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Guesthouse Grill
** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Fish dishes upstage prime rib at buffet

I don’t usually review buffets. It’s not a hard-core rule; I just try to stay away from them.

But when the usual Friday-Saturday special at Don Hall’s Guesthouse Grill in the Guesthouse Hotel on Washington Center Road read, “Chef-attended prime rib buffet,” I was drawn in. Knowing how popular the prime rib is at pretty much every one of the Don Hall’s locations, I figured I had to try it.

I just hoped the buffet would prove to be as favorable as the prime rib I have enjoyed at Hall’s in the past.

The Guesthouse Grill didn’t wow me in terms of its atmosphere, but it was a step above what most hotels offer. Although impeccably clean and classic, the décor is a bit stodgy. The burgundy and gold paisley carpeting, tortoise shell mirrors on the walls and big rolling burgundy chairs with wooden arms created a scene that was probably popular 30 years ago, but one that badly needed a facelift now.

The menu could use a few modern touches, too, but the offerings were diverse and plentiful if somewhat old-school. The best entree, however, was light and fresh and deserving of a place on any menu.

The tilapia was sautéed with mushrooms and spinach and was topped with half of a roasted red pepper. That added a bit of sweetness to the flaky, mild fillet, which did not have a hint of fishy flavor. It was nicely seasoned with herbs, and all I added was a squeeze of lemon.

The nutty walleye was not as healthy but just as enjoyable. A huge piece of moist, meaty walleye was coated in breading that was full of chewy almond slivers. The breading adds plenty of flavor, so little of the tasty and spicy jalapeno tartar sauce was needed.

My final seafood choice, the nightly special crab cakes, was underwhelming. The cakes had plenty of sweet, delectable crab, had a nice bread crumb mix dotted with red pepper and were topped with a great tangy-sweet citrus remoulade. But they were not seared well enough and came off as tepid mushy blobs instead of hot crisp cakes.

The basil chicken also lacked texture, but that was only because it was drenched in alfredo sauce, which I chose over marinara. The chicken breast was beautiful – plump and juicy – and it was flanked by an impressive serving of fresh steamed broccoli. Along with the alfredo, the breadcrumb-covered chicken also had a good amount of parmesan cheese, strands of which pulled away from my plate with each bite. It needed the parm, too, to add a little saltiness to what was a bland sauce.

That blandness, unfortunately, carried over to the prime rib buffet that I was so excited about.

It suffered from what most buffets suffer from – a severe lack of basic seasoning that had me reaching for the salt and pepper endlessly. Perhaps it is the restaurant being cautious with the salt due to its overwhelmingly mature customer base, but good chefs derive flavor without grabbing the box of Morton’s.

The prime rib – although nicely medium-rare – had no visible herbs or salt and pepper on its exterior. There was no au jus on the buffet, and even the creamy horseradish sauce seemed watery and bland. I asked for au jus and was obliged, and this made the meat much better and closer to what I am used to when I order prime rib at a Hall’s. Why the au jus is not in a warmer on the buffet line is beyond me.

The baked cod with champagne cream sauce and penne pasta alfredo were bland and somewhat tasteless, and I couldn’t see why anyone would bother to pay the $18.99 buffet fee to eat them. The barbecued brisket was OK, but it, too, was drenched in an overly sweet barbecue sauce that you would find on barbecue at a discount buffet. The only real find other than the au jus was the mixed vegetable side, which contained fresh, snappy asparagus, broccoli, red peppers, zucchini and onion.

At least dessert was great with offerings from Hall’s Takes the Cake, which is located just down the hall in the Guesthouse. As long as you like chocolate, that is.

The classic double-layered German Chocolate cannot be beat, and the chocolate cappuccino cake was moist and wonderful even if I didn’t taste much coffee in it. The DeBrand’s chocolate cream cake, which is dotted with a single DeBrand’s fine chocolate, was similar to the cappuccino, and, of course, it did not disappoint.

Restaurant: Don Hall’s Guesthouse Grill

Address: 1313 W. Washington Center Road

Phone: 489-2524

Hours: 6 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Steaks and seafood

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Nutty walleye ($16.95), basil chicken ($14.95), tilapia ($12.95)

Rating breakdown: Food: * (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.