Sunday, November 11, 2007

Up On The Hilltop

Mark just bid adieu to his first actual "weekend" in months, by which I mean that he didn't have to spend most of it working. He did do a few work-type things today, but for the most part, he actually had a few days off - and in a row, no less. Not exactly a vacation, but we'll take what we can get.

This was definitely cause for celebration, so we planned a short road trip to one of our favorite places to unwind, particularly in the fall. It's not fancy, and there's nothing much exciting to do in the immediate area, but one thing the small town of Spencer, Indiana has to recommend it is a great little eatery called Hilltop Restaurant.

The origins of the moniker become clear immediately as you approach the Hilltop which, as the name suggests, is indeed atop a rather steep hill. I remember that years ago they used to close every winter, since the long twisty driveway would become particularly treacherous with snow or ice involved. I understand that they are now open yearlong, one would assume with the aid of a good snowplow and lots of road salt. But the delights that await you are well worth snaking your way up the incline, no matter what the weather.

The restaurant has been open under various names for almost 60 years, and it shows. I mean this in both positive and negative ways. The building shows its age, with some uneven floorboards and such, although it appears to have had some remodeling and updating over the past few years. The menu is also quite old-fashioned and somewhat limited, with your basic local staples of Hoosier fried chicken, baked ham or turkey, and the specialty Spencer Steak comprising the bulk of your choices. (Choices you make, oddly enough, in the quaint lobby before you are seated in the dining room.)

But variety is not the point at the Hilltop - you come here for an affordable, comfortable family-style meal with all the trimmings, and that is what you get. The entrees are fixed portion (i.e. 4 pcs. of chicken per diner - not exactly skimpy!), but everything else is shared by the table and is refilled as often as you like. And "everything else" here includes a lettuce salad - which is, quite literally, just lettuce tossed with a very light, sweet dressing made in-house - pickled beets, usually some raw veggies, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans (the yummy kind with lots of pork), creamy gravy and some tasty rolls accompanied by a fabulous orange marmalade.

I'm not much of a marmalade person, but this stuff is addictive. Unlike most marmalades I've had elsewhere, Hilltop's is not full of chunky bits of fruit and rind - it's almost creamy, with only a few visible flecks of finely shaved orange. It's an interesting and unexpected choice, as Southern Indiana is typically apple butter country, particularly in the autumn. But it does set Hilltop apart from other area restaurants, and as much as I like some fresh Brown County apple butter, I have to admit that I prefer the Hilltop marmalade.

Another thing that sets the Hilltop apart is its prices. We didn't even look at the menu on Saturday, as we knew what we wanted before we left home, but at last check the fried chicken dinner cost around $7-8 per adult. Drive just a few minutes east to the touristy Nashville area and you will likely pay significantly more for a comparable meal. Last time we were there, a fried chicken dinner at Nashville House cost more like $18 per person, and only included 3 pieces instead of 4. And while my family used to frequent the Nashville House back in the day, the chicken is sadly nowhere near as good as it used to be - and certainly nowhere near as good as the Hilltop's. You'd be much better served to order your Nashville House fried biscuits (their specialty, which are always excellent) to go, and make the short drive to Spencer for your chicken.

While Spencer may not have the picturesque Hoosier National Forest to recommend it (although it is right around the corner from McCormick's Creek State Park, which ain't too shabby), it is still quite scenic like most of Southern Indiana, and the area surrounding the Hilltop is almost picture-postcard perfect in the fall. The wrap-around walkway and back garden are beautiful in springtime, too, with lots of colorful flowers, but I always prefer the autumn colors - which are still stunning this year due to the late arrival of fall weather (notice I didn't say global warming... I was just thinking it).

We picked the perfect day for the trip, with sunny skies and beautiful fall colors all along the drive. As always, our meal was exceptional - the chicken was fresh, crispy and delicious, and the rolls with marmalade were heavenly. And afterwards, we enjoyed our traditional stroll around the building and through the garden. It was a perfect day, with perfect company.

I always get a little sentimental when we visit the Hilltop. Aside from the many terrific meals and memories Mark & I have shared there, it's also one of those magical places that can instantly transport me to my childhood. Nearly every Sunday of my youth, right after church, my grandparents would announce that they were going for a drive, and ask us kids if we wanted to come along - and we always did. My sister, my cousins & I must have traveled every highway and back road of Indiana (and some in Ohio, Illinois & Michigan, too) with Grandpa Don & Grandma Jeanne, usually with no destination in mind other than an off-the-beaten-path restaurant or perhaps a good antique store. Looking back, I now realize that the primary goal was almost certainly to keep us occupied & give our weary parents a much-needed break.

But these trips were a huge part of my childhood, and many of my fondest memories began with a Sunday drive with Grandma & Grandpa. I never understood how lucky we were to have that opportunity until I met my husband, whose family traditions were significantly different from mine. I always just assumed that every family went on Sunday drives to remote and interesting destinations. I thought all the kids my age had been to the Duesenberg museum in Auburn and the courthouse with the tree growing through the roof in Greensburg. One of my very first dates with Mark was a Sunday drive with Grandpa Don (this was sadly after Grandma Jeanne had passed away) to Lima, Ohio to check on his booth in the local antique mall. A lot of my personal history is wrapped up in these day trips, many of which included a stop at the Hilltop.

So as long as they'll keep serving up the tasty vittles and warm Hoosier hospitality, the Raymonds will keep coming to Spencer to soak it all in. A cherished childhood memory has become a treasured family tradition, and I think that's a wonderful thing. But even if I had never set foot in the place before yesterday, I would still recommend the Hilltop to anyone. Do yourself a favor, and let the kind folks at the Hilltop create some special memories and traditions for you, too.

Now playing: Barenaked Ladies - Light Up My Room
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