What constitutes success in an industry that is rife with challenges? In the case of The Belvedere Inn, the buzz that surrounds the menu, the décor, the staff and the promise of a fun evening out continues to drive its success. Still, it’s been a long and winding road for owner Dean Oberholtzer to reach this milestone anniversary. “Change is a constant, especially in this business,” he has discovered. “You just have to learn to go with the flow to survive.”
Survive he has. Dean and his partners, Justin Ang, John Costanzo and Daniel LeBoon, now oversee four restaurants, all of which are in the city. In addition to The Belvedere Inn, their hospitality company, Vescor, operates Josephine’s Downtown, C’est La Vie and 401 Prime. While the three additions to the portfolio follow in the footsteps of the Belvedere where food, décor and the entertainment factor are concerned, each possesses its own unique menu and personality.
The Sky is Not the Limit
Becoming a restaurateur was not always in Dean’s plans. His grandfather and father, Leon Oberholtzer, were Mennonite ministers and missionaries. Church assignments took the family as far away as Tampa, Florida, and as nearby as Steelton, Dauphin County. Home base was a house Dean’s grandparents had built on his great-grandfather’s Leola-area farm. “I grew up along Creek Road,” he notes, adding that his parents resided there until their recent move to a local retirement community. A graduate of Lancaster Mennonite High School, Dean set his sights on the skies and enrolled in the aviation program at Hesston College in Kansas. He soon decided it would be better if he kept his feet on the ground.
Debt from college loans prompted the need to find a job. “My dad got me a job [with a kitchen manufacturer], but I hated it,” Dean recalls, adding that he was disheartened to learn that friends were making more money bartending and waiting tables at local restaurants than he was on a production line. Opportunity knocked and Dean became a banquet server at the former Historic Strasburg Inn. He immediately recognized that he had found his niche.
After two years at the Historic Strasburg, he then accepted a position at the former Olde Greenfield Inn. “I originally worked for Janet and Elam Lapp, and when Ray and Sue Hottenstein took over, I worked for them for five years. I went from being a server to being a manager one night a week. I consider Ray and [the late] Bob Fenninger, as well as John Keares, to be my biggest mentors. I learned so much from them.”
From the Greenfield, Dean went to work for the Keares Group, first at Doc Holliday’s and then at Gibraltar, where he was tapped to be the opening manager.
A Harmonious Collaboration
That’s where he met Shirley Fultineer, whose dream was to open a bar. She achieved that goal through Dean and went on to become his right-hand woman. Shirley had learned through the grapevine that John and Katina Keares, owners of the Harmony Inn, a popular bar and restaurant at the corner of North Queen and West Lemon streets, were looking for new partners and a new direction. Dean, along with Owen Seachrist, took a meeting (arranged by Shirley) with the couple. The two ultimately became the Keares’ new partners at the Harmony Inn. A name change followed. The Belvedere Inn made its debut in July 1998, which according to Dean, “seems a lifetime ago.”
Dean was determined that Shirley would play a key role at the restaurant. “She became ‘the face’ of the Belvedere,” he says of her role as the restaurant’s assistant manager. Shirley was often the first staff member arriving guests would encounter. “I was happy to let her take on that role,” he says. “I was content to stay behind the scenes.”
C’est la Vie
Inspired by French bistros, this window-filled restaurant provides a view of Central Market. Here, the color scheme is earthy and the vibe is casually upscale. The menu is adventurous and includes hors d’ oeuvres, sandwiches (Croque Monsieur), brick-oven pizzas and entrées such as boeuf bourguignon and coquille Saint Jacques. The bar specializes in inventive cocktails.
The earthy color scheme stumped Dean as to how to decorate the space for the holidays. Entrer Tim Arpin of The Gilded Lily, who introduced metallic neutrals, earth tones and other elements to the décor.
C’est La Vie is located at 18 North Market Street. Lunch and dinner are available Tuesday-Saturday. Clvlancaster.com.
Five years in, Dean bought out his partners and was able put his own spin on the menu and décor. “When we opened the Belvedere in 1998, our vision was to provide a fun place that served great food and drinks in a warm, friendly, elegant and lively atmosphere,” he recalled in an article that appeared in this magazine in 2008. Now, he was ready to up the ante.
You could say that Dean essentially returned the Belvedere to its roots. Built in 1869 by Strasburg tobacco merchant, John S. Rohrer, the Italianate-style residence was designed with hospitality in mind. It was here that Rohrer entertained friends and colleagues, inviting them to climb to the rooftop “belvedere” and take in the views it offered of the city.
According to records, the building served as a residence until sometime in the 1920s, at which time it became the home of the private Harmony Club. Over the years it served as a bar and as a boarding house, becoming the Harmony Inn sometime in the late ’50s or early ’60s.
