Long before our region was defined by the railroad, our cities and towns were carved by canals.
The small hamlet of Port Clinton, located just a few miles north of Hamburg and just across the line into Schuylkill County (quite literally, the border of Port Clinton is the border for the county), was a canal town.
Businesses in the town grew around the waterway. Businesses like the Port Clinton Hotel, which served meals and rented rooms to the canal boat crews who passed through on their way to or from Reading.
Today, the Hotel still serves a unique clientele. In addition to the residents of neighboring communities and those just visiting on their way to Cabela’s, the Port Clinton Hotel is a go-to for hikers along the Appalachian Trail.
On the opposite side of the Schuylkill River, the trail descends from the mountains, hanging a right through Port Clinton before crossing over Route 61 and leaving civilization again on its ascent to Maine.
The proximity to the trail means the Port Clinton Hotel is a sort of right-of-passage for hikers. Perhaps this is why the Port Clinton Hotel is serving portions fit for someone who hasn’t eaten in for days.
While I can appreciate those who dare to trek the trail, I favor the short drive over the long walk, so the only hiking I had to do was from the parking space to the back door.
Like many establishments that still have “hotel,” “tavern,” or “inn” in their names, the restaurant crams more seats into the dining room than would seem possible. Our party of six was placed in a side room, two four-person tables pushed together with just inches between our chairs and the wall.
The daily specials are found on a hand-written piece of paper in the center of the table, while drink specials are found on a dry erase board on the wall. The menu itself is extensive with pastas, dinner entrees, salads, and lots of fried foods and sandwiches.
As small as the dining area may feel, the portions seem just as gargantuan. On a previous trip, I had made the “mistake” of ordering an actual dinner: a chicken pot pie special served with a homemade roll. And because I was hungry, I started with a cup of chili. As it turns out, the “roll” was half a loaf of white bread, the pot pie could have probably filled four soup bowls, and I would have been satisfied with just the chili.
This time, I was more prepared, opting for a simple hot roast beef sandwich.
My sandwich was served floating in a reservoir of gravy with shreds of meat taking an evening swim. The top slice of bread bulged in the center as the pile of beef tried to force its way out the top.
The beef pulls apart, not like the slabs or slices you find at some diners. I managed to find a piece that wasn’t fully submerged and found it to be tender and moist. Even without the gravy, it would make a delicious sandwich.
Next to me, Julie was attacking a monster meal of her own. Her cheesesteak sandwich wrap was sliced in two, with each half being about the size of your average sandwich.
The wrap was simple—steak and cheese with a little bit of onion—but it was balanced perfectly. Like most of the sandwiches on the menu, the wrap came with side of potato chips, a bag of Lay’s placed right on the plate. With so much food already on the plate, there’s a good chance you’ll take the chips home anyway so it’s better to leave them in the bag.
Another reason to leave them in the bag is the Port Clinton Hotel’s famous French fries. The fresh cut fries are not available as a side order (except as part of a select few dinner combinations) so if you want them, be prepared to share.
With the large portions on the entrees, a small basket of fries is easily enough to satisfy a table of four (a large basket should probably be reserved for a small family reunion).
But when it comes to the Port Clinton Hotel, it’s not just quantity. It’s quality. Many restaurants offer their foods in big portions, but the food at Port Clinton is so good that you can’t help but try to finish it.
Four our two sandwiches and fries, our total bill came to around $30, a steal for such good food—and for so much of it.
The canal is gone, but the hotel remains, still serving great food to everyone who passes through the town, no matter how they arrive.