This is the tale of my doomed quest to solve the salad bar conundrum.
NEW MOBILITY reader Don Gallagher provided the impetus for this quest when he emailed his concern that wheelchair users can’t access the world’s delicious salad bars and buffets. “I keep looking for solutions wherever I wander,” he wrote from his home in Lititz, Pennsylvania. “Salad bars present some unique design dilemmas … getting a wheelchair close enough to see and reach things, longer tongs aren’t much of an answer, and then there’s the issue of sneeze guards.”
Strangely, this excited no one on staff but me.
I figured it was because these folks didn’t realize how crucial salad bars, buffets, smorgasbords and all things long and laden with lard-infused food are to Central Pennsylvanians, to which they responded, “Well, yeah.” To which I said something like, “Aha! But the Amish! Even if we cannot solve this conundrum, writing a travel story focusing on Lancaster County, which is not only home to the largest smorgasbord in America but also to the erroneously-named Pennsylvania Dutch, could be a lot of fun.” I say erroneously-named because they’re not Dutch, they’re German. They ought to be called Pennsylvania Deutsch, but that’s never caught on.
This is the resulting story of how I valiantly sought to find a solution to the salad bar conundrum, but was led astray by the beauty and quirkiness of Amishland.
First Stop — Lititz
Named America’s Coolest Small Town in 2013, Lititz definitely won’t be winning any awards for accessibility. It’s cute and packed with over 70 businesses, but maybe one in five is accessible.
“I can’t think of any,” says the Lititz Visitor’s Center employee when I stop into the converted railroad station to ask about accessible businesses. I suggest Wilbur Chocolate, naming the store where I picked up a bag of locally-famous Wilbur Buds — bite-sized pieces of chocolate — and parked my pick-up for the day.
“Well, yes, there’s that. Oh! The Moravian church and the Historical Society are accessible,” she says.
Like the Mennonites and Amish, Moravians settled here in the 17th century, escaping religious persecution. “I saw Olio, too, coming in,” I add, referencing an accessible store that sells olive oil and accoutrements. “Yes! There you go,” she says. “Oil and chocolate.”
Fortunately, a few eateries are also accessible. The Bulls Head Public House offers a gastropub-quality menu and has no-step entrances and spacious bathrooms. Seating choices include low and high tables, and stuffed armchairs. It’s all beautifully coordinated in a highly-polished wood and leather sort of way.
The other accessible dining option I find is Café Chocolate, an open, cheerful space with various chocolate-infused entrees and other offbeat offerings, such as West African peanut chowder. Follow the path on the left around the back to the ramp. The door is unlocked today, and I am told it’s kept unlocked during business hours.
For a snack, locals gush about watching the pretzels being made at Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery. It’s accessible, as are Purple Robin Reserve art gallery/gift shop, Cherry Acres Old Barn Wood Furniture & Home Decor and the Matthew 25 Thrift Shop.
After my visit, I wonder why Gallagher focuses on salad bars when so many of the shops in his town are lacking access.
If you do go, grab a bag of Wilbur Buds.
Trains! Trains! Trains!
The Strasburg Rail Road was first chartered in 1832, and there’s nothing quite like a ride through the countryside on an old-fashioned steam locomotive. I’ve taken friends and family from out of town. My favorite trip was during the Christmas season when a brass band and choir, dressed up in 19th century duds, joined the ride. It felt like being serenaded on the Polar Express.
Many cars are accessible via a mobile lift that can handle 400 pounds, and all the shops in the complex but one have an accessible entrance. I cannot recommend the food. It’s best to hold out for one of the county’s storied smorgasbords.
Cross the street to visit the Rail Road Museum of Pennsylvania. This sprawling complex holds some of the oldest iron horses manufactured in our nation as well as one of every type of train ever built — at least that’s how it seems to my amateur eyes.
The $10 entrance fee allows you to freely wander around admiring the brute strength of these massive machines. Also, the bathroom is nicer than the one at the Strasburg Rail Road.
Meandering Through Amish Country
Back in my truck, I pull into the Old Mill House Shoppes, whose original building dates back to 1767. Now gift shops and a furniture store, the conversion is a good example of the repurposing common throughout Amish Country. The result is often-accessible ground floors, probably because the buildings used to be barns or mills of some sort.
Visiting this historic brick-and-stone cluster of gift shops is a lovely sojourn, next to a picturesque brook that actually babbles. Also, there’s an accessible bathroom in case of a needed pit stop.
While driving between tourist sites, I stop at one of the ubiquitous roadside farm stands and see an Amish boy practicing archery. He puts the compound bow down to wait on me, and I buy some homemade root beer — an Amish specialty — but since their credit card machine is down that’s pretty much all I can afford. Yes, Amish shop keepers often use credit card machines.
Kitschy Kitchen Kettle Village
My next-to-last stop in rural Lancaster is the Kitchen Kettle Village located in Intercourse, not far from Blue Ball. Yes, these are real place names. So are Virginville, Bird-in-Hand and Paradise. Taken all together, these monikers are a never-ending source of amusement for tourists, as they seem incongruous with the 19th century religiosity of the local culture.
