Friday, July 06, 2012

Willow Tree Restaurant and Smorgasbord, Lancaster, PA

The Willow Tree Restaurant and Smorgasbord in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was formerly called the Willow Valley Farm Restaurant and Smorgasbord. It is part of a hotel complex called The Willow Valley Farm Inn and Suites. I had been to this restaurant/buffet a number of years back and to our recollection we had been there perhaps three or four times. This was before I started writing this site. We had not gone back. One reason was that my good wife would have stomach problems after eating here. Another was that it is located in an area that is out of the mainstream of Lancaster County - below the City of Lancaster and getting there requires driving through Center City Lancaster which is just OK and, surprisingly for a city surrounded by gentle people and farmlands, it is very urban.

It has been a long time and we were in Lancaster County on a Sunday night. There are few buffets open on a Sunday in Lancaster. Willow Tree is open - as it is the hotel's restaurant (which recently started serving only buffet and on longer serves from a menu). We talked it over and figured that after so many years things must have changed and we would try it again - and hopefully, my wife would be fine after the meal.

We set out for the restaurant using the GPS and I saw that it had a way to go that did not go through the city. Interesting. OK, we started out and soon discovered that this route was taking us on mountain-like roads that were single lane. We came to one spot along the way with a single lane bridge. It was still daylight even though it was dinner time and we at least could easily see the road and where we were going. Of course, when we came to the road that the restaurant is located on it had us turn right instead of left - and before we could turn around we were in the city. Finally, we arrived at the restaurant. We decided right then that we would go back the usual way through the city after dinner.

There are now two hotels in the complex. One is a Double Tree and the older part of the complex is the Willow Valley Farm Inn and Resort. The restaurant is around the back of the building that is signed as the office for the hotel. You follow the parking lot around and you will see a very pretty pond with fountains. The restaurant is in the building facing the pond and there is a sign. You climb up a staircase to get to the restaurant from the parking lot.

I had vague recollections of what the restaurant looked like inside though my wife remembered it exactly as it is now. You enter past a cashier's desk and there is a hostess pedestal there. You are seated in one of two dining rooms. We were there on a Sunday night on Memorial Day weekend in one of the few buffet restaurants open. There was hardly anyone there dining. This should have told me something. I also should have walked around and looked at what was offered on the buffet before we sat down, but I rarely, if ever do this, and we were seated, ordered soft drinks and went up to start our meal. I still did not look at the hot buffet servers.

The buffet area is made up of two round, cold buffet servers, two small, double sided hot buffet servers, a wall with two soups and rolls, a small grill area, and another corner wall with desserts. The price of the buffet including beverages is $18.99, Sunday through Thursday and $22.99, Friday and Saturday. We had a coupon clipped from a visit Lancaster County magazine that gave $4.00 off each adult meal. There are coupons on the Lancaster County tourist website for $3.00 off each adult meal.

There were two soups. One was seafood chowder and the other was beef vegetable soup. I tried the seafood chowder. My wife had the beef vegetable. I found that the seafood chowder was overfull of potatoes. It was a white cream chowder with chunks of some type of fish and small, over cooked shrimp. The taste was more like a bisque (sharp) than a chowder. My wife found the beef vegetable soup to be salty.

The salad bar and cold servers had the makings for a lettuce salad with toppings and a few dressings. My wife commented to me that the "fresh" cucumbers that she took were just on the edge of going bad. There were prepared salads that were typical macaroni salad, potato salad, and coleslaw. There was a good tasting chicken salad, that I eventually took as part of my entrees. I will explain why as we go along. Up to this point we were pretty much fine.

We then went up to the hot servers for entrees and side dishes and we were in for a surprise. There was not very much to be had and what there was certainly did not justify the price that they were charging for this meal. Several of the dishes were almost duplicates of each other. There was stuffed cabbage and stuffed peppers - the same meat and rice stuffing in a tomato base in different casings. There were McDonalds-like boneless riblets - really, just like the boneless ribs that McDonalds serves on their rib sandwich. These were over done and were covered in a thick commercial barbecue sauce. There was pulled pork barbecue that was over sauced. There was barbecue chicken that were over done pieces of chicken covered and cooked the same commercial barbecue sauce. There was also fried chicken. Over on the side wall next to the desserts there was a small hot server with macaroni and cheese, potato tots, and chicken nuggets - obviously meant for the children. On the grill they were slicing ham with a pineapple glaze and roast beef. This was it as far as entrees. There was no fish of any kind (hot or cold). There were some side dishes and these included kernel corn, carrots, stewed tomatoes, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, red potatoes, baked beans, and what was labeled as buttered noodles but was actually ziti swimming in butter (or some butter like substance).

