Ah, Brown County. We always know just what to expect: the gorgeous autumn colors, the woodsy hikes, the rolling hills, charming little Nashville with its charming little shops. And then there’s the food—places like the Nashville House and the Artists Colony Inn that specialize in familiar country favorites. Fried chicken. Steaming biscuits. Ribs. Apple butter. Cream pies. On a recent trip down south, we found the classics still cooking, in every sense—and found also that the Story Inn, another Brown County star that sometimes get overlooked, was turning out sophisticated local flavors that make the trip worthwhile in themselves.
Originally a general store, circa 1851, the Story Inn (6404 S. State Rd. 135, Nashville, 812-988-2273) became a restaurant in the 1970s—but it wasn’t until new owners redid the place in the 1990s that it became a true Brown County destination. It’s easy to see how it is still a bit of a secret to even the locals, though: Tucked far back in the hills of Nashville, Story Inn sits on the type of winding country road where you’re likely to see a deer skittering across or a wild turkey waddling alongside.
We arrived at dinnertime on a coolish evening late in the summer. As we climbed out of the car in the gravel parking lot, the green smell of woods greeted us, as did the weathered restaurant with its tin facade and wide front porch. Stepping over a cat licking her paws in the doorway, we entered the dining room, where candles in hurricane lamps flickered next to vases filled with flowers from nearby fields. At Story, antique farm equipment bedecks the walls; mason jars, canned goods, and knickknacks line the shelves; and white-clothed tables are scattered cozily throughout the dining room. A wood-burning stove sits in the corner. The place is, in a word, Hoosier.
The food, too, is down-home, though in a most cultivated way. One summertime salad was made with heirloom tomatoes grown in the garden out back, topped with fried crisps made from onions growing in the same garden. The herbs are theirs, too, and the steamed asparagus and sweet potatoes, the week’s produce from nearby farmers markets. Duck, pork, and lamb are also locally raised—and smartly served. Take, for example, the chili-maple glazed pork, two tender chops that chef Leann Arney presented with a thin maple-syrup reduction over roasted sweet potatoes. The meat was perfect, its faint twinge of lime complemented by the mellow sweetness of the syrup and a wonderfully chewy candied fig.
Soft and buttery, stuffed with roasted shallots and served with a light, citrusy orzo salad, the Wisconsin trout was almost as good. Dessert was a voluptuous chocolate mousse with freshly whipped cream and a sprig of mint (from the herb garden, of course). We sat, amidst the saws and the piped-in Beethoven, sipping wine from an impressive list and gazing at the lush green foliage outside, and we just couldn’t imagine anything better than Story Inn on a warm summer night. Except, perhaps, the Story Inn come October, when the air is crisp and the greens have turned to the golds that everyone comes here to see.
Restaurants more traditionally associated with Brown County are closer to the heart of Nashville. There, you can smell (mixed with fragrant cider) the fried chicken that is the area’s signature meal. The quintessential experience must include a dinner at the Nashville House (the corner of Main and Van Buren streets, 812-988-4554), where you’ll find those homey standards the Story Inn so pointedly skips. A dining room with bench seating and tables decked in red-and-white-checkered cloths seats a couple hundred guests, most of whom stick to the chicken (which deserves its reputation as the best in the county—it’s juicy and hot, with a crunchy, not overly breaded skin).
On our last trip, though, we tried the fried ham steak with red gravy—and weren’t the least bit sorry. A thick slab is at once salty and sweet (having been sugar-cured), and served with buttery corn (likely canned, but fine), the famed fried biscuits and loads of apple butter. All the other usual hearty suspects—ribs, roast beef, roast turkey—are available, too, and they’re served in such heaping portions that no single diner ought try to finish one alone, especially considering the cream pie you’ll want for dessert.
At first glance, the Artists Colony Inn (105 S. Van Buren St., Nashville, 812-988-0660) is also all about the art of the familiar: Diners sit in austere spindle-back chairs at solid wooden tables; service is far more Midwestern-familiar than professional-polite; local fare (breaded tenderloins, meatloaf) is abundant. But the entrees have enough of a spin to show that someone’s awake in the kitchen. The catfish sports a surprisingly light batter, not overpowering the flaky fish, and the potpie’s sauce does not overwhelm the tender chicken within.
For a restaurant that reflects such deep Indiana roots, however (the Inn proudly displays artworks by local artists), the Artists Colony is also subtly progressive, featuring, for example, a baked onion soup and “sun fries” (deep-fried slices of sweet potatoes). In other words, enough to satisfy diners who have had their fill of more “classic” Brown County—however one has traditionally defined it.
6404 S. State Road 135, Nashville, 812-988-2273
Hours: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Reservations required for dinner.
Prices: Breakfast $5 to $10; brunch $12 to $14; lunch $4 to $11; dinner $20 to $32.
Service: Smart, hospitable and adept at making recommendations.
The corner of Main and Van Buren streets, Nashville, 812-988-4554
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily for the month of October; regularly, the restaurant is open 11:30 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. Wednesday through Monday.
Prices: Lunch and dinner $13.95 to $22.95.
Service: Minimal, but practiced and polite.
105 S. Van Buren St., Nashville, 812-988-0660
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Breakfast $3.99 to $11.99; lunch and dinner $4.99 to $26.99.
Service: Laid-back and friendly, but prompt.
This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue.