Blue Bell Inn
601 Skippack Pike
Blue Bell, Pennsylvania
If restaurant awards were doled out on the basis of longevity alone, the Blue Bell Inn would undoubtedly possess a kitchen full. Constructed in 1743 as the “White Horse Inn,” the hostelry has played host to a parade of famous patrons over the years, including George Washington himself. It was renamed the Blue Bell Inn in 1796 when a distinctive bell was hung outside the building. And, in 1840, the surrounding Pigeontown area was renamed Blue Bell in honor of the Inn’s prominence and popularity.
The Inn was owned by the Lamprecht family from 1945 until 2012, when it was purchased by Kevin Clib and Scott Dougherty, partners in the M2K Restaurant Group (which also operates Bridget’s and KC’s Alley in nearby Ambler, PA), and Bruce Goodman of Goodman Properties. At the outset, Messrs. Clib, Dougherty and Goodman continued to offer diners the strictly American menu that had been the mainstay of the previous administration; however, it soon became apparent that the venerable old Blue Bell, derogatorily dubbed the “Blue Hair Inn,” was suffering from both culinary and environmental battle fatigue.
Thus, in April 2013, the doors were closed and extensive renovations initiated. A full year later, on April 7, 2014, the completely redesigned Blue Bell Inn made its long-awaited debut. No doubt about it, the updated interior is dressed to impress. In fact, one writer described the rustic-meets-modern ambiance as downright sexy. Just how sexy…? I’m not sure of the exact dollar amount, but I’ve overheard a cool seven million being bandied about.
The entire restaurant is awash with a blending of white oak, Italian porcelain tile & marble. The main bar area boasts a cathedral ceiling, gas fireplace, and a raw bar similar to Center City’s Oyster House. Operable glass garage doors lead to a new outdoor patio replete with water wall and fire pit. The Inn’s main dining room, the “oak room,” is embellished with a refurbished rock wall that was part of the original 18th century structure and a 700-bottle floor-to-ceiling wine tower. There are also a slew of other accommodations available for assorted larger parties & various gatherings – which, undoubtedly, play a large part in the new owners’ game plan.
Impressive? Most assuredly… But also exceedingly noisy. When the place is going full blast – which appears to be most of the time – all those hard surfaces, coupled with the cathedral ceiling in the bar area, send the decibel level soaring. The aforementioned “oak room” is more sedate, but it also, with its decorative embellishments and heavy tables & chairs, gives off decidedly banquet-y vibrations.
Despite these misgivings, however, the new Blue Bell Inn does tend to grow on you. It’s an attractive spot for lunch during the week or a mid-Saturday afternoon sojourn. The bar is a particularly comfortable perch from which to engage in some spirited people watching… so just park yourself, order a glass of wine from an excellent selection of vintages, and check out the human comings and goings. The new owners obviously took the aforementioned “Blue Hair” crack with utmost seriousness and have attempted to reach out to a younger, hipper clientele – and they seem to be succeeding.
Unfortunately, Executive Chef Peter Sherba (formerly the exec at Bridget’s Steakhouse) and Chef de Cuisine Carmen Cappello do not appear to be having equal success with the cuisine. As of this writing, the kitchen’s output is certainly not on a par with either the updated décor or the new proprietors’ lofty aspirations & expectations. After several disappointing luncheon visits, the food may only be described as “mediocre” – and even that may be stretching it a bit.
Our first luncheon included a roasted turkey club and margherita flatbread. The honey-roasted turkey wasn’t bad; and the creole mustard mayo was an invigorating touch, but there wasn’t enough of it. In addition, the menu description promised toasted multi-grain bread. However, the kitchen ran out of multi-grain and put the sandwich on plain white toast instead, neglecting to tell our server and/or informing us of the substitution. Passable.
The margherita flatbread, conversely, was extremely disappointing. The basil pesto appeared to be much in evidence, but its distinctive flavor was sadly lacking. The tomato sauce tasted like someone had opened a can, and the flatbread itself had no crispness whatsoever. I’ve tasted infinitely better renditions in chain restaurants.
Of the sandwiches, the grilled chicken & brie panini, which incorporates thin apple slices, mostarda (mustard oil), and frisée lettuce is undoubtedly the pick of the litter – although quite messy, making it exceedingly difficult to ingest without incident. The Cobb salad, on the other hand, apart from pungent chunks of ginger mango Stilton and a first-rate blue cheese dressing, is strictly generic, rounding up all the usual suspects, including overly dry strips of grilled chicken.
While the above mentioned items do have their shortcomings, it is, without doubt, the luncheon entrées that are most clearly indicative of the kitchen’s glaring deficiencies. The salmon, for example, looked like a sure thing. “The chef prepares it medium-rare,” our waiter intoned. “I prefer it cooked through,” I responded. “Not translucent at the center.” Our server made the appropriate note. When it arrived, it was – but of course – medium-rare and very translucent at the center. The pillow of mushroom spätzle was ill-conceived and had a rather strange, off-putting taste… ditto the creole mustard glaze, which was famine for the eye as well as the palate.
But if the salmon could be characterized as a tragedy, the presentation of fish & chips qualified as an absolute horror. It is a dish that appears so incredibly simple… and yet, one that is so very easily mucked up – as it was here. The whitefish, I must say, was positively pristine, firm & perfectly flaky (in many establishments, it is downright mushy). Unfortunately, the menu’s description of “crispy” with regard to the batter was little more than wishful thinking. The batter was not only soggy, it was downright rubbery, as if elastic bands had been melted into the witches’ brew. The supposedly “thick cut chips” were standard fries. And the coup de grâce…? My wife requested tartar sauce… and the server promptly arrived with prepared horseradish.
Even the homemade hummus, shared late one Saturday afternoon at the bar, which should have been a no-brainer, lacked character & depth of flavor and was in dire need of a garlic infusion. The accompanying carrot & cucumber slices had obviously long since been precut and looked like they’d spent entirely too much time hanging about in the kitchen. In addition, the menu description promised grilled bread (one expected pita triangles); what arrived, however, were sections of quite stale flatbread.
I’m not quite sure how owners who have spent millions on a stunning remodeling project can allow their good work to be jeopardized by serving up cuisine that is passable at best and, in some cases, barely edible.
As noted above, it is no great secret that the Blue Bell Inn will realize a significant amount of its income from large parties and special event gatherings. However, if the new proprietors wish this venerable establishment to be more than just another eminently forgettable stopover on the rubber chicken banquet circuit, immediate and radical changes in the kitchen are absolutely imperative.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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