An Herbal Fairy Tale Awaits
at Pickity Place
Story and photos by Stacy Milbouer / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor
Eating at Pickity Place in Mason is more than just indulging in a five-course meal based on seasonally fresh herbs. It’s a full-out, fairy tale experience.
The eatery is housed in the 230-year-old red cottage Elizabeth Orton Jones used as the model for her iconic 1948 A Little Golden Book version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” It’s owned by Johnson-and-Wales-trained chef Keith Grimes and his wife, Kim, who bought Pickity from the original owners in 2000. Those original owners – the Walters – opened Pickity Place in 1976.
“They grew herbs for a hobby,” said Keith. “People in the area would show up at their house, and they’d make them sandwiches and snacks, and the restaurant grew out of that.”
Keith was working as a chef in the restaurant for five years when he and his wife bought the business. The two met at work. Kim was supplementing her preschool teacher salary working as a hostess, while Keith was busy in the kitchen. Now Kim does most of the purchasing for the business.
“The cooking part was easy when we took over,” said Keith. “I’d been doing that for years. It was the retail and gardening that was the hardest part to learn.”
The only meal served at the restaurant is luncheon with seatings at 11:30 a.m., 12:45 and 2 p.m. The $21.95 prix fixe menu at Pickity changes each month and is based on what herbs, produce and local products are available.
Each month visitors have a choice of a vegetarian or meat entrée served with a homemade dip or cheese course, soup, salad, fresh-baked bread and dessert. Meals also come with a (non-alcoholic) drink like the outrageously refreshing lavender lemonade in the summer, mulled cider in the cooler months, mocha coffee and others.
Keith creates the seasonally-inspired dishes year in and year out and never tires of it.
“I like to think about the meals enough in advance for people to plan their trips out here. And because of our limited menu, it allows us to make everything fresh that day. We always know what we’re serving and how many guests we’re going to have – we average 100 to120 a day – so there’s no waste and no reason to make anything that isn’t fresh.
“It’s been 17 years, and you can’t reinvent the wheel, but the herbs and fresh products inspire me,” he continued. “I also might see a recipe I like in Cook’s Illustrated or Bon Appétit, then herb it up and put that Pickity Place spin on it.”
July’s menu starts with a New England vegetable dip with crackers, melon, basil and mint soup, heirloom tomato and fennel salad with blood orange vinaigrette, rye bread, an entrée choice of citrus-brined pork tenderloin with Dijon and peach or a Yukon vegetable Napoleon with a banana split cannoli for dessert.
For August, the menu is imported cheese and grapes, grilled pepper gazpacho, Thai melon salad, hearth-baked rolls, trottole pasta with chicken lemonata or herbed-and-seared vegetable quiche with summer berry pie for dessert.
All the dishes and drinks are garnished with edible fresh herbs, spices or flowers, arranged artfully in a cozy dining room drenched in natural light highlighting the beautiful 18th-century construction of this little house – which is literally over the river and through the woods.
The restaurant prints its menu six months in advance for those wanting to plan a special trip to Mason, and they make it child-friendly, too. It’s not unusual to see a red-hooded girl seated for lunch leafing through a copy of Orton’s book. For diners 12 and younger, the restaurant offers “Grandmother’s Basket” – a choice of sandwich, fruit, home-baked cookies and drink for $8.95 or a smaller-portion version of the regular menu for $12.95.
“We like to see children try different foods,” said Keith.
In fact, said the chef, he likes the fact that adult diners only have two entrees from which to choose, so that they can taste something they may never have tried before.
It’s a formula that seems to work. On a summer weekend, New Hampshire and out-of-state cars fill the tree-covered parking areas while, in the dining room waiting-area, visitors browse the little Red Riding Hood gift shop and peek at a re-creation of the “My Grandma, but what big eyes you have” scene set up in the original bedroom Jones used as inspiration. It’s complete with a bonnet-clad wolf lying in bed and Red’s scarlet hood hanging from a peg.
Diners can either work up an appetite or work off lunch by walking Pickity’s ethereal, English-style gardens where visitors are asked to “Please Handle the Herbs,” crush a bloom of lavender and breath in its floral decadence, taste a sprig of lemon mint and listen to bees dipping in and out of technicolor geraniums. It’s a sensory lollapalooza.
It’s only natural that visitors would like to take home a piece of what they see, hear, taste and feel all around them at Pickity Place. No problem. There’s a greenhouse where you can buy the potted herbs that are the stars of your lunch, a gift shop that sells dried herbs as well as cookbooks, jams and jellies, dip mixes and charming tchotchkes.
And there’s literally no place on the property that doesn’t make for a beautiful photograph. A full-time gardener maintains the exquisite grounds. The shops and gardens are open to visitors from 10-5, April through December, and from 10-4, January through March.
While the tradition at Pickity Place holds fast, the Grimeses do make and see some changes. They’ve come up with new product lines – like bottling some of the herbed drinks they serve in the dining room and new container packaging for their dried herb line.
And they’re drawing in new clientele.
“We used to joke that this was ‘Chickity Place’ because it had a reputation for being a spot mostly for women and girls,” Keith said. “But while those customers still are regulars, we are seeing more and more young men and women – millennials who are foodies and locavores and love the place. Some of these guests came here as children with their grandmothers when they were little and now they’re bringing their friends and family.”
Pickity Place is open seven days a week, except New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Call 878-1151 for reservations.