Long, lanky, and unabashedly opinionated, co-owner Tony Morgan is a mile-a-minute behind the bar at the Black Gryphon.
He’s prepping for a large fundraiser supporting the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. It’s Friday and the doors to the E-Town restaurant open any minute; he slips from slicing limes to retelling the tale of one of the county’s oldest dining spots with alarming acuity.
The restaurant, with its unique location at the peaked convergence of routes 743 and 241, has been in operation since the 1940s. Opened as Vin-Mar, a restaurant and 10-room hotel, the building has been occupied by several owners over the years. Morgan and partner Mike Cottle took ownership of the restaurant in 2007 and delved into their respective Welsh and Anglo-Saxon heritage for inspiration.
Morgan, who often spells his first name “Toeny” (a childhood nickname that stuck), explains that the restaurant’s name derives from his surname.
Dating back to early Welsh civilizations, the Morgan family crest is emblazoned with a black gryphon. That Old World heritage is the base for the restaurant’s foundation of using local, fresh ingredients. The menu’s slogan is: “Farm-to-table. Cooked to order. Just right.”
To call the offerings eclectic is an almost under-simplified descriptor – they’re a collection of Old World inspired dishes updated to meet modern palates and dining trends.
“It’s a lot of influences we love. We change our menu three times a year, and what you see right now is the greatest hits of the last 10 years from the menu,” says Morgan.
When talking about the menu, Morgan drops words like traceable and sustainable to describe components. He’s passionate about food and its sources. Black Gryphon pork and beef comes from Breakaway Farms in Mount Joy. Cage-free eggs come from Sandy Ridge Farms. Produce comes from nearby Shady Acres Farms. Venison comes from Highbourne Deer Farms in Dallastown. Morgan runs through the list of purveyors off the top of his head, never stopping his bar prep.
“We specialize in buying as local as possible,” he says, noting even the hot dogs on the menu are local. “Hippey dogs are the best hot dogs ever made.”
Traditional Welsh fare at the Black Gryphon includes rarebit, stwmp (a traditional mash dish), and jackets (potato pancakes).
Mexican Spaghetti is a big seller and highlights the restaurant’s ability to bend the lines of preordained food thinking. The dish is comprised of sweet corn, salsa picante, butter, spaghetti, mayonnaise, queso fresco, parmesan reggiano, and sweet chili sauce.
Another popular item that blurs the lines of worldly cuisine is the Thai Fire Marinated Philly Cheesesteak, made with spicy marinated prime rib, a trio of bell peppers, onions, wild mushrooms, welsh rarebit, garlic-habanero powder, and scallions served on a roll from Morabito, a bakery in Norristown.
The Black Gryphon hosts a number of popular events and fundraisers throughout the year, such as food and spirit pairings, bartending classes, and secret-invite speakeasy gatherings focused on pre-Prohibition cocktails.
“Each one we pretty much sell out,” Morgan says.
On the morning of Dec. 17, 2016, fire ripped through the Black Gryphon causing more than $500,000 in damage. The accidental electrical fire shuttered the eatery for eight months. The owners were determined to reopen the restaurant and say they’re grateful for the Elizabethtown community, which rallied behind them. Less than a year later, on Sept. 13, 2017, the Black Gryphon reopened and quickly re-established a following.
“We had people coming in thinking we totally changed, and we haven’t. It’s still the same place. We were just closed for eight months, unfortunately,” Morgan says.
The building footprint is the same, but the fire enabled ownership to raise the ceiling height, add natural lighting, and create a more open feel.
“People say it’s a more urban feel,” Morgan says.
The interior design is still a work in progress and Morgan is working with a former server who now outfits historic hotel lobbies. Expect softening elements like curtains and acoustic panels to show up in the near future.
Most of the clientele at the Black Gryphon travels for the dining experience, coming from Lititz, Lancaster, York, Gettysburg and even Philadelphia.
Morgan has noticed more locals as a result of what he calls the “western expansion” as people move from cities like Baltimore, Philly, and NYC to the Elizabethtown area.
“They can buy better property here. The schools are better. It’s a lot safer,” Morgan says. “They stop in here on their way home and can grab a really good beer.”
Just like with the food, an emphasis on quality also pertains to beer at the Black Gryphon. Tap brews run on a sixtel system to ensure freshness.
“This allows us to do some high-end beers,” Morgan says.
A beer engine for cask beers and a crowler system are new additions. He has also been cellaring wild beers for seven years. His goal is to have fresh beer sell out immediately and provides a constant rotation of more than 80 bottles and cans. Recently, a sixtel of Cosmic Nod from South County Brewing Co. in York only lasted a day.
“We do a lot with local breweries that self-distribute. When we opened up our doors, for the first three weeks it was nothing but craft PA breweries on the handles. People were blown away,” says Morgan, adding he doesn’t carry Mass-market beers like Shock Top in bottles, or domestics like Miller or Bud on draft. “There are going to be people we are not going to be able to please. They are not our clientele.”