This is Lancaster County - bountiful and plentiful This was not a typical Lancaster County buffet. There also were no local dishes on the buffet at all. None of the usual things that are found on many of the local buffet restaurants. My wife described the buffet well - it is a typical hotel restaurant buffet.

As I walked around deciding what to take I decided that with the little that there was I would take a tasting of some of the things that I could eat. I did not take the stuffed peppers or the stuffed cabbage. I did take the riblets and the pork barbecue. The riblets were dry and over cooked. The pork barbecue was too sweet. I passed on the dry looking bbq chicken. I did take a piece of fried chicken. It did not stand out in any way. It was OK but I have had better at OCB. The selection of pieces of chicken was limited. The ham was dry and the roast beef was well done.

The vegetables were all covered and drowning in butter (or as I say, some butter type substance). They were really not edible this way and rather than give them taste, this "butter" sauce just made them oily. The ziti in "butter" was the same way - too greasy to eat. The red potatoes were not only covered in butter but also some type of hot seasoning.

This is why I went back to the salad bar and took the chicken salad - which different from the rest of the meal was not bad - though at one point I was not sure if it was chicken salad or tuna salad - had some tuna salad found its way into this serving bowl - there was no tuna salad out to be served. I also took some macaroni salad and some potato salad as I could not take any more of the greasy side dishes.

My poor wife, as my regular readers know is a picky eater and she was trying to find things to eat. Her meal mostly consisted of ham, potato tots (which actually are her favorite- and saved the meal for her), and rolls. At one point she went back for more beef vegetable soup which must have been refilled because this time it tasted very spicy. I tried a taste and it was spicy and was seasoned like clam chowder is in NY.

As there were few diners, there was not much being taken - and no one was coming around to make sure that what was out was not drying out. No one was tending the buffet - and the food was looking like it was not tended.

I looked over the desserts and there was two types of layer cake, a few different pieces of pie, pudding, and jello. There was also soft serve ice cream with a big sign on the machine that said Turkey Hill. Turkey Hill ice cream is a large brand on the East Coast and originates in Pennsylvania. I thought that this might be the one good thing here. I tried a sample and it was custard-like rather than like soft serve - but not in a good way. The pieces of pie and cake that were out were all falling apart - all split in the center - not intentionally. I wondered how long they had been sitting out.

I have had better dinners at Old Country Buffet - and after this meal I wished I had gone instead to the Old Country Buffet in Lancaster. The dinner that we had here was not good. Aside from the cooking - even if it had tasted better than it did - there was no value. You should not be paying $19 each for McDonald's riblets, chicken nuggets, and fried chicken. This was not like this the last time we had come - the selection was much better and so was the cooking - but that was many years ago. Times change and so do restaurants.

Thank goodness I had the coupon so that the meal came down to $15 each - which was still to much to pay for what we got.

I should mention that service was fine. Our server made sure there were drink refills and some of the time did not let the plates pile up on the table.

We left and drove back through the city. Remember that I said that we had stopped coming here because the food made my wife's stomach upset. Well, it did not this time - it made my stomach upset - and it only took about half an hour after the meal to send me running.

No - I do not recommend Willow Tree Restaurant and Smorgasbord. Even on a Sunday there are much better places to go in Lancaster if you want a buffet.

I will list the location of this restaurant just so you know what to avoid. I will not link the website at the side of the page - though they do have one. Willow Tree Restaurant is located at 2416 Willow Street Pike, Lancaster, PA.


ML said...

Thanks for the heads up, haven't been there in a while, but as I remember it was always overpriced for what you got, and as you say it is way out of the way.

Anonymous said...

This restaurant is no more. It, and the old hotel (not the Double Tree), were recently torn down to make room for a new retail development. Just thought you would like to know

Writer said...

I have confirmed that the Willow Valley Inn has been closed and is being demolished. Looking at the website for the Double Tree Hotel that shares the property, they still list the Willow Tree Restaurant as a buffet on their website with photos that are the dining room that I dined in when I made this review. Following a Google search for the name of the restaurant no restaurant is now found. There is a possibility that this restaurant will return at some time in the future as the Double Tree will need some type of restaurant - this is just speculation. The loss of this buffet is no real lost given the quality of the meal just a year ago. Perhaps a new buffet will take its place in the Double Tree that is better. I will keep a look out to see what develops.