The Fire's Always Burning at Randall's Ordinary, a Revolutionary Inn in Connécticut

updated 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Randall's Ordinary is the name of the country inn and restaurant located on 27 bucolic acres in North Stonington, Conn.—but ordinary it is not. Proprietors Bill and Cindy Clark and their staff, all dressed in authentic Colonial garb, welcome guests and diners to their meticulously restored 1685 farmhouse. There, hungry travelers may partake of delectable fare cooked the very old-fashioned way—in the hearth over hardwood coals or fires. The Clarks use museum-quality cookware they have collected over the past 20 years.

According to the Clarks, Randall's Ordinary is the only place in the world where folks can feast on authentically prepared early American cuisine year-round. The house specialties include Nantucket scallops, roast pheasant with wild rice stuffing, capons, geese and spider bread, a white corn bread made from a 1796 recipe and baked in a three-legged iron pot sandwiched between hot coals.

The inn is named for Baptist farmer John Randall, who built the house, which the Clarks bought in 1986. "Ordinary" is an early 18th-century term for a tavern or other place that offers food and lodging, as the Clarks do. For $30 a head, adventurous eaters in their house receive a flavorful supper that Bill, 44, claims "is one-third iron, one-third wood smoke and one-third magic." Hyperbole aside, anyone at one of the inn's nightly seatings will quickly note that the actual secret ingredient to each meal's success is Cindy's considerable skill and effort.

Her forehead beaded with sweat, Cindy uses such arcane cooking utensils as iron kettles, Dutch ovens and a circa-1810 vertical oven with a mechanical spit to prepare stews, corn bread and roasted meats. "I have great respect for the women of the 18th century," says Cindy, 42, while tending a roasting leg of lamb in a reflecting oven. "Cooking this way was a tremendous amount of work."

It's even more work for Cindy, who must feed up to 75 diners a night in three different rooms, each with its own cooking fireplace. What's more, Cindy and her crew cheerfully answer all questions about preparation and recipes, and they encourage guests to walk about and observe. This can lead to interesting occupational hazards. "Most guests can't keep away from the fire," says Cindy. "On busy nights I have to be careful I don't get pushed in."

The Clarks weren't exactly pushed into the innkeeping business. After graduating from the University of Connecticut, they got married and began a typical dual-career life together. Cindy was a manager at an insurance company, and Bill worked in sales and purchasing for a construction firm. In 1968 they bought their first Colonial home, in Coventry, Conn., and while working weekends restoring it, Cindy would often leave a cast-iron cauldron of stew simmering in the fireplace.

"As we did more and more hearth cooking," Cindy recalls, "we slowly added pieces of equipment, and I became an expert." The couple began throwing weekend "hearth parties" for 20 or so paying guests, who encouraged them to open their own restaurant. So finally, in 1986, they quit their jobs and set out to find a suitable period house that could be transformed into an inn.

Now that the major restoration work has been completed on Randall's Ordinary, one of Bill's most important duties is keeping the woodpile stocked. He prefers hardwoods such as hickory, oak and ash and burns through about four cords a month. Says Bill: "Apple gives the food a wonderful flavor, and it's the only wood I'll go off my property to cut."

Only two of the Ordinary's regulars ever find fault with the fare: the Clarks' teenage children, Wendy and Christopher. Says Mom, with a laugh: "The kids used to put leftover grilled pheasant on Wonder Bread and take it to school to trade for peanut butter and jelly. They get tired of eating this kind of food every night."

—Ned Geeslin, Lucia Greene Connolly in Stonington

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