Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The rise and fall of Chambersburg's famed restaurant district

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on something I wrote a few months ago. Last August, a younger friend had emailed me asking if “the food in Chambersburgwas ever actually good?”

Here is a slightly reworked and expanded version of what I wrote back to him in response:

When evaluating "Chambersburg" of old, a few things must be kept in mind.

1. Range.

There was a wide variety of restaurants, everything from the workingman's bar with a dining room that served heaping portions of basic, comfort-type dishes to "nice" family-style restaurants, to high-end places with top notch service and quality (and top prices!).

2. Menu.

It bears remembering there weren't as many chains and but more "Mom and Pop" establishments to choose from. The food offered may have been more Italian-American than purely Italian, but there was a care in preparation and pride in the quality of ingredients that elevated it above the norm.

Veal/chicken/eggplant parmigiana are examples of dishes that might not be the epitome of high Italian cuisine but when prepared with a good, house made sauce and prime ingredients sliced and breaded and fried to order, the results were more than satisfying.

The American culture had not yet turned into the "foodie nation" we are today. Few of us knew about regional American cuisine, let alone the breadth and width of "exotics" like Italian (or Greek, Jewish, Polish, etc.). You knew what you grew up with and judged everything against that.

While I was obviously exposed to Italian cooking and dishes when growing up, we ate "macaroni" and the "sauce (my family didn't use the "gravy" term much) was red except for Christmas Eve when we had aglio e olio with anchovies.

My mother, a non-Italian Midwesterner, was probably the first to make "lasagna" in our family, but my Italian Grandfather’s sisters taught my Jewish grandmother to make ravioli from scratch and that was the only kind I ate for the first ten years of my life or so. It wasn’t until Porfirio's opened and offered quality, local product at reasonable prices that we stopped eating homemade ravioli and put Grandmom out of business!

3. Custom.

A good part of the high rating the Chambersburgof old received was based upon the presentation of the meal. No matter what level restaurant, there were touch stones to old world hospitality that go well beyond the abondonza of all you can eat pasta at Olive Garden. When you dined in Chambersburg, whether at Ceasare's or Diamond's, there was pride in what was put on your table and how it was presented.

When I was a kid, Marsilio's was the restaurant where I was introduced to eating in courses. The food was always good but it wasn’t as stylish as it became in the last decade before the Roebling Avenue site closed. Even if the dishes were served family style, the fact that the salad came out, then the pasta, then our entrees set the pace. The anticipation (for me) added to the enjoyment. It was the same up and down the price range of restaurants.

4. Mystique.

For non-Italians, the accessibility of this "exotic" cuisine and good service so close to home made it special.
Add to that the sense of being treated "differently" as a regular at places like Crecco's or getting your own “pitcher” at the later incarnation of Marsilio’s. In the really successful restaurants everybody was made to feel "special" (some just more so than others) and welcome.
So, yes, I think Chambersburg's reputation was deserved. I believe the old stories of people jumping on the train from DC just to come to Trentonfor a fine Italian meal. Why wouldn’t they? We used to drive to Baltimore just to get some steamed crabs and then come home. So what happened?

Chain restaurants have, in my opinion, taken the once authentic (or Americanized-authentic) and homogenized and standardized the quality out of Italian and other cuisines. They have succeeded by providing the "same experience nationwide" for a public too averse to taking a chance on a non-brand name dining experience. These are the kind of people who will forego the potential of experiencing a Tattoni's white chicken cacciatore or roast pork and instead choose a Caraba's or Macaroni Grill or Olive Garden meal; the same people who will stand on line to eat at McDonald's in Rome.

With their portion controlled, commissary assembled range of products; chain restaurants have created an economical dining option with ample nearby (and usually free) parking. They play into the mall mentality of the suburban clientele. Their sterile and soulless menu options offer up synthetic cultural adventures to the tract home and McMansion set.

But to be fair, the demise of Trenton’s Chambersburg is not just the fault of chains.

The restaurant business is tough. It takes many long hard hours to source, procure, produce and serve better than average meals. You need a dedicated staff. In the early days, that staff was mostly family. A generation or two down the line and the dedication to carrying on the family business wanes. The parents retire; the kids don’t want to carry on. The business closes.

For those few restaurants that did manage to continue on past the second or third generation there were other problems.

As the middle class flowed out of the city, the once loyal, Trenton-resident clientele diminished. It was less enticing to travel back to the city for a nice night out when all those options existed along Route 1 and elsewhere.

The ups and downs of the economy contributed as well. Marginal operations failing to attract new customers to replace their aging and dispersed regulars began to close.

The sagging fortunes of a mismanaged city and the demographic changes of the neighborhood kept the suburban customers away. The old line restaurants closed and/or moved out. The city’s famed restaurant district lost its luster and the critical mass needed to make it thrive.

The problem is simply that, for the reasons outlined above, the restaurants no longer had a customer base that would support them in their traditional locations. If the customers kept coming, the restaurants would have stayed.
The announcement that Rossi's is going to close the Trenton location after 80 years and move to Hamilton marks the death of the "old Chambersburg".

It will be interesting to see how well the Trenton restaurant diaspora will do and for how long.

And what of the new Latino eateries that have opened in the wake of the departure of the Italians, will they evolve to the point where there will be a new, vibrant Chambersburg restaurant district that will attract not only locals but diners from the suburbs and beyond?

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