David Haines bought it in 1981 and sold it six years later to open D&S Brasserie with Steve Kirkessner. They would again join forces in 2009 to open D&S Fireside Tavern, which is located at the Historic Strasburg Inn (now Clarion Inn Historic Strasburg), verifying that everything in Lancaster is truly connected, especially in the restaurant industry! Adding to that sense of connectivity is the fact that Dean celebrated his 21st birthday with a drink at the Harmony Inn’s bar.
Recognizing its Potential
Ahead of the Belvedere’s 1998 debut, the restaurant was refreshed with paint and new carpet. Still, Dean always felt the potential was there for more. Prior to the Belvedere’s 10th anniversary, Dean collaborated with the late designer, John W. Hughes, to redecorate the building top to bottom. The results were breathtaking and reflected an elevated sense of Victorian elegance via animal-print carpet, vivid wall color, faux painting techniques, beautiful artwork and lighting fixtures and the list goes on. While the rooftop belvedere is now off-limits, a gardenesque balcony on the second floor provides views of the neighborhood’s streetscape. The bar echoes the restaurant’s sophisticated yet friendly ambiance.
When Tom Ponessa first showed Dean his beautiful restaurant, Amorette, Dean admits he was a bit jealous. “He had done a gorgeous job [designing and decorating it]. I was envious. I was blown away! Then I got a little nervous, knowing it was only a block away from the Belvedere.” Opened in 2018, Amorette specialized in Asian- and French-inspired food. Its wine program was unsurpassed. The pandemic forced it to close in 2020 and it did not reopen until summer 2021.
When Ponessa decided to sell, Dean was one of the first people he approached to take it over. “There was no question; I said yes right away,” he recalls. Renamed 401 Prime, the restaurant takes its inspiration from upscale steakhouses of yesteryear but puts a modern-day spin on the concept through offering products such as wagyu beef. “We didn’t change a thing except to transform a wine cooler into a meat-aging fridge,” Dean reports. Open since last November, the team still made it a priority to enliven the beautiful décor with holiday decorations.
401 Prime is located at 401 North Prince Street. It is open Tuesday-Saturday for dinner. 401primelancaster.com.
The Belvedere also has a unique lounge area on the second floor that has been called Crazy Shirley’s since its inception. Its logo pays homage to its inspiration – Shirley Fultineer – right down to the animal-print eyeglasses and cigarette. “Shirley loved animal print,” Dean remarks of his long-time friend and colleague, who died at the age of 85 in August 2021. It’s been the scene of musical entertainment for the last 25 years. After a break due to Covid restrictions, Crazy Shirley’s is back on track. Currently, on the second Sunday of each month, Lindsay Bretz Morgan (who is also a server) brings her cabaret show, Showtune Sundays, to Crazy Shirley’s. Live jazz is offered on Friday and Saturday evenings.
A Mainstay: Grilled Caesar Salad
As for the menu, the Belvedere has been a trend setter since it opened. Dean shrugs at the notion that he helped to pioneer farm-to-table dining in Lancaster. “Farmers would just show up at the back door with produce and we’d buy it,” he says of incorporating Lancaster County farm-fresh products into the menu. “It didn’t even have a name then,” he says of the farm-to-table concept. “It was something we just started doing because of the freshness factor.”
No doubt, the best-known item on the menu is the restaurant’s heralded grilled Caesar salad that has been available since day one. Starters range from lobster & crab dip to Belvie Sliders (wagyu beef and an array of toppings served on a bao bun). Entrées include such favorites as four-hour braised short ribs and pan-seared halibut (with cranberry bean ragout). Desserts include a modernized Lancaster County favorite: chocolate peanut butter bread pudding.
Victorian Goes Modern
Aware that The Belvedere’s 25th anniversary was approaching, Dean deemed it was time for a complete makeover. “It needed to be done,” he says. Having worked with Olga Lambesis, a designer from Hershey, on decorating C’est La Vie and Josephine’s, he once again relied on her talents to update the Belvedere. “Olga’s great at tweaking my ideas and making them special,” he says. “She also takes my old-fashioned ideas and puts a contemporary spin on them.”
The makeover was executed last year and unveiled in time for the holidays. The transformation brings a modern spin to the interiors. Step inside the entry doors and you’ll immediately notice a beautiful chandelier. “The owners of Next to New called and said I had to see it,” he says of the find. “They were right; I had to have it!” The tiled floor and carpeted staircase set the tone for what’s to come: a bold black-white-and-red color scheme infused with geometric design elements. In the dining room, the carpet is repeated while the linen-topped tables are surrounded by chairs covered in a black crocodile-inspired fabric. The walls are now covered in a geometric-patterned wallpaper. It’s fabulous!
Shiny & Bright!
Of course, this is the time of the year when the Belvedere really shines. The restaurant’s holiday décor, which commences with sidewalk planters and a festively decorated vestibule and continues inside with color-coordinated trees, wreaths, garland and more, is considered must-see. “The reservation requests start coming in over the summer,” Dean reports. “It’s at the point where people now request certain tables.”
