Every time I visit Pennsylvania Amish Country, it feels a little less like Amish Country. My parents were aghast when, in the mid-2000s, they visited for the first time since the 1980s (and for the first time with me) and found a massive outlet center along the main commercial drag.

When my wife and I visited in 2017 — my first time since that childhood family trip — I was dismayed to see that the field in front of the Amish Farm and House had become a Target and its attendant parking lot. (I was only...

Every time I visit Pennsylvania Amish Country, it feels a little less like Amish Country. My parents were aghast when, in the mid-2000s, they visited for the first time since the 1980s (and for the first time with me) and found a massive outlet center along the main commercial drag.

When my wife and I visited in 2017 — my first time since that childhood family trip — I was dismayed to see that the field in front of the Amish Farm and House had become a Target and its attendant parking lot. (I was only a little less dismayed when the landmark Congress Inn, with its out-of-place capitol-dome sign, met the wrecking ball.)

During our latest visit, just this February, we discovered that yet another Amish Country experience had bit the dust: the all-you-can-eat, family-style restaurant. I’m not talking about Amish-themed self-serve buffets — known in the area as smorgasbords — of which the Lancaster area has quite a few. I’m talking about family-style dining, typified by two landmark Lancaster-area establishments: Good ’N Plenty and Plain & Fancy. These are the places where you sit at long tables with bench seats, with fellow tourists (i.e. strangers) and dine on communal trays of Amish classics.

Both restaurants served fried chicken, buttered egg noodles, green beans and corn, roast turkey, ham loaf and shoo-fly pie. Which one you preferred was like choosing between Coke and Pepsi. (Coke is better, and so was Good ’N Plenty.) I enjoyed both as a child, and both were some of the most recognizable spots in Amish Country, alongside classics like Dutch Wonderland and the now Target-adjacent Amish Farm and House.

Plain & Fancy, opened in 1959 and inspired by the 1955 Broadway musical Plain and Fancy, pioneered family-style dining. Good ’N Plenty opened a decade later in 1969, copying (and, in my opinion, perfecting) the dining concept. For more than half a century of Amish Country tourism, family-style dining has been to Lancaster what Apple pie is to America.

And so I was saddened to learn, while googling the hours for Good ’N Plenty, that it had been closed and put up for sale just weeks before our visit. Plain & Fancy had, unbeknownst to me, closed even earlier, having switched to a barbecue-and-beer theme in 2017. As far as I can tell, the old family-style concept remained available as a reservation-only group experience, and was permanently suspended during the pandemic in 2020. There is, as far as I can tell, not a single family-dining establishment left in Amish Country. And this has gone almost entirely unnoticed.

Restaurants are a notoriously difficult business, and both establishments had fantastic runs. But nonetheless, their demise is a loss, and it points to unfortunate shifts in tourists’ expectations. A news article from February 2022 describes the closing of Good ’N Plenty:

Changing customer tastes and the lack of younger family members interested in taking over the restaurant prompted Lapp and his older sister to step away and put Good ‘N Plenty up for sale. Lapp, who is 60 years old, said they see a real opportunity to remake what continues as a traditional Lancaster County restaurant even though they have come to the realization that such an effort is not for them.

“There can be a lot done with the property. We, just at this time, didn’t feel like we had the energy to do it,” he said. ”And with there not being any family coming behind, you begin to think, ‘How long do we try to make it work?’”

A lack of interest by the younger generation is a common reason for family businesses to close. It’s sad, but it’s understandable. Many parents worked thankless or relentlessly difficult jobs exactly so that their children wouldn’t have to. And for many young people today, taking over a restaurant is such a job.

More concerning is that reference to “customer tastes.” You might assume that merely refers to concerns over Covid, which would be perfectly understandable. But I don’t think that’s the reason. First of all, the area’s all-you-can-eat buffets are regularly packed, and there are at least as many of them today as in the 2000s. In fact, the Shady Maple Smorgasbord, which bills itself as America’s largest buffet, had a thirty-minute wait and a line out the door on a chilly February evening. Given that buffets were hit particularly hard by the pandemic, but thriving here, it’s unlikely that that’s what killed family-style.

A 2018 Yelp review for Plain & Fancy reveals the real attitude change: “We were nervous about trying it and initially disappointed they changed the format. But they explained there was so much food waste the old way and people increasingly don’t like sitting with strangers.” (My emphasis.)

I love the anonymity and freedom of the all-you-can-eat buffet. But I still remember sitting down with other families at those long tables, the stilted initial conversation giving way to what felt like friendship by the time the shoo-fly pie came out. As a child, it was like one of those Christmas or Thanksgiving dinners with so much food and company, the kind you anticipated all year long. That discomfort that gave way to familiarity introduced some good friction: “Excuse me, could you please pass the buttered noodles?”; “Sorry, we aren’t serving roast beef tonight.” It was an important lesson — in manners, in patience, in not always getting exactly what you want exactly when and how you want it.

Perhaps it is funny to mourn something that was never quite authentic and always a bit of a touristy simplification. Recall that these restaurants arose in the roadtrip-loving postwar years, at a time when Amish Country was first becoming a curiosity that could be exploited commercially. In some ways the difference between Good ’N Plenty and the outlet malls and Targets is only one of degree, not of kind. Sure, the Amish might pass large platters of ham loaf around a big table, but the dinner guests never had to spend the whole day putting up a barn before they came in the door. Nonetheless, this pair of restaurants was the closest that most casual visitors ever got to a glimpse of actual Amish life.

Now, as property values spike and Amish Country is slowly engulfed by the exurbs of Philadelphia and even New York City, a simplified but real piece of the region’s legacy culture — and a chance to meet new people over delicious food — no longer pencils out. I hope we’ll at least miss it when we realize it’s gone.