Dovetailing the Old and New: Exton and Downingtown
Visit for a bite to eat, a bit to drink and more pleasures
If, in the 1700s, you were a horseback rider headed north from Turk’s Head (now West Chester) through Lenni-Lenape country, or you were a Conestoga wagon driver leaving Philadelphia for Hickory Town (now Lancaster), you’d have consulted the map for places to stop for provisions. Depending on your needs, you might have stayed at the crossroads (now called Exton), or conducted your business at Milltown (now Downingtown).
Since then, we’ve traded wagons for cars, paper maps for cellphones with GPS and learned new town names. Yet the bustling businesses of Exton and Downingtown are still top spots for a bite to eat, a bit to drink and other goods. Clever purveyors are weaving together new-fashioned treasures with time-tested techniques and historical traditions to keep folks coming to town.
On the Table in Exton
Schoolhouse Woodworking—6,000 square feet of woodshop with modern tools and showroom—dovetails the best of a Colonial carpenter and joiner’s shop with all the conveniences of Exton Square Mall where it’s located. Tended by woodworker-owner and television personality Jeff Devlin and his St. Bernard, Gretel, the shop has something to see in every direction: handmade tables, pretty wooden bowls, bins and boxes with dovetail joints.
Find workbenches laden with walnut and other woods ready to become cutting boards in DIY classes and custom cabinetry with a local blacksmith’s hardware. Devlin offers furniture and home décor items reminiscent of the past and grounded in the present.
“There’s beauty in the old,” says Devlin. “The scratches on a kitchen table—the backbone of a house—that come from everyday life become the stories we tell over time.”
For a brass doorknob to enter your home, a chandelier to illuminate your dining table or candlesticks to grace it, head to Ball and Ball. Family members of the antique hardware reproduction and restoration company trace their roots to armor makers for English royalty in the 1600s and a Philadelphia silversmith in the 1700s and 1800s.
Meals and mugs served up in Exton have a hint of history, too. Known in early America as griddle cakes or johnnycakes, the breakfast—and lunch and dinner—stack of pancakes is still a favorite at many modern restaurants.
In Eagleview, the new Bright Spot café offers 21st-century pancakes perfect for National Pancake Week beginning February 24th this year. One option comes from batter swirled with peanut butter and concord grape jelly. The cannoli pancake features layers of cannoli filling and chocolate chips. The guaranteed sell-out is the spectacular apple pie pancake with pecans and local apples heaped with whipped cream. Enjoy them with acclaimed homemade sausage, fresh squeezed orange juice and great coffee at a table or the counter with cell phone charging stations. Owners Tom and Shannon Marie bring their old-fashioned friendly service and family traditions tableside at the cheery sunflower-themed café.
Just steps from the café, the ever-popular barrels and tankards that pleased travelers centuries ago arrive later in 2020 at Iron Hill Brewery and Taphouse. The new location will feature in-house brewing and an innovative kitchen.
For period fine dining in Exton with wonderful ambiance and flavors, there’s elegant Duling Kurtz House and Country Inn, Vickers Restaurant in a charming 1820s farmhouse, and historic Ship Inn where wayfarers have come for a meal and cup of cheer since the late 18th century.
What to wear while you’re there? The boutique, Exton Place, has just the right Brighton bag, Pandora bracelet or Kendra Scott earrings.
A Taste of Downingtown
It might not be Milltown any longer, but Downingtown still knows how to eat, drink and be merry. A short wagon’s ride from the iconic Downingtown Log House built around 1705, you’ll find modern tavern owners, bakers, wine, bread, beers and dogs.
For award-winning Syrah, local cheeses, charcuterie including homemade pâté and a comfortable gathering spot for conversation, look for the new R Five Wines tasting room on Lancaster Avenue, targeting a late January opening.
Its name comes from the former designation of the local SEPTA train line (the R5) that Kieran Robinson and Kristie Sheppard unknowingly rode together before they actually met, studied wine-making in France, married, started a winery in California and began working toward dreams of a tasting room and their own vineyard in Chester County. The Robinsons’ combined experience includes picking grapes, working on the crush pad and a multitude of other jobs at wineries near and far.
Keeping the brick interior and exposed ductwork of the turn-of-the-century building, the Robinsons have added deep red wainscoting under a long bar, leather-backed stools and wooden tables to provide a relaxed environment for sipping their wines by the glass, bottle or flight: whites including Chardonnay, rosé for spring and reds including Grenache, Syrah and blends. For beer lovers in your crowd, look for local beers including Victory in the R Five tasting room’s cooler.
At an unassuming little bakery tucked into Caln Village Shopping Center, explore organic sourdough breads and treats from recipes to be cherished during any era: bountiful whole wheat loaves, olive oil focaccia and morning buns that would lure the latest sleeper out of bed. If resisting the temptation to eat a sticky bun before arriving home is futile, dig in at the bright yellow tables on the sidewalk outside Brandywine Valley Bread Company’s front door.
Whether you hold that hot dogs have their origins in German sausages, Coney Island diners or Chicago fare, there’s a taste of history behind the new trend at Gourmet Barndawgs. Owner and top dawg Barney Flores traded his Miami fire fighter’s helmet for a chef’s hat and, since November 2019, dishes up authentic Chicago Dawgs with a pepper kick, vegetarian Maharaja Dawgs with mango chutney and yogurt sauce with cilantro, and delectable brisket and Cuban sandwiches. If George Washington would have lunched there, he would have said the Downingtown Destroyer Dawg—always the first to be sold out—was “slammin,’” as described by one of its social media fans.
For the best of the past and present, saddle up or grab your keys. There’s something good in these towns.