Saturday, September 20, 2003

Regulars go for food, family

Colonial Cottage Inn offers homestyle cooking, ambience

By William Croyle
Enquirer contributor

ERLANGER - It was 1990 when Keith and Beulah Markins of Fort Mitchell spotted two words during a drive down Dixie Highway in Erlanger that would change their eating habits.

Salisbury steak.

"He saw that sign, and it hit his button," said Beulah.

Since that day, the Markins have become "regulars" at the Colonial Cottage Inn.

Seven days a week for lunch and six days a week for dinner, they can be found in a booth along the back wall of the main dining room.

They're one of nearly a dozen couples who enjoy the casual atmosphere and homestyle cooking of the Inn. And they're not alone.

"We get a lot of the firemen in here," said Matt Grimes. "My grandma always said to look where the firemen eat; that's where the good food is."

Matt and his wife, Noelle, both 36, bought the Inn four years ago. Clara Rich started it in 1933 and sold it to Verne Epperson in 1970. After 29 years, Epperson sold it to the Grimeses, who are celebrating the restaurant's 70th anniversary this month.

The stone and tan-sided, blue-shuttered business has the curb-appeal of a home. Inside is no different, with flowered wallpaper, a fireplace, deep red carpet, chandeliers and a long staircase to the banquet room upstairs.

"I like the food, and I like the people," said Dorothy Fite of Cincinnati, a weekly patron who celebrated her 82nd birthday at the Inn on Thursday. "You like to go places where they treat you right, and they do that here."

Breakfast is served all day, and three specials highlight each evening. Fried chicken, catfish, salmon and cottage ham are popular dinner meals.

"We do everything the hard way, but it makes for quality," said Henry Williams, one of seven cooks who do their jobs from scratch.

Henry arrives at 4:30 each morning to make about two dozen homemade pies. Cooks peel nearly 250 pounds of potatoes each day. Biscuits, soups and salad dressings? All homemade.

"Sometimes it's pretty stressful, but it's all good," said Henry. "There's a level of satisfaction knowing that you can do something a lot of people can't do."

The Inn has 46 employees with an average tenure of more than 10 years.

"I enjoy taking care of the same people each day," said Linda Exeler, a waitress there for 22 years. "I've seen their dads, their kids, their grandkids. They don't need menus. They just say, 'I'll have the usual.' "

The regulars are mainly an older crowd, though children are becoming a more familiar sight with the recent creation of kids' meal promotions.

"It's generally a more mature type of environment with lots of locals," said Matt Grimes. "One of our goals is to get the younger generation coming in and away from fast-food."

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