What’s at the heart of a great restaurant? Serving healthy, delicious food that keeps customers coming back for more is certainly a good start. But a transcendent dining experience happens when a passion runs through the staff, from the back of the house to the front of the house.
“I want them to be proud of what we do here,” explains Elizabeth Wiley, one of three partners that own Meadowlark Restaurant in Kettering and Wheat Penny Oven and Bar in Dayton. She adds, “I want to be a good example.”
Wiley - who’s gone by Wiley since age 11 when “there were so many Beths in my class that we started calling each other by our last names” - grew up in Kansas surrounded by good food. Her aunt and uncle owned an “old school,” from-scratch lunch dinner that included a bar.
“My Aunt Grace was a great cook,” she notes of her Aunt’s early influence as she talks about her aunt’s lifelong devotion to good food. “She cooked ‘til the day she died.”
Later influences would come in San Francisco, where she had traveled with the team’s second partner, Liz Valenti. At the time, San Francisco was the hotbed of a food revolution, where legendary chefs such as Alice Waters at and Judy Rodgers at Zuni Café were utilizing fresh, local ingredients and creating healthy yet exciting dishes.
Valenti and Wiley first met at Grinnell College in Iowa. Valenti is at the helm at Wheat Penny, while the third partner, Dave Rawson, spends time at both restaurants. Wiley refers to Rawson as “the glue that keeps us all together.” Rawson and Wiley met at the Winds Café, located in Yellow Springs, and many people consider the Winds to be the first “farm-to-table” restaurant in the Miami Valley.
At Meadowlark, a warm and inviting ambience enhances the dining experience. Exposed brick walls, a few large butcher block tables among more intimate tables, and local artwork sets a scene that complements the cuisine. A cuisine prepared to satisfy just about anyone’s taste.
The kitchen uses local, organic, or natural ingredients whenever possible, and prepares just about everything from scratch. That said, as a successful businesswoman, Wiley points out: “Local shouldn’t trump flavor, or even sometimes cost. We have to make it work. The fun part is weighing what you can do and can’t do.”
Serving up lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch, Meadowlark’s up-to-date eclectic menus offer patrons a broad array of options including fresh salads, pastas, seafood, pork, steak, and masterful sandwiches. While Wiley has occasionally described the restaurant as “unapologetically Midwest,” the menu is not strictly American, or easy to fit into a box. With a nod to the tradition of an Asian population in the area since World War II, one customer favorite is the Vietnamese Noodle Salad.
Further, in Chicago, Wiley worked with award-winning, PBS star chef Rick Bayless, who specializes in traditional Mexican fare. That experience is perhaps one reason the kitchen has a deft hand at items such as Huevos Rancheros, which shows up on the brunch menu.
Beyond the scheduled fare, the chefs are always willing to venture off the menu to cater to dietary needs; or, perhaps, just whims. For example, one customer has a list on file in the kitchen of what she can or can’t eat.
“She is so appreciative,” Wiley says, adding, “Feeding people, making people happy is why they come in. It’s good business sense to cater to diets.”
Not only that, creating a restaurant’s own specific item, such as the gluten-free pizza crust that Valenti makes at Wheat Penny, goes a long way to turning a one-time guest into a loyal customer.
When it’s all said and done, or, shall we say, prepped and sautéed, certainly one thing at the heart of health and wellness is great cooking, an inviting atmosphere surrounded by family and friends, a desire to grow and learn, and simply loving what you do for a living.