It's almost time for the 52nd annual Festival of the Arts. From July 12-15, downtown State College will transform back into the festival that features some of our favorite...
Locavores, Rejoice: Happy Valley Restaurants Steeped in Local Loyalty
Happy Valley is a place of local tradition and loyalty like no other. Local lore is the heart, soul and backbone of our community, and our food culture is the perfect example of that. Ask any local what their favorite restaurant is, and they’ll passionately rattle off a list while also telling you the best things to get at each place. And nine times out of ten, it won’t be chain restaurants that they’re naming.
But what defines a true “local favorite” anyway? Sometimes it’s the place that’s been there longer than anyone can remember. Sometimes it’s the place with one particularly famous dish. Other times, it’s the restaurant whose products are local to their very core.
You see, local ingredients tend to stand out. The freshness and superior flavor of local meats, dairy, fruits and veggies speaks for itself, and—especially if you’re used to run-of-the-mill ingredients—they’ll leave you wanting to come back for more. But beyond the quality of the ingredients, there’s just something big to be said for restaurants that take the time and care to give their patronage to other local producers. It is the very essence of Happy Valley, and it’s just one of the many reasons these restaurants have cemented their places as local favorites.
Photo: Gigi's Southern Table
A pioneer of the local ingredient movement, Chef Harrison has been serving a locally sourced menu since 2001 when Tait Farms’ Farmer Mark showed up at his kitchen door with a crop of fresh, organic green beans. Harrison’s was also a founding member of Buy Fresh Buy Local Centre County in 2005. And while many restaurants define “local” as anything that comes from within 2.5 hours, Harrison’s works hard to support growers and producers specifically from Centre County or a neighboring county.
The dinner menu boasts no less than 15 locally sourced dishes, with icons beside each to easily identify all the local goodness. It doesn’t get much better than the Local Beef Special and Local Salad or Side—two permanent, market price menu items that constantly change to reflect what’s fresh and available at the moment. Just ask your server what cut and preparation of beef, or local produce side/salad they’re offering that day.
Whether it’s meat, beer, vegetarian, or anything in between—Otto’s does it right, and they do it as local as local gets. With nearly 40 local food and beverage partners, it’s a challenge to find anything on the menu that isn’t made of something locally sourced.
All it takes is one taste of Otto’s food to be convinced of the difference that local ingredients make. Try the buffalo chicken mac and cheese made with local Fasta pasta and Amish cheeses, or the Hogonator pizza topped with Hogs Galore bacon, pepperoni and sausage, and feel your life change forever. Otto’s even stays local-loyal on the brewery side. Don’t leave without a taste of their Keewaydin hard cider, made from Kunes Farm apples.
If you get it right the first time, why stop there? Otto’s opened its sister establishment, Barrel 21, in 2015, and it’s keeping the local philosophy going with an exciting spin. Executive Chef Chris Mohr—a graduate of both Penn State and the Culinary Institute of America in New York—honed his craft cooking in Phoenix, New York and Disney World before (luckily for us) settling back in State College. And at Barrel 21, Mohr uses Central PA’s own local resources to serve up a fusion of unique, upscale flavors from around the country and globe.
You’ll find local products in everything from the to-die-for Charcuterie and Cheese made up of Penn State meats and Goot Essa cheeses, to the Penn State Creamery ice cream in the Poached Pear Baked Alaska. Even on the distillery side, Barrel 21 uses local ingredients like rye and corn, and Keewaydin apples for their famous Apple Eau de Vie brandy.
The strong focus on ingredients drives the quality of the delicious southern comfort food at this Happy Valley gem, located on West College Ave. The folks at Gigi’s like to say that they “treat fresh local products with the proper respect,” and it’s no empty promise. Locally-made Fasta pasta is the base of Gigi’s seriously delicious pasta dishes—one being the popular Coastal Pasta, which is topped with clams, local bacon, onion and creamed corn. The Louisiana Gumbo is truly out of this world, made with local andouille sausage and chicken, and anyone who’s had it will tell you that it is gumbo the way it’s meant to be. The farm-to-table experience at Gigi’s is tangible, and it’s one of the many reasons this restaurant is a must-visit.
The Field has risen to the certified local favorite status in record time. One of its mottos is that local food just tastes better, and it’s why they’re so committed to using locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. Burgers are truly the star of the menu here, and they are hand-formed daily using a secret house blend of sirloin, chuck, brisket and short rib. Try any of the wide variety of burger combos and you’ll instantly understand the hype. Another item you’ll often hear about around Happy Valley is the famous Field Shake. All six flavors are hand-spun using Penn State Creamery ice cream, and can be ordered either “classic” or “hard” to suit any preference. No matter what you order here, you’ll be impressed by the quality, quantity and taste.
Opening a business that becomes a local favorite doesn’t just happen by chance—and opening seven of them definitely doesn’t. Andy Zangrilli, owner of Dante’s Restaurants and Nightlife, has a winning formula, and the quality of his restaurants’ ingredients has everything to do with it. The family of popular restaurants includes Liberty Craft House, The Deli, Inferno, Mario’s and Hi Way Pizza, along with Bar Bleu and the Saloon. The menus at each place may be totally different, but they all share the same heart: a 100% commitment to from-scratch foods made with fresh and local ingredients.
Everything—and we mean everything—is house-made from scratch. The signature dough and sauces at Hi Way Pizza? From scratch. The pasta at Mario’s? From scratch. The breads that make up The Deli’s famous sandwiches? You guessed it: from scratch. And the locally, sustainably sourced ingredients make Dante’s foods a one-two punch.
This historic local landmark on Penn State’s campus is primarily known for its beautiful colonial-style building, but inside it is much more than just a hotel. It also houses two restaurants: The Dining Room as a fine dining option, and the casual pub-style Whiskers. In true Penn State fashion, the Nittany Lion Inn operates on a philosophy of sustainability and agriculture, so local food is a necessity for the chefs at both restaurants. They use only products made in-house or from neighboring producers, from vegetables and eggs to meat and fish.
Meat and seafood dishes are a favorite at The Dining Room, and it’s no wonder when they consist of herb roasted free range chicken, Jamison Farm lamb, grass-fed beef and sustainable wild-caught seafood. There’s no loss of quality at the more casual Whiskers, either, where you can get delectable fish and chips made with local trout. Even the chicken quesadilla here is made up of a locally made flour tortilla with Berkey Creamery sour cream on the side.
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