As I open the door to Henry’s Restaurant in West Jefferson, a jubilant hello bellows from behind the counter. It is co-owner Bobbie Gaul cheerfully making my parents and me feel immediately welcome as she grabs condiments, fills drinks and delivers plates of food. Co-owner Brent Bennett dashes by with a pot of coffee to serve a round of warm-ups in the small restaurant. I feel like I have walked into a friend’s home for lunch, and in way, I have.
The thing about comfort food is that it is not just about the deep crock of homemade chicken and noodles, an open-faced roast beef sandwich with generous amounts of thick gravy or the fresh ingredients in a mountainous slice of pie made from a generations-old recipe. Comfort food is also about the feeling you get as you enjoy it. It is a sense of place, a nostalgia and the conversations you have with the people you share it with.
TourismOhio has hit the road before in search of the best comfort food establishments in the state that are worth the drive…and here we go again.
1. Henry’s Restaurant (West Jefferson)
Henry’s Restaurant is the kind of place where it is appropriate to order pie first, not just because life is short, but the slices here sell fast. A regular patron, referred to only as “mama,” let my father indulge in the last piece of coconut cream pie that she ordered first.
“I want him to try it,” she said. “It’s just the best.”
Mom and I opted for cherry, wiping out the last two pieces in the restaurant. The taste was exactly like the cherry pie my grandma used to make.
Everything on Henry’s menu is homemade. From the honey-stung fried chicken that crunches as loud as cornflakes as you get to the meat to the thick mashed potatoes that come with the roast beef sandwich. It is hard not to be a clean-plater here. There are daily specials like sausage and sauerkraut and shepherd’s pie, and menu staples like liver and onions.
2. The Farmer’s Daughter (Urbana)
The Farmer’s Daughter Restaurant makes you feel like you are walking into a farmhouse where meals have been cooking for hours. Breakfast options include homemade buttermilk pancakes and crepes, French toast, omelets or the “Make a Mess,” which is two eggs and fried potatoes scrambled together with your choice bacon, ham or sausage.
Everything is made from scratch including meatloaf sandwiches, beer-battered green beans, southern-style fried chicken, chicken and noodles and country fried steak. Since you will be full from your meal, take desert to go from the bakery and gift shop.
3. Miller’s Chicken (Athens)
If you have a weakness for chicken (baked, fried or innards), few places make it better than Miller’s Chicken. The family-owned restaurant originated as a poultry shop in the 1940s. The fried chicken is fresh with a secret blend of spices. If you have a taste for chicken livers, gizzards and hearts, Miller’s makes them just like they were made on the farm decades ago as evidenced by the several hundred pounds sold each week. Indulgent homemade potato and macaroni salad complement the chicken dinners.
4. Little Polish Diner (Parma)
You better show up early to the Little Polish Diner in Parma if you want a seat. The tiny restaurant is so popular for their made-from-scratch favorites like stuffed cabbage, pork roast and sauerkraut, pierogis and potato pancakes that there are droves of regulars. Located in Parma’s historic Polish district, you might just forget that you are actually in Ohio as you bite into a sweet strawberry cheese blintz.
5. Theo’s (Cambridge)
The secret coney sauce at Theo’s Restaurant starts simmering early in the morning. The coney dog is where it all started for Theo’s in 1931, and they still sell several hundred a day. The menu at the three-generation family-owned restaurant has expanded to include 10 daily specials like baked steak, homemade lasagna and orange-chili pork chops. Prices are minimal, and it’s essential to round out your meal with a piece of pie that you will never forget. While the coconut cream and custard are popular, the seasonal peach pie that sells in June, is worth scheduling a visit.