Tucked away in the Allegheny mountains 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, in a small town called Ligonier (think Stars Hollow, but with more golf courses and cows and less quirk), you’ll find a time machine known as the Eastwood Inn.
There’s no sign—the neon letters marking the entrance burned out in 1941—just a stately home on a winding street just off the highway. You’re buzzed into the 75-year-old restaurant through a curved wooden door, stepping into a foyer flanked by mid-century motel-style chairs, paneled chestnut walls, brass chandeliers with translucent glass shades, and a massive flagstone fireplace. A red-and-yellow speaker from a long-gone jukebox still hangs in the corner of the dining room, and a cigarette machine still plies its trade across from the inlaid wooden bar. It’s a rustic lodge from summer camp, a classic retreat in the woods straight out of Dirty Dancing.
And then you’re greeted personally by owner Joe Greshok, known to all patrons as Smokey. He started working at the Eastwood as a bartender in 1946 (his family had bought the former inn a little more than a decade earlier), and after decades of opening restaurants and bars in the area, settled in for good as owner in 1997.
An old-time raconteur, Smokey roams the restaurant, stopping behind the bar, sitting down with diners to show off his card tricks. He’ll happily share the story of turning away baseball All-Stars Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Chipper Jones when the Atlanta Braves were in town between games against the Pirates. Arriving at the restaurant after a round of golf in polos and shorts, Smokey asked them to leave unless they could find some long pants to wear. “I said, ‘Do you have any rain gear in your bags?’ ” Smokey recalls, “They said ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘Well, go back and put ’em on, then.’ ” The four ballplayers acquiesced, dining in style in their nylon pants.
The restaurant is a well-kept secret among those in the area (the Mellon and Heinz families) and others who visit regularly to ski, golf, hunt, and fish in the Allegheny Highlands. Neil Armstrong, Mario Lemieux, and Arnold Palmer have all stopped by over the years, but as Smokey says, “everybody’s famous” when they eat at the Eastwood. He reminds us that people will fly up from Texas (the Latrobe airport is only 20 minutes away, and waves in a lot of small planes) to gnaw on one of the Eastwood’s steaks.
And that’s the selling point; all this atmosphere, charming and nostalgic as it may be, would be nothing if the food weren’t worth the trip to the mountains. The menu is vintage steakhouse, serving lamb from Jamison Farms down the road, and all prime, never frozen, beef. Smokey, who’s also trained as a butcher, buys short loins for T-bones, whole lamb back for lamb chops, and cuts each piece to order. And that’s all you’re going to get—”if you want seasoning, you put it on yourself,” he laughs.
After butchering for more than 60 years, Smokey’s now fine with accepting a little family help. His son-in-law Vince hand-cuts the steaks and chops in the pristine basement next to the vintage freezer, and the trimmed cuts rest on a well-worn wooden cutting board original to the kitchen as they await their turn on the grill. My lamb chops, with a thick insulating rim of fat, were aggressively juicy and herbaceous, the T-bone massively portioned, and the filets meltingly flavorful. Surprisingly, the best-seller on the menu is the steak sandwich, which is actually a smaller portion of filet, sliced and served on an ample piece of Italian bread to sop up the jus.
It’s classic to get the Eastwood salad (just greens with homemade vinaigrette and a generous dusting of fresh blue cheese) alongside the meat, and it’s well-understood that you should order a big plate of the onion rings as an appetizer. Also hand-cut and freshly fried, the piles and piles of rings are exceedingly sweet and crunchy, and the kitchen will send out an extra order if they don’t think you got enough in the first batch. (It’s always a heaping portion, but who can say no?)
The final longstanding tradition is the complete lack of a credit card machine on the premises. Yes, like Brooklyn’s Peter Luger, the Eastwood is cash only. Walking across the tiled asphalt foyer, through the curved door into the Pennsylvania night, it’s hard not to sit in one of the porch’s floral vinyl-cushioned metal chairs for one more drink. Make it an Arnold Palmer or a John Daly (just add vodka) and stave off your return to the 21st century for just a little bit longer.
The Eastwood Inn, 661 Old Lincoln Highway, Ligonier, PA. 724-238-6454. Closed Sundays, cash only, and proper attire required, even if you are a Cy Young winner.
Update: Thank you to reader Jenny for letting me know that Smokey passed away in January 2010, and that his daughter is making sure the Eastwood continues to serve its great steaks and chocolate cake in an unparalleled atmosphere. We’ll miss your jokes and card tricks, Smokey—thanks for all the stories.