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  • The St. James Restaurant in Avilla has been named as the oldest restaurant in Indiana by the Indiana Restaurant Association.

  • Loaded prime rib with a side of german potatoes in the background at the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

  • Nifty dated nuances like this stained glass window are part of the charm of the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

  • Maryland crab cakes from the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

  • Chicken gnocchi soup from the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

  • Lemon crunch pie from the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

  • Chicken noodle soup from the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

  • Breaded tenderloin sandwich from the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

  • The St. James Restaurant in Avilla has been named as the oldest restaurant in Indiana by the Indiana Restaurant Association.

  • Sauerkraut soup from the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

  • House-made sausage sandwich from the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

  • The peanut butter pie at the St. James Restaurant in Avilla had a dark, rich custard base.

  • Jagerschnitzel with a side of spaetzle at the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

  • An apple dumpling from the St. James Restaurant in Avilla.

Sunday, November 27, 2016 6:41 pm

Avilla restaurant continues to make history

Ryan DuVall | Restaurant critic

It’s a community hub in Avilla and has been since 1878.

That’s right, 1878, when it began as the St. James Hotel. The Indiana Restaurant Association has dubbed it the oldest restaurant in northern Indiana, so to say generations of families have enjoyed the place is kind of an understatement. And as I watched folks greeting each other as they walked in or waving at old friends in the bar as they strolled to their table, it is clear there will be more generations to come.

But it is not just the rural location of the restaurant that makes it such a gathering place. Its reputation for fine food also has something to do with that. The menu has some signs of age, with dishes that were popular years ago, but it is not stuck in a time warp. There were plenty of new items to satisfy this foodie.

Take the featured appetizer during my evening visit, for example. The Maryland crab cakes, which were made in house, were fantastic. The drab-looking brown discs weren’t gussied up with a sauce; they just sat alone on a plate. But they were perfectly made, with a generous amount of sweet, delicate crab, and didn’t need any sauce.

They summed up my visits to St. James perfectly – they didn’t seem fancy at first, but they truly satisfied.

My favorite thing about St. James is the German section of the menu, which features some items not easily found in these parts.

The jagerschnitzel was worth the trip for sure. A pork loin that had been pounded out a bit was sautéed and then coated with a dark, rich mushroom sauce that was nicely flavored by wine. The meat was tender and succulent. It was seasoned well with a little black pepper kick, and the small whole mushrooms were plentiful.

Choose the spaetzle over the potato pancakes as your side. The pancakes had so much binder, they were more like regular pancakes than good potato ones, and there was too much nutmeg.

And get the spaetzle straight up if they ask how you want them, because they were perfect that way – chewy, lightly browned, buttery and delicious. When I had them done crispy, they were, indeed, crispy, but I think they were flash-fried in a deep fryer, so they lacked that buttery pan flavor.

A rich brown sauce made the weekend special loaded prime rib a unique and worthwhile entrée. St. James topped a slab of perfectly cooked beef with a mushroom demi-glace (sliced mushrooms this time) that included raw diced tomatoes. The sauce was delicious, and the tomatoes added a burst of freshness to lighten what was a heavy offering.

As good as the jagerschnitzel was, the pork used for the breaded tenderloin sandwich was the opposite. It was boasted as being "cut in-house" and seemed to be similar to the jagerschnitzel, but it was terribly dry. Its breading also lacked flavor.

The homemade sausage sandwich made for a better lunch choice. The thick pork patty was very juicy and was not loaded with sage or other spices. It had a distinct sweetness that separated it from being just a pork burger and was quite tasty on its shiny, nicely toasted bun.

It went great with the sauerkraut soup, which was loaded with kraut and chunks of smoked sausage. It had a thick, creamy, potato soup-like base instead of just chicken broth. I also loved the chicken gnocchi soup, which I was told was the chef’s specialty. It, too, had a creamy base and was loaded with little potato dumplings, chicken, carrots, celery, onions and spinach. Both of those soups blew away the rather bland chicken noodle, which I understand is also a favorite among regulars.

A favorite of mine was the vast selection of homemade desserts. One of those locals who was walking through the lines of people waiting for a table – yes, the place is always busy – proudly announced for all to hear, "Don’t leave without gettin’ an apple dumpling!"

So I did. And his advice was sound. This softball-sized treat had a whole, cored apple inside thick layers of pastry with cinnamon and sugar that had melted into a scrumptious sauce inside, and the outside was glazed with caramel sauce. It was simply fabulous.

I also loved the lemon-crunch pie, which had a tangy custard base and a sugary crumble on top. And don’t sleep on the peanut butter pie, because its custard was so dark and rich with peanut buttery goodness that it looked more like pumpkin pie than peanut butter. With whipped cream and chocolate syrup as garnish, there was nothing to complain about.

There was nothing to complain about when it came to the setting and service at St. James, either. It is an old place with antique nuances like stained glass accents and dated brick, but it is so well kept, you would never know it was as old as it is. I also have not been to a more well-run establishment in some time. In addition to its simply flawless table-side service, I marveled at the attention to detail one of the managers gave to all who were waiting for tables on a busy weekend night. He not only personally seated most of those folks, but he also provided quick updates on the waiting parties’ status, apologizing each time for the wait.

I guess that should come as no surprise, really. A place doesn’t stay open for 138 years without treating people right.

Restaurant: St. James

Address: 204 E. Albion St., Avilla

Phone: 260-897-2114

Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: American, German

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Crab cakes ($5.99), loaded prime rib ($19.49 for 8 ounces; $22.49 for 12 ounces; $26.99 for 16 ounces), jagerschnitzel ($14.99), tenderloin ($4.99), sausage sandwich ($3.99), pie ($3.49)

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

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. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.