There are venerable restaurants in every city that launch a thousand tales told by a thousand patrons. A marriage proposal at Tavern on the Green, a first bowl of chowder at Union Oyster House or a celebrity sighting at Commander’s Palace become fodder for years of storytelling and elevate those places into their place in history.
In Watertown, one of our more storied eateries is the Fairground Inn. This restaurant, now run by one of the north country’s most prolific food families, the Colemans, originally opened in the 1930s. That means that generations of patrons have made memories here, including yours truly.
This was one of the first Italian restaurants in the area, but the interior has been updated since my childhood. The main dining room is now enlivened with murals of the Italian countryside running the length of the wall, with light fixtures festooned with heaps of grapes and vines. I couldn’t tell you the last time the Fairground Inn wasn’t busy when I was there, and the night we visited was no exception, with familiar faces and large families crowding into the cozy space.
A lot of the fried items on the starter menu are freezer-to-fryer processed foods, but our enthusiastic waitress, Allyson, steered us toward the calamari ($7.99) for a house-made appetizer. These tender squid were dredged in a very light flour mixture for a fragile, finely crispy exterior. Their flavor was mild, but dipped in the accompanying sweet chile sauce, they perked right up for a barely fiery, candied taste.
Potato skins ($6.99) are also made in-house, and each big half russet was packed with a pocket of minced bacon in the center and topped with browned, bubbly, sharp yellow cheddar cheese. They were savory and earthy, perfect with lots of cooling sour cream. I will say, a sprinkle of fresh chives, scallions or parsley on top would have been a nice contrast to just point these up a tiny bit, but we liked the, sans green just fine.
I have a lifelong love of soup, which basically originated at the Fairground Inn. My favorites, then and now, were the clam chowder and French onion.
The clam chowder ($3.99) here is one of the thickest I’ve had anywhere, the “broth” is creamy with lots of celery flavor and slightly chewy clams throughout. I like to add lots of black pepper for punch to the already well-seasoned potage.
The French onion ($3.99) was covered in a blanket of browned provolone cheese, keeping the soup inside hotter than the surface of the sun. Usually, the broth is beefy and salty, flavored with the aromatic, sweet essence of the cooked-down onions. This time, unfortunately, it tasted like maybe they had run out of soup sometime earlier in the day and tried to top off the pot without starting from scratch. The broth tasted like saltwater, lacking the depth of beef or vegetables.
By the time we ordered our main dishes, Allyson had been tipped off that we were there to review for the Times. That will happen at a place where you’re a regular. While most servers get kind of nervous and formal when they figure us out, Allyson became even more familiar, joking with us and getting to know us better. She, of course, was great to us, but I watched her care for her other tables, and I can promise you that everybody has a fun night out when Allyson’s working.
The Fairground Inn’s creamy house Italian salad dressing is a big deal. A couple decades ago they started selling it to go because they received so many requests. The salads are pretty de rigueur: iceberg lettuce, red onion, tomato and shredded carrots, but that sweet and tangy dressing is unique and delicious.
It’s really just a standard vinaigrette with lots of sugar and a little mayonnaise, I believe, but the whole equals more than the sum of its parts, and once you try it, you’ll never order another dressing for your salad here. A tip from me to you: Ask for your salad dressed up with bacon and chopped hard-boiled egg. It’s a variation dreamt up by a friend of mine, and the salty bacon and earthy egg pair beautifully with that tart, sweet dressing.
The Italian sandwich ($6.79), served, as the diner requested, on a sub roll (it usually comes on a round bun), sports a thick pile of thinly sliced salami and ham, with crunchy, fresh green peppers and red onions for a note of vegetal sharpness amid all the richness of the meat. Tomatoes and provolone cheese round out the enormously satisfying heft of this big boy, along with a bit of Italian dressing to bring everything together.
It comes with wavy potato chips, in case the salt content of this meal hasn’t already bloated you beyond all recognition — in the best way possible (insert decadent foodie grin here).
