The filet mignon was two-inches thick and blushing, just a little.
It was exactly what the customer ordered and Dwayne Spencer, chef and owner of The Timeless Cafe at 18 S. Eighth St., nailed it.
But, wait a minute. Filet mignon? At Timeless? Yes, Spencer, who bought the popular downtown breakfast and lunch destination three years ago, has been quietly turning up the heat with new recipes, and, most recently, a series of BYOB dinners with entrees that would feel right at home in Philly’s foodie-savvy East Passyunk neighborhood.
Consider these offerings from his Valentine’s Day menu: Virginia oyster stew, honey-roasted beet salad, savory brie brûlée and smoked salmon, ginger-scented pork chop, crab and seafood galette and skillet-seared filet medallions with wild mushroom potato gratin, baby carrots, French beans and foie gras sauce.
These evening meals started as an occasional event, but are now an almost monthly feature that usually sells out. And with them, The Timeless Cafe becomes the latest in a growing number of restaurants finding a niche in downtown Lebanon after 5pm, which includes Hidden Still, Queso Dee’as, La Placita, Snitz Creek Brewing Company, and the longstanding Downtown Lounge.
“There’s a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into it,” Spencer said, during an interview shortly after closing one recent afternoon.
His young staff was used to taking breakfast and lunch orders from behind the counter, not waiting on a group at a table. So, he trained them.
“I wanted it done the way I thought was right,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be stuffy feeling, but I wanted quality service. I wanted the food to be good. I wanted people to come in and feel like they were at home, but then not have to worry about doing dishes afterwards.”
The addition of Stacey Morales, a veteran front-of-house leader whose credits include The Foundry (which moved to Lititz) and Hidden Stills, made it possible to increase the frequency of the dinners, Spencer said.
A safe bet
The success of Timeless’ dinners is another sign that Lebanon, too, can have a life after dark, said Amy N. Kopecky, director of Lebanon’s Business Improvement District, or BID.
The BID, a public/private partnership created to support downtown development, made safety concerns a priority. It installed eight security cameras downtown and plans more. It also added brighter LED lights along Willow Street between Fifth and Ninth streets, and signed a contract with Met-Ed to upgrade all sodium-vapor lights downtown.
The BID district covers Cumberland Street from Fourth Street to 11th Street, Willow Street from North Partridge (between Ninth and 10th) to North Cherry Street (between Fourth and Fifth streets.)
“We’ve had five ribbon cuttings in the last month,” Kopecky said. “The perceptions that people have (about crime) isn’t keeping businesses from coming downtown.”
When asked about the impact of fear on his business, Spencer sighed.
He knows customers who aren’t comfortable coming into the city at night, but he doesn’t think it’s warranted. When he was chef at The Foundry, he often left work late at night.
“I never experienced anything,” he said. “I never heard of anybody over there having any issues — bartenders or servers leaving with money — so I don’t know where that stereotype came from or that feeling.”
Deacon Richard Wentzel, a Timeless regular and pastoral associate at Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary Church a block up the street, doesn’t get it either.
“I don’t know why people are concerned,” he said, taking a break from his scrambled eggs. “Crime in Lebanon is not that bad.”
State Police crime reports support that statement. Based on data for 2018, the risk of violent crime is three times higher in nearby Lancaster and Harrisburg.
What would help downtown?
While better lighting and security are a good step forward for the city, what’s needed is a unified push to promote the city’s downtown, Spencer said.
His hometown, Lancaster, did it. When shopping malls were siphoning businesses and traffic away from the city, business and community leaders created a campaign to bring them back.
Spencer suggested the BID, Chamber of Commerce and the Center of Lebanon Association collaborate on events downtown.
“Combine the car show with a makers’ festival and a music festival or something else to make it a real draw,” he said.
The goal should be to attract visitors for the weekend, not just an afternoon, he said.
In the beginning
Spencer, a multi-award winning chef, who worked for restaurant guru Stephen Starr at Tangerine in Philadelphia, bought Timeless because he was tired and wanted more out of life.
“The restaurant business is usually pretty demanding, as far as hours go,” he said. “I was hoping that with the cafe hours it would allow me more free time, more family time.”
Though he never expected his dream to be a cafe, he’s happy with his decision. It allowed him to break away from the grueling late-night hours, and return to what inspired him to be a chef when he chooses, and on his own terms.
“Not being open at night time lends itself to doing more specialty things,” he said, such as paring dinners and pop-up dinners on Saturday nights.
During his two years as chef at one of the city’s most popular downtown dinner spots, Spencer became aware of the cafe’s strong reputation established by former owners Pam Brightbill and Tess Wathen, who started the business in January, 2006.
“If it had a bad reputation I probably would have changed the name and changed everything about it,” Spencer said. “But it had a great following and reviews, so the only thing I wanted to do from there was put my style and my interest into it.”
His changes were subtle. The clock theme remains — there are several on the walls, none with the correct time — but Spencer’s appreciation for the outdoors and art is evident as well. Paintings by local artists, including one by his daughter, share wall space with Andrew Wyeth, Vincent van Gogh and Winslow Homer.
Spencer’s logo is a beehive, a nod to his beekeeping pursuits. He makes and sells his own honey, and his farm-to-table fare is mostly from nearby Barefoot Organics at Greystone Farm.
“I was afraid to touch anything … because I didn’t want to lose the people that would come in here before,” he said.
And he didn’t.
Regular customers, some who have been coming since Brightbill and Wathen opened 12 years ago, returned and stayed.
Mary Kreitzer of North Cornwall Township, a regular along with her twin sister, Martha, was “devastated when it closed.” But now, she’s there several days a week.
“I was so glad when he reopened,” said Betty Arnold of Lebanon, who self-identifies as one of the cafe’s first customers.
“It’s like home to us,” added Lois Ostrander of North Cornwall Township.
Brightbill and Wathen were happy when Spencer offered to buy the business.
“He appreciated what we had invested and understood our philosophies,” Brightbill said via email. “Between that and his stellar reputation as an excellent chef, we were excited to see where he could take Timeless. His dinners are amazing and never fail to impress!”
Spencer built on that foundation, picking up fans of his own. Barbara and Ray Piazza of Ephrata come in on Tuesdays, often after riding their bikes on the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail.
“We enjoy going to coffee cafes that have a niche,” Ray said.
The couple listed several favorites around the region, including the Porch and Pantry in Mount Gretna.
Ray, a retired school teacher, and Barbara, a retired psychologist, praised the food, but said it is the cafe’s vibe that keeps them coming back.
“When you come into a place like this you get a different atmosphere,” Ray said, leaning back from his baked oatmeal. “There’s a lot of positive vibrations going all through this room.”
Thanks for reading LebTown!
Our stories are free to read thanks to the support of our members and advertisers.
Join LebTown this month as an annual member and you’ll reserve a mug of your own, plus all the usual benefits!
Learn more and join now here.