A Bit of Merry Olde England in Northwestern Connecticut - The Distracted Wanderer 2013
The White Horse Country Pub and Restaurant - A Bit of Merry Olde England in Northwestern Connecticut
As a native New Englander who loves to explore my corner of the country, one of the most inspirational places for me to get a lot of my travel ideas is from our venerable Yankee Magazine which has been publishing all things New England since September 1935 when Robb Sagendorph - one man with one typewriter, a Franklin stove, and a dream - published his very first issue of a magazine that "expresses our great New England culture." In addition to their print edition, Yankee has done a mighty fine job keeping up with the digital age offering readers a terrific online edition as well as the chance to sign up to receive free email newsletters, get an iPad® subscription, and more.
It was from the February 26 email newsletter, "Your New England Minute", that I got the idea that a trek to the other side of Connecticut might be in order when I read the following:
NewEnglandville | The Town of Our Dreams From the best doughnuts and coffee to favorite outdoor adventures and indoor browsing to fine dining and bedtime comforts, our quintessential little village gathers everything we love about New England into one perfect place.
Hoist a Pint with Dickens: The White Horse Country Pub & Restaurant Our favorite pub plunks us down in Merry Olde England, courtesy of owner/renovator John Harris, a Brit who's steeped in history like an Earl Grey teabag. With 16th-century artifacts scattered about--and a bill of sale signed by Charles Dickens for 160 bottles of 1834 port mounted by the bar--this pub-slash-museum mixes memorabilia with traditional and less-likely pub fare (lobster pot pie!). The huge, welcoming hearth would make "Boz" feel right at home.
Hmmm, a bit of "Merry Olde England" within reasonable driving distance that wouldn't require a passport and converting my trusty Caliber into an amphibious vehicle? This needed to be checked out! Knowing just the perfect traveling companion for this particular expedition I got in touch with my friend Patti who lives in Ansonia, a mere hop-skip-and-a-jump (at least in my terms!) from the location of this most interesting Connecticut eatery. As a gal who's always tracking down a story or two as a reporter for the New Haven Register as well as the web-mistress of the Register's View From the Valley blog, Patti is always up for an adventure so I knew she'd be on board for a little distracted wandering through Litchfield County.
I emailed Patti an excerpt from Yankee Magazine and asked her what she thought about hitting The White Horse Country Pub up during a March weekend. Patti emailed me back and the conversation went as such:
"Oh wow, I think this place is going to bring back memories of 1980 for me ... it used to be the Marble Dale Pub? Went there with a former beau ... He thought they had the best steak around, and we drove all the way there for dinner. If I remember correctly it was a rowdy place, at least the biker bar part was! Hahahaha!!"
"Ah ... so this will be a blast to the past for you then? Very nice! The menu looks interesting and lunch doesn't seem too horribly expensive. Be interesting to see if it lives up to all of the hype I read about it! Though I could do without rowdy bikers, mind you!"
"Unless I am mistaking it with someplace else ... They REALLY cleaned up the joint. We'll see if the bikers are still sitting there. Haha! I think it was 1981, not 1980 but in that vicinity."
"That would really make me laugh to find out that Yankee Magazine is singing high the praises of a biker bar!"
And so it was decided that we'd journey over to the village of Marble Dale in the town of Washington and find out what the Dickens was going on at The White Horse Country Pub - was it the biker bar of Patti's past or a true piece of Merry Olde England plunked down on Route 202? Inquiring minds just had to know!
Following some assorted distracted wandering through barren and still-snow-covered Northwestern Connecticut countryside on a cold but sunny March Saturday, Patti and I arrived at The White House Country Pub & Restaurant around 4:30 in the afternoon. Well ... it sure didn't look like a biker bar with it's colorful sign with British flags flying out front and there was nary an iron horse to be seen in the parking lot or in front of the building with its stone facade that looked more "English countryside" than dilapidated bar!
"So what do you think," I asked Patti. "Same place?" "I'm not really sure, it's in the same spot," replied my distracted sidekick as she peeked over the fence at the patio that in the warmer months would provide diners with a lovely view of the East Aspetuck River that flows behind the building. "I sure don't remember there being a deck here - or a river - but that was a long time ago."
Stepping through the heavy wooden door that led into the main dining room of The White Horse Country Pub, we were immediately greeted warmly by the hostess. To the left of the host desk, there were two curtained pub-style oak booths that I later found out were shipped over from London and which would have been a great place to sit but alas they were already occupied so we were led into a sunny and bright room with hardwood flooring, lots of windows overlooking the deck and patio by the river, sturdy tables and chairs (most with "reserved" signs on them), and a handful of customers who looked more like my grandparents than bikers. Okay, this was good so far!
