Reinventing Maryland’s Fair Hill Inn
Chef Frederick Lewis brings farm-to-table fine dining to Cecil County.
Chef Frederick Lewis understands that when he’s serving up satisfying foods and refreshing wines to his fine dining customers, he’s also providing a side order of local history.
Lewis is the proprietor of the Fair Hill Inn restaurant, which is housed inside a stately stone building that has, since the 1700s, been perched atop a windswept knoll in the middle of Cecil County Maryland’s famed horse country. About midway between Newark and Rising Sun, the inn sits next door to the Fair Hill Race Track and across the highway from the Fair Hill Training Center, both venues well known to people who raise thoroughbreds as well as those who ride to the hounds.
And, as it has through the centuries, Fair Hill continues to evolve as chefs make changes and adjustments to fit changing times.
Lewis greets a visitor at the inn’s stately door and shows him the refinished interior of the restaurant—an inn in name only, as there are no rooms to rent—that has changed only moderately with its past three owners, all chef/owners and all whom have kept the same name for the restaurant. At the front of the house are two dining rooms on either side of a central hall with its stairway to the second floor, an area that has been used for both offices and living quarters. Just beyond the stairs and to the right is a relatively small kitchen with stairs leading down to what has been appropriated as a wine cellar. The hall continues down a few stairs, with another dining room to the left and a long, seductive bar—fortunately with no mounted television—straight ahead. To the rear is the final and fourth dining room with its own fireplace.
“I had been looking for a place for a restaurant for three years when I saw this listing,” says Lewis, who still commutes most days from his home in Washington, DC. “I was somewhat familiar with the area, as I grew up in Belair, and my father, a biophysicist, worked on projects in Newark with the University of Delaware.” Lewis has been cooking most of his life and is a graduate of a Baltimore culinary college. “Initially, I had two partners when I bought the restaurant in 2014,” he says, “but now I’m the sole owner.”
Fair Hill has had its share of colorful owners, including an early member of the Strawbridge family in the mid-1700s; the Mitchell family, which included a prominent physician and his son, also a physician and a hero of the War of 1812; the Hess family, which operated it as a farm tavern beginning in the late 1800s, and William du Pont, Jr., who raised thoroughbreds, designed race tracks and hunted foxes. Until recently, bridges passed over, and tunnels crossed under, local highways to permit passage for riders following the hounds and foxes.
The restaurant era began in 1975 when Anthony Graziano restored the old building, got it placed on the National Register of Historic Places and opened Fair Hill Inn. Phil Pyle of the pioneering Chester County family and Brian Shaw, both chefs, bought the Inn in 2004 and turned it into a fine-dining venue featuring what they termed farmstead cuisine with gardens and beehives out back and a place to hang homemade charcuterie in the basement. The Pyle family moved upstairs. Although Phil Pyle was trained in classic French cuisine, the menu style was more like modern Italian, with more emphasis on an interesting combination of ingredients and less on ornate sauces and ornamentation. When Pyle and Shaw decided to hang up their toques for a while in 2014, Lewis was anxious to take over.
“My philosophy is also one of farmstead cuisine, which I call American fine dining,” Lewis says. “It’s based on a foundation of classic techniques that are applied to the best local ingredients, although we do use fine ingredients that are only produced elsewhere.” Two of his local providers include Flying Plow Farms near Rising Sun and Priapi Gardens near Cecilton.
The menu changes, as any farm-to-table menu must, with the season. Recent menu items have included butternut squash and pumpkin bisque; foie gras with local apple butter; yellow fin tuna with red quinoa, organic bok choy, cucumber, ginger and coconut wasabi; pork tenderloin with Dijonnaise sauce and crab meat; trout with smoked salmon stuffing, and local and international cheeses.
Lewis understood that it would be difficult to have a profitable establishment based on fine dining alone. “We knew that we would have to expand,” he says, “and I was always inspired by the cafes in the old cities of Brussels and Rome, as well as German beer gardens.” His solution was to construct an attractive large, heated greenhouse a few steps from the bar door of the restaurant. He called it the Greenhaus, partly to imply that beer garden flavor, and outfitted it with a large pizza oven, lots of herb pots, tables and chairs and picnic benches.
“We wanted to continue fine dining in the inn while also offering casual dining in the Greenhaus,” he says, “although you can order off the restaurant menu outside. It gives patrons the option of a $30 menu or a $60 menu for dinner.” The Greenhaus also features more than 36 different beers.
While the Greenhaus was crucial to revenue growth, the expansion project did put a dent in Lewis’ business plan toward profitability. “I tend to manage and think in terms of [concentric] circles,” he says. “The kitchen comes first, then the beverages, the house itself and finally the Greenhaus. Eventually, I’ll get to the outdoor gardens.”
Beginning this past December, Lewis also instituted what he calls the Greenhaus Java Company to serve coffee and baked goods every morning. Looking toward the Fair Hill training facility across the highway, he says, “The people who raise and train horses over there (all potential consumers) come to work early and leave by noon.” By the time this article is published, Frederick hopes to have extended his offerings to include lunch, potentially catching the horse crowd on the way home. After all, Fair Hill Inn has always been an integral part of horse country.
“I tell them that muddy boots are always welcome at Fair Hill Inn,” Lewis says with a laugh.