made it a little more reasonable, but the soft drink brought it back up over $22. If you are going to go, make sure you get a coupon.

Do I recommend Millers Smorgasbord to you? I would like to, but I am going to say that if you go, your meal will be fine. But you could have done better at one of the many great buffets in Lancaster. If it is a Sunday night and you don't mind spending the money, then go, but you could also go to CiCis for all you care to eat pizza for $5 just down the road, or try Cactus Willies at the other end of the county - or one of the Asian buffets - all open on a Sunday night.

Millers Smorgasbord is located at 2811 Lincoln Highway East (Route 30), Ronks PA 17572. The phone number is 717-687-6621. There is a website and it is linked at the side of this page.

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