Rockmill Brewery was literally a gift in my life. The first time I went to the cozy little spot tucked into the Lancaster woods was in 2014, on the advice of a friend who had given me a bottle of their saison for my birthday a few months prior. He told me he had been to check out the taproom, and that I “absolutely have to go before the end of summer.” A week or so later, I had a free Sunday and found myself a few miles outside of downtown Lancaster, driving down winding roads that led to a gravel driveway that led to what, at first glance, appeared to be someone’s home—and as it turns out, it was.
For the uninitiated, the taproom at Rockmill is located inside a large beautiful home with rustic wood beams, cathedral ceilings, and large windows that look out onto the property; a former horse farm dotted with outbuildings, sheds, and even a small chapel at the bottom of a rolling hill which leads down the headwaters of the hocking river.
That day, there were blankets set out on chairs and a large wooden table where people were playing board games. My bartender, who happened to be the mother of founder and brewmaster Matthew Barbee, ran back and forth from the small tasting bar to the kitchen where she loaded tasting glasses into a typical home dishwasher again and again to keep up with the quickly multiplying crowd. There was an honesty to the whole operation that would be hard to manufacture were it not truly someone’s home. It was charming and cozy, and the furthest possible thing from any brewery I had visited before. These lovely people had invited me into their home—to taste their incredible beers and share in the beauty of their estate.
It was honest, it was genuine. It was perfection.
If forced to levy any sort of critique on this place, I would have been hard pressed to come up with one. The beer was spectacular, the people were friendly, and the atmosphere was unrivaled. Perhaps the only thing missing was food. That welcoming feeling of being a guest in someone’s home is the environment that hundreds of bars and restaurants have tried, and largely failed, to recreate, and here was a farmhouse brewery doing exactly that, but never serving a single dish. Ever since that first visit, I’ve had this nagging feeling that the people behind such a miraculous place could do something special with a full-scale kitchen, and I guess I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
Walking into the brand new Rockmill Tavern, occupying the cavernous former World of Beer space in the Brewery District, is at once disorienting and comforting. The space has been completely transformed from what felt like an austere factory floor into a warm inviting space with walls clad in reclaimed barn wood, and exposed brick lit with soft amber light. The expansive bar snakes along the entire back wall of the space with ample seating for a crowd, and a coffee station with an espresso machine is nestled next to the side door. A living wall designed by Stump Plants draws the eye to the mezzanine level where a second bar is located near an enormous table for large gatherings.
The entire line of Rockmill’s Belgian style beer is available on draft, and a well-stocked glass front bottle cooler glows with more options. While beer is certainly a focus, it is not the only one. A cocktail menu designed by Bar Manager James Moore features thoughtful, perfectly executed, original creations that give a nod to the classics. A seasonal draft cocktail featuring OYO Stonefruit vodka, blood orange tea, orange, lemon, and Angostura bitters is available in individual pours or by the pitcher for groups, and wines by the glass or bottle can be found on their well curated wine list. The drink selection being well cared for is almost a given with Rockmill’s track record—and with Moore in the driver’s seat—but the kitchen shines just as bright as the bar in this first venture away from the farm.
The food is a revelation in the crowded, and often less than stellar space of gastropubs and “elevated bar food.” Chef Andrew Smith has done something truly special in the tiny kitchen tucked back next to the bar. The cheese and charcuterie board features house-pickled vegetables, black pepper and fennel salami, an assortment of cheeses, olives, and more, but the real star is the perfectly seasoned, deliciously fatty Duck Rillettes on crostini that perfectly pairs with the Rockmill Dubbel. This isn’t the only duck on the menu—far from it. Chef Smith’s Duck leg confit is served on top of a Deviled Duck Egg that might make you forget about chicken eggs entirely, and in the comforting Duck Leg Pot Pie with root vegetables, fried kale, and honey mustard. It’s a dish you’ll crave over and over again as the temperature continues to fall.
There is more traditional fowl available in the form of a spicy chicken sandwich, with bread and butter zucchini, and urfa mayo, on a brioche bun that is topped with a slab of honey butter and a charred fresno chili. It is messy and delightful, as the heat of the chili is cooled by the honey butter that coats your mouth, and accentuates the perfectly cooked juicy fried chicken. Sides such as fried-to-order pork rinds sprinkled with espresso, cayenne, and cinnamon; fries that are crispy outside with an almost mashed potato softness inside; and caramelized Brussels sprouts with honey mustard, should not be skipped.
Part of the charm of this food lies in its honesty and simplicity, allowing the execution of these seemingly mundane dishes to really shine. This is exemplified best in the Tavern Burger, which will go down as one of the best I’ve ever had. Far too often chefs mangle a simple cheeseburger into an absurd creation so far removed from the original that it loses all appeal. Luckily, Smith’s take on this classic toes the line, allowing enough room for something special. The six ounce patty from RL Valley Ranch is cooked just enough to hold its shape, and is topped with sweet and smoky bacon jam, pickled onion, sharp Tillamook Cheddar, and dijonaisse, on a ciabatta bun that is soft on the inside with a thin crunchy crust. It is flavorful and restrained, with only the slightest departures from the classic flavors, that make this an American staple. Just as in every sip of Rockmill beer, and every cocktail at the bar, every plate coming out of this kitchen makes it abundantly clear just how much thought and care went into its creation. But perhaps, more important than the staggering amount of work that went into each and every detail of the drinks, the food, and the experience at Rockmill Tavern, is its simplicity. It isn’t some overwrought concept trying desperately to recreate a sense of place. It just is. Were it not for the cars driving by just outside the windows, you would be forgiven for thinking you were back on the horse farm. This effect feels neither forced nor manufactured, it is natural. As if this space was just a previously absent dining room, albeit a large one, in the Lancaster farmhouse. This is the magic that Rockmill creates. The ability to seamlessly transport you to a new place, a new mindset, an entirely new state of being. Every detail is so thoroughly cared for that you allow your mind to simply be in the moment, never questioning how you stepped from a busy street just south of the downtown skyline and into a place that seems miles and miles away. Barbee and his team have proven that the same genuine comfort and community that made the pastoral taproom magical in the first place can find a home right here in the heart of the city.
Rockmill Tavern is located at 503 S Front St. For more, visit rockmillbrewery.com/tavern.