We never went out to eat a lot when I was a kid. But when we did, it was usually to Risser’s Family Restaurant in Stouchsburg.
It was always a favorite, a good diner with plenty of food at reasonable prices. And I absolutely loved their Pennsylvania Dutch specials.
When Risser’s closed in the wake of owner Ernie Risser’s death, it left much of western Berks and eastern Lebanon Counties looking for a place to go.
But the restaurant was reborn in late 2015, and the new Blue Star Family Restaurant is trying to create its own loyal following.
The restaurant’s name harkens back to the 1950s when the Blue Star Diner first opened in the spot, decades before Ernie Risser took it over. More than the name has changed, though, as the restaurant has undergone a significant overhaul under the new ownership.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the wall mural that canvasses one side of the dining room. The images of Pennsylvania Dutchmen and Dutchwomen, horses and buggies is as vibrant as ever, though a row of booths have been added where the dining room was once all tables.
The mural seems out-of-place now. The menu is no longer filled with Pennsylvania Dutch favorites (it’s unlikely that you’ll find stuffed pig stomach on the specials either). And the wall-mounted televisions are in stark contrast to the depictions of simple farm life.
One of the highlights of the old Risser’s was the expansive soup and salad bar. The current version has been scaled back. Gone is the soft ice cream machine (yes, that was part of the soup and salad bar). Two soups are offered daily instead of six. And while the ever-popular hot bacon dressing is no longer on the salad bar, it is still available by request.
I filled a bowl of beef vegetable soup and made a simple salad for the side. The soup was good, but a little too brothy with only a few small pieces of beef.
Julie grabbed a wider variety for her salad: mixed greens, bacon bits, hard-boiled egg, cheese and ranch dressing with applesauce and red skin potato salad on the side. The potato salad was the one thing that Julie could point to and say she didn’t enjoy as much as Risser’s. It was creamier than what the old restaurant served and not done in the Pennsylvania Dutch style.
Though the PA Dutch dinners are gone, the menu remains expansive with sandwiches, burgers, paninis, seafood entrees, comfort food dinners , pasta and a section of sautéed dishes.
That’s where I found the chicken Milano: chicken breast with roasted peppers, artichoke hearts and spinach in lemon garlic wine sauce over pasta.
I’ve had similar dishes at other restaurants and this was as good as any of them. The sauce wasn’t thick, but it soaked into everything, especially the chicken, giving the whole dish a hint of citrus and the familiar taste of garlic.
Along with the salad bar, my dinner came with one side. My choices were a baked potato, mashed potatoes, French fries, sweet potato fries, potato pancakes, corn nuggets or mac and cheese. None of them really go with pasta (and quite frankly, the soup and salad bar was enough because I took more than one-quarter of my meal home). I just went with the baked potato because it was first on the list.
Baked potatoes are not normally a go-to for me when dining out, and I was reminded why. The potatoes rely too much on add-ins for their flavor. I would have loved some chives and bacon. All I got was two little cups of butter and one cup of sour cream to spread on my foil-wrapped potato that was slightly undercooked. Next time I’ll try the fries.
On the other side of the table, Julie was enjoying a tower of roast beef on her open-faced sandwich. Partnered with mashed potatoes and loaded with gravy, it looked like Risser’s (the fact that it was served on a plate from the old restaurant, with its distinctive brown trim, probably helped).
It was true diner food done really well. The thin slices of beef were good, the gravy was flavorful and filling. The only thing I could say negatively about it was that the “real mashed potatoes” seemed a little too much like everyone else’s. It lacked that special something you expect from homemade versions.
On this occasion, we were dining with Julie’s family, her mom, dad, aunt and uncle. The dish that got the most attention around the table was macaroni and cheese, ordered by both her mother and aunt.
The mac and cheese was a special for the day and was definitely homemade. The noodles were tossed in creamy white American then doused in a pile of bright yellow cheddar. Everyone who tasted it raved about it and said they would get it if it was available next time.
One thing I can say for certain is that we all got our money’s worth. Julie and I spent less than $25 for our two meals (plus an iced tea for me).
The Blue Star Family Restaurant is not Risser’s. It’s a new restaurant doing things its own way.
That’s not a bad thing. And judging by the full parking lot when we arrived and when we left, I’d say a lot of people agree.