We felt like we'd stumbled into the pages of Charlotte's Web.
In one pen, a donkey slowly and thoughtfully chewed his hay. In another, a pig scratched his butt against the fence, stopping only to take a whiz. Goats fell all over each other trying to get at the food pellets being tossed their way, while near the back of the barn, a three-year-old cooed at a cranky chicken that was trying to peck its way out of the cage. "It's okay," the little girl repeated in her most soothing, mommy-like tones. "You'll get out soon." I half expected a spider to pop down from the rafters and spin a web that read "Great Food! Great Fun!"
By the time we were done with our White Fence Farm experience, though, we felt just like the animals we'd visited at the cheery little barn. This place herds diners in like cattle, lines them up at the old feedbag, then shoves them out the door.
Like the plots of so many beloved children's books, the story behind White Fence Farm is much more appealing than the reality. Just after the end of World War II, Lucas and Gertrude Wilson bought eighty acres along a gravel road called Jewell Avenue and built a home for themselves, along with one for each of their three married children. When son Stan revealed his desire to open a country-style restaurant, the Wilsons moved an old farm building onto the property for that very purpose. But it wasn't until twenty years later, in 1973, that Wilson's Good Eatin' opened to rave reviews.
Eight years after that, family members decided they were tired of running a restaurant -- or, as the restaurant's in-house newspaper puts it, "Changes were considered which would allow the Wilsons to concentrate again on family life." To make things easier, they arranged to duplicate the concept behind a popular chicken house in Lemont, Illinois, called White Fence Farm. Since Lakewood's version opened in 1981, the restaurant's holdings have grown to include not just the main building, but also a museum, a petting farm, a treehouse and playground, an aviary, a duck pond, and five -- count 'em, five -- spots where you can spend money on such items as cake-shaped candles, wooden cows and a multitude of souvenirs involving roosters. In addition, Lucas and Gertrude Wilson's 26 heirs have sold off big chunks of the property in order to "transform it into one of Lakewood's premier communities." And while that's a laugh, they do get credit for at least trying to keep the height of the development down in order to preserve that beautiful view of the mountains and surrounding green areas that you enjoy as you wait an hour to enter the restaurant.
White Fence Farm takes reservations only if you're bringing something like fifty people (don't think for a second that doesn't happen), and on weekends, this farm-themed eatertainment experience is so crowded you'd think 'N Sync was roasting the turkey. When we pulled into the vast White Fence complex one recent Sunday, we accidentally wound up in the Carry-Out Entrance by the Carry-Out Only parking lot (the license plates read like a map of the United States), and we had to walk a ways to get to the Main Entrance. There we were issued a number --242 -- and told that the wait would be about 45 minutes. Since the restaurant seats you by the number of people in your party and not the order in which you arrived, it was torture to hear "255!" "262!" "328!" before our number was up.
Still, the hour-long wait gave us plenty of time to explore not just the OK Corral -- the barn area -- but all of White Fence Farm's retail opportunities. There's the Country Cottage, which features Gifts for Home; the Americana Barn, sort of a Mole Hole for the country-kitschy set (and noteworthy because it's one of the larger examples of post-and-beam structures left in this country); the Silo, for pinball and arcade games; Granny's, for fresh fudge; and the Festive Gifts of the Colorado Christmas store. When our number was finally called, we could no longer remember why we were there.
Oh, yeah: to eat.
Which was too bad, because our meal was the least satisfying part of our White Fence Farm visit. First we had to fight our way through the growing throngs of people waiting to get their numbers, for gosh sakes, and then we were shepherded into an enormous dining room that serves 3,000 diners on an average day. Because we were a moderately large group of seven, we were penned in at one of the long tables along the windows. And then the feeding commenced.
White Fence Farm tries to up its value quotient by offering an endless supply of complimentary corn fritters and salads served in little white ceramic cafeteria bowls. About ten minutes after we placed our order -- don't even bother asking for the roasted turkey breast ("limited number of servings"), because they're always out -- those bowls appeared, brought by a very nice boy who looked to be about twelve.
Having just spent time with live examples of the very meat we were about to eat, it was comforting to dig into some more humane grub, including a sugary-sweet, mayo-gloppy coleslaw (please, no letters about how cabbage has feelings) that reminded me of the stuff my mother used to make. We also enjoyed the bean salad, really just a sugary-sweet, mayo-gloppy version of the coleslaw, only this time using kidney beans. Unembellished cottage cheese and canned pickled beets rounded out the salad offerings. We were encouraged to request more of anything, but only the corn fritters -- steamy little dough balls filled with corn -- were tasty enough to warrant seconds.
White Fence Farm's specialty is family-style farm chicken (four pieces per adult), and several members of our group were eager to give it a try. According to the menu, "a special and complicated cooking process reduces the time your chicken is fried. Thus we are able to offer you a delicious product which is crispy and juicy." Offer it, maybe. Deliver it? No way. Our bird turned out to be astoundingly bland. Not crispy. Not juicy. Not seasoned with anything discernible. In fact, the chicken tasted of nothing but soybean oil, in which the fowl had been fried. And it was no trick to figure out the special cooking process that had resulted in the disappointing mashed potatoes: Place flakes in a bowl and add water. Ugh. A baked potato proved no better, since it was soft in the center and rock-hard around the edges. But at least they were ours; five diners who ordered the mashed potatoes had to share from the two scoops served in those small bowls. And the gravy that came with the chicken dinners was so thin and watery that it would have made a better base for chicken noodle soup.
The broiled "white fish" -- that gives the kitchen a lot of leeway, eh? -- turned out to be cod that day. It had been soaked in some butter-flavored, celery-seedy water, then broiled into a texture normally reserved for hospital meals before being pelted with paprika.
But at least it was an entree item. The "light dinner," billed as "great for seniors, vegetarians and light eaters," conveyed on the person who ordered it the privilege of eating the same salads as the rest of us along with all-you-can-eat fake mashed potatoes -- from the two scoops the rest of us were already sharing. When an empty plate was set down in front of our vegetarian, we suddenly knew the meaning of "light."
White Fence Farm got a chance to redeem itself with dessert: a huge wedge of a credible homemade lemon meringue pie, a piping-hot crock of cinnamon-speckled apple cobbler and a generous hot-fudge sundae. We passed on the brandy parfait, billed as "soft-serve ice cream topped with our finest brandy mix," because only those age 21 and over were allowed to order it, and we figured anything that alcoholic might cause us to mess with the donkey.
Although it was difficult to make sense of the restaurant's staff structure -- different people took orders, brought drinks, delivered food, cleared the table and brought the bill -- it was easy to recognize that service was spotty. Our salads came quickly, for example, while a long time passed before we saw any drinks; the wait between entrees and desserts made us wonder if we were supposed to go visit the donkey again. Meanwhile, several staff members with walkie-talkies attached to their belts -- "Come quick; the pig is trying to get into the bean salad again!" -- stood in the middle of the dining room quite obviously discussing how they were going to get us the heck out of there so some enormous group could use our table.
So we got up from the trough and got out of there, all the while wondering what makes White Fence Farm such a destination eatery. Next time I run into a spider who can spell, I'll have to ask her.
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