Old Salem Tavern offers delicious food in a rustic setting
Since 1816, the Old Salem Tavern has been a fixture in the historic village that has become nationally renowned for its gardens and museums. Entering the tavern on a cold winter’s night is like stepping back in time. From its wide-planked wooden floors (that echo and creak with each step) to its friendly wait staff dressed in 19 th century garb, the Old Salem Tavern offers a dining experience that is one of a kind.
The hostess led my dinner companion, Suzanne, and I to a secluded room in the tavern and placed us next to the window. I took a moment to soak in the atmosphere — the stamped tin wall sconces, the cozy candlelight, the cotton rag area rug on the dark hardwood floor. Then, we felt the cool draft of winter air at our table and remembered that 19 th century buildings did not include insulation or storm windows.
With holiday music from The Nutcracker wafting through the air, we asked our server if we could move to a table closer to the center of the room and she kindly obliged. The room contained a real fireplace but inexplicably, there was no fire burning. Heat was pumped in via two large ducts protruding from the ceiling. Suzanne and I had to cover our laps with our coats to stay warm.
We started out with a glass of the Echelon pinot noir, a California vintage that lived up to its name. Then we dove into the pumpkin muffins, which were a bit of a disappointment. They didn’t taste “pumpkiny” enough, if that’s a word. However, the dinner rolls were a treat. Warm and soft on the inside and nice and crusty on the outside, the rolls have undoubtedly staved off hunger pangs for many a weary visitor to Old Salem.
The tavern menu offered a soup of the day, Tavern onion soup, Tavern green salad, Tavern red salad, baked crab dip, sweet-potato fries, grilled skewered scallops, fried green tomatoes, quick-fried calamari and baked goat cheese and caramelized onion bruschetta.
We went with the caramelized pear salad, served with big chunks of goat cheese and half a pear with a sugar crusting on the outside. To achieve this appetizing delight, the server said the chef boils sugar in a pan, pours the liquefied sugar over a chilled pear and keeps the pears in cold water until the sugar becomes a hard shell.
We noticed that the Moravian chicken pie, the house specialty, is only served between 5 and 7 p.m., so we had missed our chance. After dinner, our server informed us that the tavern routinely serves the chicken pie after 7 p.m. depending on its availability. Other entrees included an Alsatian choucrote, jumbo lump crab cakes, porcini-crusted filet of beef, deviled beef short ribs, grilled skirt steak, homemade egg noodles, Asian spiced duck breast, Southern-style buttermilk fried chicken breast and orecchiette pasta.
Suzanne ordered the cornmeal-crusted catfish with shrimp sauce, red rice and collard greens, while I selected the pumpkin and sunflower seed-crusted salmon.
Placed over a bed of steamed spinach, the salmon was cooked to near perfection. I tasted Suzanne’s catfish, smothered in a warm, buttery cream sauce. The catfish, similar to the salmon, literally melted in your mouth. The cornbread crust was perfect. The red rice was just so-so, but the collards were prepared exactly like my grandmother used to do. However, my grandmother used fatback meat to season her collards. Salem Tavern clearly takes a more heart healthy approach. For dessert, we ordered the Moravian gingerbread. The recipe for the well-known dessert came from the cookbook of Louisa Senseman, a daughter of the prominent Vogler family. Spiced up with fresh ginger root and orange peel, the warm gingerbread was topped with lemon ice cream. As expected, the gingerbread tasted very gingery and the lemon ice cream tasted very lemony. The combination of the two offered the perfect ending to a fabulous meal in a romantic, candlelit setting during this most festive time of the year.
Old Salem Tavern 736 South Main St. Winston-Salem
A high-class holiday meal in a rustic setting. (photo by Keith T. Barber)