The tradition began in December 1998. “I just love Christmas and I’ve always loved to decorate for it,” Dean says, explaining it’s a genetic predisposition. “My mother, Leona, was big on Christmas, as was my grandmother,” he says. “They loved to decorate their homes.”
That first year, Dean brought all his decorations from home and decked out the Belvedere. “Everyone loved it; the decorations were a huge hit,” he recalls. He repeated the gesture the following year and a precedent was established for not only the Belvedere but for other area restaurants.
Josephine’s roots extend to Marietta, where Chef Daniel Le Boon’s French-inspired menu attracted legions of fans. Despite its closure in 2011, Josephine’s lived on in the palates of its fans. Several years later, Daniel became the Belvedere’s executive chef and ultimately became part of the restaurant group’s management team. When the opportunity to buy Carr’s Restaurant materialized, Dean jumped at it, telling LNP in June 2019 he had always been envious of the center-city location. Josephine’s opened in the lower level of the Hager Building later that year. Here, Chef Daniel oversees the menu that combines his love of French cooking and fresh ingredients. The menu sublimely complements the restaurant’s swanky supper-club ambiance, which at holiday time is elevated with decorations that add color and sparkle to the premises. Half the fun, however, is trying to name the Old Hollywood celebs whose portraits fill the walls of the restaurant.
Josephine’s Downtown is located at 50 West Grant Street. It is open Tuesday-Saturday for dinner. Josephinesdowntown.com.
In order to deliver the wow factor year after year, Dean began expanding his inventory. “The third floor is filled with decorations,” he says. It soon became a tradition for Dean and his staff to decorate the restaurant just before Thanksgiving. Later he turned the job of designing and securing new decorations over to professionals. (In the bar, Dean’s personal collection of gingerbread figures continues to be displayed at holiday time.)
Not knowing how to decorate C’est La Vie, whose color scheme revolves around earth tones and citrusy hues, he turned to Tim Arpin of The Gilded Lily for help. Tim now oversees the holiday décor at all four restaurants. In the case of the Belvedere, “It goes up the second or third week of November – guests who come for Thanksgiving dinner have come to expect it – and stays up well into January,” Dean explains. “We host a lot of post-holiday parties and people enjoy that the decorations are in place.”
A Pandemic Pause
You can’t discuss history without touching on recent events, namely the pandemic. Like all restaurant owners, Dean was faced with having to pivot from one day to the next. “We had just opened C’est La Vie and Josephine’s,” he recalls of early winter 2019. By March 2020 all three restaurants were closed due to the state’s Covid regulations. “I was depressed,” Dean admits. He found an outlet in helping Justin find photos of Hollywood stars to add to Josephine’s décor. “That became my therapy,” he notes. “We started with 140 and now have over 400.” Because of Josephine’s confined spaces, the restaurant literally had to remain closed for 18 months. Spacing requirements for tables deemed it useless to reopen the Belvedere.
So, Dean coped by offering take-out from the Belvedere and C’est La Vie when that became viable. He also renewed his pre-Covid efforts with the city to allow him to offer outdoor seating on Market Street. “Four or five restaurants would benefit, not just C’est La Vie,” he points out. Fortunately, the city relaxed restrictions and allowed city restaurants to expand to outdoor sidewalks and thoroughfares in order to continue operations and meet state guidelines. C’est La Vie continues to offer outdoor dining. “It’s still hugely popular,” Dean reports.
At the Belvedere, Dean invested in three greenhouses that were situated on the balcony. They proved to be so popular that they’ve become another seating option, as they are in service from November to April. “People love them,” Dean says of the greenhouses that seat four, are heated and provide for a magical dining experience.
The pandemic prompted a change at the Belvedere that proved to be beneficial and remains in effect. Lunch is no longer served. “With so many people working from home, we just didn’t see demand for lunch return,” Dean explain. “It’s turned out to work in our favor. The staff isn’t stressed, and we get to stay on top of maintenance. If someone asks, we refer them to C’est La Vie, which is open for lunch.”
On a final note, Dean says he will always be indebted to his staff. “When we were able to reopen at the Belvedere, everyone came back. We have staff members who have been here for a long time. Guests like knowing that.” One staff member, server Jamie Hornberger, has been at the Belvedere since day one. “He has developed quite a following,” Dean says.
Dean has never been busier, and nothing makes him happier than to see his restaurants filled with people who are enjoying a night out, celebrating a special occasion or simply stopping in for a drink before or after heading for the Fulton Theatre or a social event downtown. “I try to get to all four restaurants during the evening,” he says. “It’s kind of like going to four parties!”
The Belvedere Inn is located at 402 North Queen Street in Lancaster. Dinner is served each evening. Belvederelancaster.com.