Renee Lewis gave her brother a mission: buy the old Masonic Temple in Lisbon with its grand architecture and marble walls. Instead he purchased the Hamilton Building, which, despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was an undistinguished building on the corner of West Lincoln Way and Park Avenue in Lisbon’s quaint downtown.
At first Lewis was dismayed, but then she learned about the history of the building, the oldest brick structure in Ohio. Alternately an inn and law office, the Courthouse has hosted five American presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Cleveland, and McKinley), Lincoln’s attorney during the Civil War (Edwin Stanton), and marks the site where the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off to discover America. Since these august beginnings in the early 1800s, however, the building hosted a succession of less glamorous businesses and had partly fallen into disuse.
Renee Lewis, a Buckeye native, is a top-notch New York City jewelry designer whose creations have graced the necks and lapels of a number of wealthy patrons and Hollywood luminaries (not to drop any names, but George Clooney wears her refurbished jewels). A frequent visitor to her home state, she wanted a building she could transform.
“I wanted to make a building that was like a piece of jewelry,” Lewis said. “I wasn’t eager to create a business. I wanted to turn a building into something.” The purchase of the Hamilton Building initiated an 11-year quest to do just that. The end result is the Courtyard Inn & Restaurant, which offers exquisite vegetarian food and a unique inn. And the building looks like something an artist would create.
Electric tapers burn outside the ornate doors which were saved an 1804 house which was being demolished. Inside, the Courtyard sports a glowing dessert rack, a fully-stocked bar, and copper-topped tables. An original wood ceiling stands above varnished wood booths made from refurbished floorboards. Original bare brick walls—literally baked by the sun in the back of the building because a kiln was not available—offset the glass objets d’art and the intricate metal casings hung over the banks of casement windows. The space has a warm ambiance that is a blend of down-home country and urban chic. The upstairs has been transformed into an exclusive inn decorated with stained glass windows saved from the Packard Mansion.
The culinary fare strives to match the artistry of the building. “We only buy the finest food, nothing frozen. We don’t even have a microwave on the premises,” said Lewis, a statement which reflects the Courthouse’s attitude toward anything not fresh from the garden. “Frozen foods are never acceptable to the standards to which we hold true,” the menus read.
Everything is made from scratch in the Courtyard kitchen. Fresh produce comes from local farms and businesses daily. Likewise, everything is made fresh daily; if there is food left-over at the end of the day it is given to staff, and the cooks start anew the next morning.
Desserts are baked by a local 81-year-old retiree whose daughter helps with the baking and is also the restaurant’s horticulturalist. “Every night the case is empty,” a server tells us. “People just come in and clean it out.”
While this reporter’s opinion might be biased, the food is truly remarkable. “That was the best vegetarian meal I’ve ever had,” one first-time patron gushed over the vegetarian meatloaf and gravy fries.
Everything about this restaurant hinges on the concept of freshness made local. In fact, the Courthouse philosophy is the first thing one sees on the menu. “The concept of our restaurant is a very simple, yet complex notion,” it reads at the top of the first page. “We strive to serve you the finest vegetarian comfort food, made from the freshest organic, local farm to table foods available.”
This dedication to fresh in-house cooking bucks the current trend for restaurants, even gourmet establishments, which order premade food items from national distributors, to save costs. The Courthouse Inn uses only pure butter and oils, organic flour, and free-range eggs. Its cocktails are made from fresh-squeezed juice. Another purpose, according to the menu, is to provide the good and familiar: “The idea of comfort food is to serve foods easily recognizable to all.”
Four Cheese Mac & Cheese, Eggplant Parm, Butternut Squash Lasagna, and Margherita Pizza all had their place on the menu during a recent visit. The menu also includes vegan and gluten-free options. Entrees run from $10 to $12 generally.
Wearing two hats as New York jewelry designer and Ohio restaurateur, Lewis drives between New York and Lisbon, two dogs in the backseat, approximately every three weeks to check on her artwork in progress. Part of the building has become a private residence for Lewis and her husband. Her equally artistic living space sits next to the back patio outfitted with jade furniture hewn from genuine Chinese jade.
Jade is considered a national treasure in China, and it’s illegal to remove jade objects from the country. However, a loophole in Chinese law allows for raw uncut jade to be sold in bulk. The large jade stones found at the Courtyard traveled by ship to Seattle, by train to New York, and by truck to Columbus. There it was cut into furniture three years after Lewis’ original purchase.
Part of the Country Inn’s mission is to work with the community, and patrons stop to pat Lewis on the shoulder. “All my animal-loving daughters love this place,” one patron offers as she passes Lewis in the restaurant. Another waves and shouts from the sidewalk as Renee, who is a flurry of energy and enthusiasm, sets out locally grown perennial flowers on the patio.
Her purpose is to provide the best comfort food possible, costs be damned. “Restaurants want to make money,” she says, “but that’s not our concern here.” Lewis wants to win a Michelin Star or two and will say so. “We’re striving to be world-class, and our food is as good as any vegetarian fare anywhere in the world. And every day we strive to get a little better.”
Lewis personally works with the Courthouse chef to further develop the menu and gauges the results with the Inn’s two vegetarian servers. “You always have to be creative,” she says. “I don’t want anyone in the kitchen to get bored.”
The Courthouse Inn & Restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week, 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday. The Inn has a parking lot in the back, and there’s on-street parking available.
Friday and Saturday evenings will feature the jazz stylings of local guitarist Paul Scott during the summer.
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