A personal white pizza ($5.29) is big enough for two, especially if you’ve had appetizers — although if you’re smart, you’ll just keep the leftovers for yourself. Four mammoth slices of garlic lovers’ heaven arrive on a relatively thin crust that still has a good chew to it. There’s lots of garlic, oil and salty, goopy cheese on this beauty — eating it is like making really fabulous garlic bread into your entire dinner and not feeling guilty about it. I mean, you can feel guilty if you want to, but what's an extra three hours on the treadmill? Pshaw.
The meatball sandwich ($6.29) arrived looking like a UFO that had been covered in marinara sauce. It’s made on that Italian bun I mentioned before, and it’s a massive amount of food for under $7. The tomato sauce at the Fairgrounds is cooked down and flavorful, enriched with lots of tomato paste for a deep taste.
Unfortunately, this visit, the meatballs were not their usual flavorful, tender selves. These were very tough and had no flavor of their own. It really shows you how important it is for a restaurant to achieve consistency in the kitchen, because whomever had made the meatballs that day had apparently skipped some seasonings and mixed the meat beyond belief, to the detriment of the final product.
The beef dip ($7.08) at the Fairgrounds is my favorite. Almost 2 inches of tender, sliced roast beef are piled on a squishy, sesame-seeded Italian bun with a slice of provolone and served with a big cup of beefy, rich au jus sauce for dipping. So you grab a half of the sandwich and you dunk it in the jus, making for the juiciest, beefiest bite ever.
The roll is key — it has to be airy enough to absorb lots of jus but sturdy enough not to disintegrate before you can cram it into your mouth. The Fairgrounds does it perfectly — this dish can be too salty or the jus can be too watery, but here, it’s always just right. I’ve had versions of this sandwich elsewhere in which the bread is made like garlic bread, or the beef was more flavorful, but I come back to this simple greatness every time.
The Fairground Inn chicken ($12.99) consists of two boneless chicken cutlets smothered in roasted red peppers, mushrooms and Alfredo sauce. The sauce is well-seasoned and robustly cheesy, and it balances the sweetness of the peppers and the woodsy, sort of beefy mushrooms to round the dish out very well. The baked potato alongside was cooked through perfectly.
Tollhouse pie ($4.99) is, essentially, a warm chocolate chip cookie in pie form. Think rich chocolate, the warming flavors of brown sugar and cinnamon and the sweet richness of whipped eggs, butter and sugar rendered in a 2-inch-thick, still gooey cookie, and you’ll understand exactly how good it was. This slice was studded with tons of chocolate and topped with chocolate sauce, which received thumbs ups from all who tried it.
The banana cream pie ($4.99) is another Fairground Inn favorite from my youth. It’s a very simple version of this Southern classic, with a flaky pie crust, a layer of sliced bananas and a vanilla custard filling topped with whipped cream. It is creamy and very mildly banana-y, not the best or the most gourmet banana cream pie I’ve ever had, but certainly the most nostalgic. It is perfect in its simplicity, for me.
Coconut cream pie ($499) is another simple, but good, rendering. More flaky crust, more thick vanilla custard, more whipped cream, but this time, it’s got shredded, sweetened coconut running through it. Nothing fancy, but certainly tasty.
Dinner for six, with two rounds of drinks, two appetizers and three desserts to share, ran us $110.30, and right there is one of the big reasons my family has been eating at the Fairground Inn regularly for nearly 40 years: lots of good food for low prices.
The Fairground Inn is a place where people come together. You can go there for lunch and see everything from groups of girlfriends taking a shopping break, to Canadians on their way through town, to families with small children being thankful that someone else is doing the cooking. The food is accessible, the atmosphere comfortable. You can get everything from fajitas to pasta to gourmet sandwiches, and for the most part, it’s pretty terrific.
Unfortunately, we did have a few weak dishes time time. I’ve noticed over the years that consistency can be a problem — but a restaurant with more than 80 years of serving food can’t be perfect every time.
I give the Fairground Inn a seven on the Big Hungry Scale (Allyson’s warm, wonderful service is worth a whole point of that score). And look, you know I’ll be back. This place is as much a part of me as cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, the playground at Thomspon Park and feeding the ducks at the public dock in Sackets Harbor. If you mapped my DNA, you’d find clam chowder, a beef dip and banana cream pie from the Fairground Inn in the matrix, I bet.
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