After being seated and welcomed by our server who took our orders for iced tea, we looked over our dinner menus offering fare such as French Onion Soup, Roast Beet and Goat Cheese Salad, a Piping Crock of Mussels, Lobster Pot Pie, a Cheddar Crunch Burger, Bangers and Mash, and a Gathering of Drunken Shrimp Over Risotto - just to name a few of the items available. There were also daily specials on a separate menu including a Pork Tenderloin that had to be quite special as our server informed us that they were out of it for the evening already!
On the back of the menu, under the dessert listing that I pointedly ignored as I'm trying to eat a bit healthier these days and I have absolutely no willpower, there is a partial listing of the extremely interesting artifacts that Yankee Magazine mentioned and which can be found throughout the White Horse. A more extensive listing was offered so Patti and I did, in fact, ask to look at it and then we started to look around the room to see if we could spot the ones that were in our part of the restaurant.
But oh yea ... we still needed to order food, didn't we? I looked through the list of salads but decided that more healthy eating or not, I didn't really feel like a salad and wanted to try to something a little more "traditional pub fare" oriented. When our server came back to see if we were ready to order I asked her a question that she said she gets all the time, "Which is better? The Steakhouse Sheperds Pie or the Chicken Pot Pie?" She said that they were both equally good so it was really hard to recommend one over the other and then, with the wisdom of Solomon, said that we could order one of both between the two of us and split it, that way we'd be able to try both. Brilliant! With that I ordered the chicken, Patti ordered the sheperd, and we went back to looking around the room picking out various artifacts as the room really began to fill up with more Saturday evening customers like those sitting under the 18th-century French chandelier that hangs in the middle of the dining room.
Shortly afterward, our server brought over dinner rolls which were presented in a warmed stone crock that kept the rolls soft and warm, too. If you look up and behind the rolls and butter you can see four botanical prints from 1933 adorning the walls; above those that and which you can't really see are an antique weather vane in the shape of a horse (one of two in the room) and two bedpans that I can't quite remember the history of. Had I been on my game, I would have taken a photo of the more extensive list of artifacts but alas, no such luck!
Shortly after placing our order, Patti stepped away to check out the ladies room and whatever artifacts it might contain (hopefully not plumbing from the 15th-century of course!) and before she got back our server arrived with our two very large entrées - my Chicken Pot Pie which is described on the menu as "dating back to medieval times, a really good pot pie was an important element of any royal chef's repertoire - this would definitely win the King's favor - tender pieces of chicken, celery, carrots, peas, onions and herbs, baked in a rich sauce with a little chardonnay and cream, topped with a light buttery flaky crust" and Patti's Steakhouse Sheperds Pie - "savory ground sirloin, carrots, peas, onions, seasonings and rich gravy, topped with mashed potatoes and individually baked, a delicious, enduring British tradition."
Holy cats! As my old Gram B used to say, there was definitely "more than I could possibly eat" on the plate in front of me - besides, it was just too cute to want to take a fork to it! And were those mashed potatoes? Oh man, there was nothing on the menu about mashed potatoes with this entrée and mashed potatoes are one of my biggest culinary downfalls as I just can't resist 'em. Ah well, healthy eating be damned - but just for the evening!
After Patti came back and took her seat exclaiming over how good everything looked but how much of it there was, I took a couple of photos including this one that she doesn't know that I took because I'm sneaky like that! After posting a photo of my Chicken Pot Pie on Facebook I had to laugh when a couple of friends thought that I was eating Horsemeat Pot Pie because of the cute pastry pony on top. Uhm, no ... it was definitely chicken and really, really good. Patti said that her Steakhouse Sheperds Pie should have had a pasty sheperd on top being that mine had a pony and, great wits that we are, we giggled about that for awhile before getting down to some serious eating!
Oh, I should also mention that if you look to the right past Patti you can almost make out the over-400-year-old Elizabethan Chest that serves as the host stand. Just thought I'd point that out if you can stop looking at how good that Chicken Pot Pie looks like for a few moments!
Now I'm not a food critic and have never claimed to be one but as a regular person who enjoys good food, I can tell you that was probably the best chicken pot pie I have ever sunk a fork into. Before eating, I removed the crusty top and set it aside (my server said a lot of folks do that) and was met with big tender chunks of white meat chicken, perfectly cooked carrots and pies, and a sauce that complimented it perfectly all nestled in a bed of some of the best mashed potatoes I've had in a very long time. I did have a small taste of Patti's Sheperds Pie and it was very tasty, too but with pot pie heaven sitting in front of me, I didn't want to fill up valuable stomach space with sheperd!
