The Roycroft Inn in East Aurora is one of the most famous buildings in Western New York, a certified national landmark built in 1905 during the rise of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Until last month, I had never been inside its famed halls and dining rooms. I gathered from regular customers that even some of its fans thought it rather stodgy.
That’s not what I found when we visited for an early Saturday dinner. With a revamped menu emphasizing upscale comfort food and a commitment to feature local produce, the Roycroft Inn puts the lie to suggestions that its best days are history.
Our table of four was not seated in one of the wood-adorned dining rooms, but in a table-lined corridor with a wall of windows. Once the shade was adjusted, the comfortable chairs and our fine table, with fresh flowers and cloth napkins, proved cozy.
We ordered French onion soup ($7), lobster salsa ($12), homemade pretzels ($10) and poblano pepper dip ($11) for starters. We asked for a local goat cheese salad ($12) using chévre from First Light Farm and Creamery, and a classic Caesar salad ($9).
Our entrees included popcorn-crusted scallops ($28) and for our vegetarian guest, white lasagna with grilled vegetables. Cat had the Bell and Evans free-range chicken breast ($23), and I asked for the grilled prime domestic lamb chop ($24, double chop $32).
Our server brought slabs of soft, fresh foccacia bread with whipped butter, which were dispatched so quickly that we got a second. The next batch was topped invitingly with roasted sliced tomato and herbs.
The lobster salsa looked terrific: fresh-chopped mango, bell pepper, onion and cilantro in a martini glass, topped with lobster chunks and herbs. Unfortunately, the bright salsa seemed underdressed, rather plain. It was difficult to get the lobster perched atop it, evenly distributed with the accompanying chips, without making a mess.
The goat cheese salad could have used a dash more raspberry vinaigrette as well, though it was largely successful. The chévre medallion was adeptly crusted in toasty almonds and warm inside, accenting the fresh field mix, grape tomatoes and raspberries.
The French onion soup, arriving in a classic crock with a toasted cap of cheese riding on a crouton, was the best version I’ve met recently. The broth was deeply flavored, with vermouth and caramelized onions, but not overly salty. When passed around the table, it didn’t make it back.
The poblano dip, served in a house-baked ciabatta bowl, drew more praise for its wholesome bread foundation than the creamy dip inside, which was likable but routine. I would have liked more chile bite.
The homemade pretzels, of all things, were a hit. They were served in bite-sized nuggets with dipping sauces of honey mustard and cheese, both fashioned with local beer. The tender, yeasty morsels, with a characteristic shiny crust, made me regret every dried-out stadium pretzel I’ve eaten. The cheese sauce was stiffer than dipping called for, but we scooped it out anyway.
When the entrees arrived, Cat dug into her herb-coated chicken breast and liked what she found. It was moist and satisfying. The tomato and fresh mozzarella salad was acceptable, for April tomatoes. The gnocchi-like dumplings alongside had been browned in a pan, but were stiff and underseasoned.
My loin lamb chop was cooked accurately, with a nice charred crust. The ragout of tomato, artichoke and eggplant proved an able foil, the musky lamb lining up with earthy eggplant. Shoestring sweet potato fries were more chewy than crispy.
Our vegetarian’s white lasagna was a hearty serving of tender pasta, cheeses and mushrooms, eggplant and zucchini, in a bowl surrounded by Alfredo sauce. These were decent ingredients in a comfort food classic, but the vegetables were muted. I wished for more grilled flavor.
The hit of the night was the popcorn-crusted sea scallops. Four jumbo scallops were clad in a coarse corn coat that clung to the perfectly cooked seafood, adding contrasting crunch. The pea risotto was creamy, yet with firm grains, a worthy dish by itself. The surrounding sweet corn sauce was an elegant flavor booster. The plate looked great, but tasted even better.
Desserts ($8) included a lemon créme brûlée with bright citrus flavor and a crackling sugar crust. The brûlée dish hid delicious raspberry puree that would have been better presented in a little pitcher or ramekin. A syrup-soaked mocha torte was compared favorably to “the last bite of pancakes” by a guest, and a decadent chocolate truffle cake hit the chocolate spot hard.
Our meal was mostly excellent, with a few letdowns, but also hints of artful ambition. The Roycroft Inn’s kitchen provides reasons to be interested in the building’s present and future, not just its past.
The Roycroft Inn: Rating 7 plates (Out of 10)
Revamped menu gives historic building more than its architecture to lure visitors.
WHERE: 40 S. Grove St., East Aurora (652-5552, roycroftinn.com)
HOURS: Breakfast and lunch from 7 to 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Dinner is from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Sunday brunch is from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Soups and appetizers, $5-$15; salads, $5-$12; entrees, $18-$38.
PARKING: Lot across street.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.