Since I have a good friend visiting for the weekend, I thought it might be a nice opportunity to branch out and explore some different local dining options. After doing a bit of Google research, I stumbled upon Tara—A Country Inn. It’s not just an inn, though: at Tara, there are two restaurants—Ashley’s Gourmet Dining Room and Stonewall’s Tavern. The former is super fancy, while the latter offers more of a “casual dining” experience. We opted for the latter, and let me tell you, it was certainly an experience!
Tara is north of Hermitage in Clark, PA—just a little way past the Shenango Valley Mall. Never having been there before, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. As we drove into the parking lot, we were greeted by the imposing white facade of Tara, complete with ionic columns. We knew somehow that this would be an unusual dining experience.
It almost feels a little White House-y, doesn’t it?
We went in via the side entrance, the nearest access from the parking lots, and navigated our way though a slightly disorienting subterranean network of narrow hallways that connect a warren of dark rooms. As we made our way in, we caught a glimpse of the chef and sous-chef busy at work in the kitchen on our left, and a wedding reception winding up to full tilt on our right. When we finally made our way to the hostess’s station at Stonewall’s Tavern, we were greeted by a woman named Betsy, who wore glasses and, somewhat anachronistically, a floor-length, navy blue velveteen gown. I don’t think I have ever met anyone more polite. But this was Tara, where Southern hospitality can be found (somewhat incongruously) in Northwestern PA.
Betsy showed us to a table at the back and wished us the loveliest of dinners on this loveliest of evenings. We were quite excited. We sipped ice water from pewter chalices, which felt faintly feudal and also somewhat cold to the touch. Next to us was a cabinet filled with dusty, presumably old and expensive bottles of wine. We marveled at the ceilings—they were so low! Nothing to worry about when you’re sitting down at the table, but I had to take care that I didn’t hit my head on one of the exposed beams in the ceiling when I stood up. It was quite a cozy atmosphere, though.
Our server, who had a British accent and a voice that carried, was dressed like Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind. We found this a bit strange, but if our curiosity was apparent, our server just brushed it off, as she was all business. As my friend noted, there were no secrets in that back room at Stonewall’s: we knew what everyone had ordered, we knew that the couple in the corner did not find their steak “cooked to their liking,” we knew that our server “had been having one of those days…”
But we enjoyed our meals very much. We both ordered the filet (called “The Soldier’s Dream” on the menu), and it was lovely. The filets were served with sauteed portabella mushrooms that were just delicious. We ate very well, felt very satisfied, and when the meal was over, I said something akin to “I declare, that dinner was good.” Clearly, Tara was beginning to rub off on us.
After our meal, we decided to explore the rest of the inn. There was a lot of Gone with the Wind memorabilia and photographs and stills from the movie, as you might expect. The sitting room/parlor was furnished with a bright-red velvet Victorian settee. It literally took your breath away. But perhaps most impressive was the cozy bar on the first floor, near Ashley’s Dining Room. The very friendly bartender let us poke our noses in there to investigate: although the room which housed the bar was quite small, it was particularly grand—the bar itself was impressive, but the room’s huge leather couch and black ceiling lent unique touches. Our friendly bartender noted that one of her patrons, being particularly fond of Tara’s bar, had recreated a facsimile in their own home. In a strange way, I could understand their motivation: the atmosphere was amazing. The bar invited one to linger.
We moved on from the bar to the grounds. It was quite dark by then and, I have to admit, a little spooky—mainly because there are bronze statuary popping up everywhere you turn: you might see a statue of a large fanciful fish sprouting up in the middle of the brick path, only to find a classical, fig leaf-clad Mercury at the next turn, followed by a Frederick Remington cowboy sat astride his trusty mount. One encounters quite an interesting array of characters in Tara’s gardens. The huntress Diana, featured below, seems a little ghostly, don’t you think? I have to admit I did feel a little unease when we were walking along the path—the cat that jumped out at us and scared us half to death didn’t help either.
So that concludes our little tour of Tara for now—As Scarlett says, “After all…tomorrow is another day.” I definitely plan to go back. Tara provides its patrons with an unusual blend of whimsy, romance, and a bit of mystery. As my friend noted, dining at Tara feels a little like having dinner at an amusement park, or dining on stage during a play alongside actors playing their parts. In some ways, visiting Tara is a bit similar to experiencing the simulacra of Las Vegas—even though one knows you can’t have Paris in the middle of the desert (or Gone with the Wind in Northwestern PA), it’s nevertheless fun to imagine the impossible and play along anyway.
I can only imagine that there will be plenty more to discover on the next trip.