I like to tell myself the only reason I come to the village is because when my sister is in town she insists on buying the Perfect Pickle Chips that are only sold here. But I end up staying much longer than I plan and enjoy every minute of it. Whether I’m watching the one-man-band singing old-timey tunes, or taking pictures of amusing T-shirts for friends (Intercourse, hee hee hee), or visiting a pricey gallery that features local artists, the smell of buttered popcorn and potpourri wafts through the air.
This is what makes Kitchen Kettle Village so much fun — on the surface it’s kitschy, but many of the 40 shops sell quality local-made items that are hard to find anywhere else. Most shops are intuitively accessible, although some of the stores are packed pretty tightly, which could make picking out souvenirs difficult.
There is an inn at Kitchen Kettle Village, but it only has two accessible rooms. The ground-level room’s doors are wide, its mattress low and the bathtub’s built-in wooden shower bench usable if the handheld shower is placed within reach. But I can’t see an accessible path to the front desk. Staff says they’ll bring the key out, and if it’s after 8 p.m., a caretaker will make it there in 15 minutes or less. It is a central location with restaurants and amenities right here, but it’s also easy to find a close-by hotel chain that’s newer and more dependable.
The Corner Coffee Shop is the only accessible store across the street from the village, and like so many others, it also sells local handmade furniture and home décor. Stopping by for a chai latte, I notice a young Old Order Mennonite woman checking Facebook on her smartphone. You can tell Mennonites apart from Amish because their headscarves are smaller and their dresses often have floral patterns. Mennonite men often wear flannel shirts and baseball caps, whereas Amish men wear black pants and beautifully-dyed deep purple or blue shirts.
These conservative Christians are often fiercely protective of the right of all women to wear headscarves, regardless of their religion. Thanks to the Mennonites especially, Lancaster County is home to more refugees than anywhere else in the nation, an unbroken 300-year-old tradition.
The Largest Buffet in America
(And Maybe the World!)
Shady Maple is the largest smorgasbord in Lancaster County. The customer service clerk says it is also the biggest in America, and maybe the world — she’s not sure.
The facility is divided into two floors connected by an elevator. The 110,000-square-foot restaurant with its constellation of dining rooms is on top, and the 44,000-square-foot gift store — with its small café offering fragrant, mouth-watering chicken corn soup — is on the bottom. The actual smorgasbord is 200 feet long and laden with local favorites such as potato filling, pork and sauerkraut, thick and hearty chicken pot pie with noodles on top instead of crust, and American favorites like prime rib. And because this is Pennsylvania, you may also find kielbasa and pierogi.
Alas, I am so taken by the sight of so much delicious food that I forget to grill the proprietors on how to make the salad bar more accessible. However, it is all easily visible and reachable by most paras, and there are plenty of servers to help if needed.
Across from this building is the equally iconic Shady Maple Farm Market. It’s larger than the smorgasbord and features immense amounts of cheeses, meats and produce. That may not sound special, but you’ll see cuts or brands that are hard to find elsewhere and, if you haven’t rubbed shoulders with enough Amish people yet, you’re bound to here.
The produce in Lancaster County is delectable, and most farms are family-owned. But Central Pennsylvania is also a snack-food powerhouse, and with all those locally-produced potato chips, chocolate bars and soda, it can be hard to choose the cauliflower.
All Things Good and Wholesome … and Tasty
I wrap up my visit in the City of Lancaster, where I lived for a few years in the ’00s. I miss its balance of urban and urbane, a city where you’re as likely to hear Spanish or German as you are English. It’s where I tasted my first Puerto Rican-style empanada, and I’ve never been the same since.
First stop is Central Market, located on Market Street near Queen and King. Founded in 1730, it’s the oldest continuously-run farmer’s market in the United States. Entrances number one and two are accessible, but most of the others are not. It gets packed close to lunchtime, so get there as early as you can. Besides, you don’t want what others have picked over.
When I lived in Lancaster, I’d tell the guy running Shenk’s Chicken my recipe and he’d know just the bird to sell me. I think he really did know that chicken. Dairy from Maplehofe’s is the creamiest, produce from Groff’s is always quality, The Herb Shop won’t let you down (sorry, cooking herbs only), and the Grain Shop hooked me up with protein-packed Anasazi beans.
Parking is a beast, but if you come early, you can get a spot in the adjacent lot. Prince Street garage has significant access issues, so I cannot recommend it.
There are streets and streets of restaurants, galleries and stores hugging the Market. The shops in Market Alley are almost all accessible on the King Street side, and most of the shops on King in this district are accessible. Many on Orange are as well, but the accessibility of Prince Street’s famed art gallery row, frustratingly, is lousy.
An Unexpected Solution
At NEW MOBILITY we strive to present you with interesting, accessible-enough destinations worldwide, and yet here was such an area worthy of being explored in my own back yard — probably there’s one in yours as well.
Every region has people that make it special, history that shaped us all, and food outsiders may enjoy sampling. For Lancaster, it’s the Amish culture and the tourist industry that’s grown up around it.
For you, perhaps it’s that quaint neighborhood you’ve heard so much about yet never visited, or a specialty chocolatier one county over. For me, the biggest surprise was how much I enjoyed Lancaster’s blatant tourist traps, like Kitchen Kettle Village.
With apologies to Gallagher, the salad bar conundrum remains unsolved. But I think I solved a different one: Sometimes if we stop searching elsewhere for a definitive travel experience, it sneaks up and taps us on the shoulder.
See also: Leavenworth, the Northwest’s Bavaria