By Guy D’Astolfo | December 12, 2019 | Business Journal
LISBON, Ohio – The Courthouse Inn seems out of place in Lisbon, like it was plucked from some foodie mecca and dropped into the heart of this sleepy village.
An opulent mix of historical and modern, it is one of the most unusual restaurants within a wide radius.
In owner-operator Renee Lewis’ words, “it’s magical.”
With its history, its incredible renovation, and a vegetarian menu that takes an artful approach to comfort food, The Courthouse Inn is a destination restaurant. Its customers come almost entirely from beyond Lisbon and the rural townships that surround it: Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Akron and elsewhere.
The Inn is the realized vision of Lewis, a Salem native who made her name as a high-end jewelry maker in New York.
It’s a work of art for art’s sake; Lewis readily admits that the pursuit of profit was never her objective.
In addition to being an artist, Lewis is a vegetarian and a Columbiana County native. That intersection of traits and talents explains why The Courthouse Inn came to exist, and why it’s in Lisbon.
When asked about her restaurant, Lewis starts with what goes into the kitchen and what comes out of it.
“Our food is organic, it’s from local sources, farm to table, and everything is made from scratch,” she says. “There is no processed food and no freezer on the premises. We never use frozen food. There is no microwave oven here. We use a traditional oven and everything we get is cooked every day. And all of our baked goods are made from scratch with butter.”
Why is she so uncompromising?
“Because I’m a perfectionist,” Lewis responds. “That’s the way I want to eat and that’s the way I want to feed people.”
It’s a philosophy that extends to her building.
“I spent 11 years renovating this building, which is the oldest one in Ohio,” she says. “I did it perfectly because that’s the way I want everything I touch. I have a lot of pride in what I do.”
Lewis and her husband, Michael Spirtos, purchased the structure at 116 W. Lincoln Way about 15 years ago and spent 11 years renovating it before opening in 2016.
Known as the Hamilton Building, it sits next to the Columbiana County Courthouse. History was made there shortly after it opened in 1803, as one of the most renowned expeditions in North America was launched from it.
“Lewis met Clark here before they got on the Ohio River to explore the West in 1806,” says Lewis.
Lewis won’t reveal how much she has spent on the building, except to say “too much.” She points out that the fine-tuning continues, so the final price has yet to be determined.
She had every beam of wood restored, and installed heavy bronze door and window frames. Steel beams, which were added to support the weight of the bronze, are hidden beneath dazzling mirror-tile facades – although some were left exposed as a reminder of the work that went into the renovation.
The floor tiles were baked in Mexico. Art from Lewis’ collection hangs on the walls. The opulence continues in the outdoor courtyard dining area.
“The [stone] tables and seats are all natural jade that I had brought in from China and had cut and polished,” she says. “The metalwork is all handmade wrought iron, and the patio [slabs] are all natural stone from Beaver Creek.”
Adjacent to the courtyard is an equally grand home that Lewis and Spirtos had built as their residence. Tucked into the historic building, the home looks like something out of a storybook. Lewis calls it “the fairy tale castle.”
The couple split their time between New York and Lisbon, traveling every three weeks or so. Their home in Nyack, N.Y., is on the market and they plan to live in Lisbon after it is sold.
The Courthouse Inn employs 19 people, including head chef Devon Arend. A native of Guilford Lake, Arend has no formal culinary training, learning his art on the job.
“I worked my way up from dishwasher,” he says. His career has taken him from a Red Lobster, to Drakes Landing, and the kitchen of a Pittsburgh-area country club.
Like Lewis, he is a Salem High School graduate.
The plant-based dishes Arend and his cooks prepare are beautiful to behold. Most important, they are full-flavored. The top sellers include Stuffed Shells Amelia, a take on the Italian dish, and Fireside Loaf, which looks like meatloaf but is made from roasted mushrooms and vegetables, and has a sweet glaze.
Arend looks to American comfort foods for inspiration for his recipes. “I adapt dishes but with other proteins,” he says. “There is no meat or chicken.”
The chef places a priority on textures and colors in selecting vegetable ingredients that could tempt a carnivore.
The Courthouse Inn also has a bar area and a wine cellar that features highly-rated bottles from across the globe, says Spirtos, who is a native of North Carolina.
A vegetarian her entire life, Lewis is critical of the meat industry.
“People are now going for a plant-based diet not just because they realize it is healthier but also because how we feed and take care of [livestock] is very unhealthy. They don’t feed the animals correctly because they want [the meat] cheap,” she says, citing feedlots that fatten the animals on offal and other feed that is not part of their natural diet.
“Vegetables cost more than meat,” she says. “We pay more for a pound of organic vegetables than you pay for beef.”
Lewis says her weekly bill for fresh organic lettuce alone is $350. The Courthouse Inn buys its eggs from a farmer on U.S. Route 30 in Columbiana County.
“People say our omelets are the best they’ve ever tasted. The eggs come from free-range chickens that eat what they are supposed to eat – bugs and insects in the ground,” says Lewis. “In the summer, the Mennonite farmers here are fabulous. In the winter, we go with root vegetables and squash and import things from California. But it is organic on all occasions. We buy from small purveyors who like to do things the natural way and when they come here and eat, they are so proud. It gives them a livelihood. It’s all good.”
With all entrees priced between $20 and $22, and appetizers, pizzas and salads at $11 to $18, Lewis says she loses money on every customer.
“We’ve never made a profit,” she says. “I hope to some day break even, where at least it’s not costing us money. And if we do make money, we’ll give it to [our employees], give them hospitalization insurance. We would like to do things better. That’s the whole point to me, do it better.”
In business for four years, The Courthouse Inn has built its clientele by word of mouth.
“A lot of women come here for lunch and then they bring their husbands, kind of kicking and screaming because they don’t want to eat vegetarian food,” says Lewis. “And then they say ‘I thought it was going to be all lettuce’ and so many say, ‘Oh my gosh, your food is fabulous.’ Many say ‘This is my favorite restaurant ever.’ ”
One popular item on the menu – Renelee’s Homestyle Favorites – is named for Lewis (her full first name is pronounced Ren-ee-lee).
“It’s macaroni and cheese, baked beans, cornbread and homemade cole slaw,” she says. “We use four cheeses, all European cheeses and no American, because I don’t like the way they treat their cows. Also, they use rennet whereas in Europe they use fig juice, which tastes so much better.”
After graduating from Salem High School, Lewis went to Youngstown State University for one quarter but dropped out because “they wanted me to take history and math but I didn’t want to waste time,” she says. “I wanted to get busy with my life.”
She moved to New York and became a very successful designer of jewelry.
Lewis sees The Courthouse Inn as a way to give back to the area she is from, and says it is a catalyst in the rebirth of downtown Lisbon.
She and her husband have already purchased another building in downtown Lisbon – the former Morgan Drugstore building – and are renovating it into retail space and apartments.
Now dubbed The Phoenix, the building just a couple blocks away from their restaurant will house an art gallery, an apothecary and a natural jewel healing room with “a pyramid ceiling waterfall of jewels – something that has never been done in this country before,” she says.
One thing the new project won’t have is a restaurant.
“The Courthouse Inn is my first and last restaurant,” says Lewis. “It’s an animal, an entity, and to keep talent working here, and people happy, it’s a job.”
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