As we were dining, more and more people kept coming into the restaurant and the place had really filled up with even more hungry folks waiting near the door for a table to open up. Feeling somewhat guilty that just the two of us were occupying a table for four, I had the vast majority of my entrée packaged to go (and trust me, there was enough for two more meals at home!) and we settled the bill which came to less than $40 for the both of us. Granted, we only had iced tea and managed to skip dessert but that's still not bad at all for the quality and quantity of food that we had.
Leaving the dining room, we managed to get a peek at the swatch of Martha Washington's wedding dress which hangs in a frame near the pub booths across from the host desk and exited through the other dining room so that we could check out the fireplace with its original 1840 White Horse pub sign from Mayfair, England above it, the 1580 tavern table from Leeds Castle that sits in front of in the center of the room in front of the fireplace and which has been in continuous use for over 400 years, the framed check made out to John Humphrey (The Lord Mayor of London) and drawn on Coutts Bank for 142 pounds 18 shillings & 10 pence dated 6 March 186, for the purchase of 160 bottles of 1834 port for Charles Dickens, and of course, the 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle which is mounted behind the bar.
Image Credit: White Horse Country Pub & Restaurant Facebook Page
As the place was packed, there was no way I was going to get a photo myself so I borrowed the one above from the White Horse Country Pub's Facebook page in the hopes that they won't mind that I used it. It's definitely not your typical bar decor but I'd be willing to bet it's quite the conversation starter as are a lot of the other artifacts that can be found inside the restaurant which was obviously a very popular place as when we stepped back outside, not only was the parking area in front of the restaurant filled but so was the overflow parking across the street! I took the below photo on our way in so it looks pretty empty but picture it with cars - lots and lots of cars - and that's how it looked when we left!
After climbing into the car, I once again asked Patti if it was the same place from her date all those years ago and she said that the layout of the building looked the same but beyond that - nope, it wasn't the same place at all. After doing some research, I found out that the reason for that is that even though the White Horse Country Pub occupies the very same building that the Marbledale Pub did for years, it was bought in December of 2008 by John Harris, an expatriate from England who has owned and designed restaurants in London, New York City and Westport, and he was the man who completely changed the property that Patti remembered.
After closing it for six months while completely redesigning the building to fit his idea of an English country pub complete with cathedral ceilings exposing beams recycled from a Vermont barn, windows that overlook the East Aspetuck River that most people didn't even know was there, and decks for outdoor dining in warmer weather, John Harris threw the doors of the White Horse Country Pub open in June of 2009 and the rest, as they say, has been history - both on the walls and in the community!
The transformation was described as "jaw-dropping" by many and since its opening, the White Horse Pub and Restaurant has been the recipient of numerous awards including many from Connecticut Magazine, the Editor's Choice for Best Classic Pub by Yankee Magazine in 2010, and a Five-Star rating by Country and Abroad Magazine for cuisine, service, decor and "reasonable pricing" - just to name a few. And of course let's not forget its designation as the favorite pub in Yankee's "New England Town of Our Dreams." Having been there now myself, I can see that once again, my go-to magazine has pointed me in the right direction!
Should you wish to journey out to the Connecticut countryside yourself in search of a bit of Merry Olde England, The White Horse Country Pub and Restaurant is located on Rte 202 in Marbledale, CT, a couple miles south of New Preston in the town of Washington, CT. For GPS users the address is 258 New Milford Turnpike, New Preston 06777 but it's very easy to find on Route 202 without needing electronic guidance!
The pub/restaurant is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner from 11am to 10 pm, bar until close, and Sunday Brunch from 11 am to 4 pm. For larger parties, I would say that reservations are definitely recommended; you can make those by phoning the White Horse Country Pub at 860-868-1496. Should you wish to contact them electronically for whatever reason, there is a form available on their website here and of course, you can always connect with them on Facebook!
As for myself and Patti, I think that should we find ourselves wandering through that part of Litchfield County again, we should stop in and enjoy a pint of Old Speckled Hen at the bar as we get a gander at the rest of those very cool artifacts that we missed seeing this time like the 1597 manuscript with the Great Seal of Queen Elizabeth 1st or the Fender guitar signed by Mick, Ron, Keith, and Charlie of the Rolling Stones - though I'm a bit worried that a band that I can remember from my youth has "artifacts" already!
Copyright © The Distracted Wanderer/Linda Orlomoski. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from The Distracted Wanderer/Linda Orlomoski is strictly prohibited.