JR Alfree is hoping to duplicate the success of his Lemon Leaf Café in Chestertown, Maryland right here in Smyrna and there are two main reasons for his optimism.

JR Alfree is hoping to duplicate the success of his Lemon Leaf Café in Chestertown, Maryland right here in Smyrna and there are two main reasons for his optimism.

“First of all, the people have been so nice – talk about hospitality,” he said.

Former Smyrna mayor Joanne Masten encouraged him to start a restaurant in Smyrna, as did the building’s owners, Ed and Cheryl Ide, and loyal customers at the Lemon Leaf in Chestertown, like Kathy Messer.

“I was Kathy’s waiter 30 years ago at Twinny’s Place in Galena which is owned by my cousin. Ever since I opened the Lemon Leaf in Chestertown, she’s been one of our favorite customers. She brought us the Corvette Club” which meets at the restaurant, he said. “I asked her to look at this building with me in Smyrna.”

Messer said she didn’t know if Alfree would have time to start a new restaurant because his café in Chestertown is so busy, but she’s excited to have the new Lemon Leaf right here in Smyrna.

“Establishing the restaurant here with its fabulous food – it’s a win-win for Smyrna. It really helps the downtown area and gives the community a wonderful place to eat,” said Messer.

Alfree also thanked the building owners, the Ides, for their help and encouragement.

“Ed and Cheryl are great landlords and have gone out of their way to work with us,” said Alfree.

He’s also impressed with the quality of his staff.

“I was told I’d have a hard time getting help here, but we had a hiring fair and I was very pleased with our applicants,” he said. “We hired really great people and they’re working hard.”

Along with all the positive response from the people he’s met in Smyrna, Alfree said the building at the corner of Main and Commerce streets was another big attraction.

“This building has the same charm as our restaurant in Chestertown. This building has four storefronts in the downtown historic district, and so does our building in Chestertown,” he said.

“The USDA redevelopment fund was also a factor,” said Alfree, referring to the revolving loan fund the Town of Smyrna offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program.

About the café and pub

Alfree started the Lemon Leaf Café in Chestertown, Maryland seven years ago and added JR’s Past-Time Pub about three years later.

Signature dishes include cream of crab soup, crab cakes, chicken and dumplings and lemon meringue pie.

He opened his second Lemon Leaf Café and JR’s Past-Time Pub June 30 on the corner of Main and Commerce streets in the heart of downtown Smyrna, the former location of the Inn at Duck Creek.

The Smyrna café will be serving all the favorites from the Chestertown restaurant along with some new specialties.

The kitchen staff is led by chef Shawn Bowers who graduated from the Philadelphia Restaurant School and has worked at hotels and restaurants in the Rehoboth Beach area including Just Hooked and Big Fish Grill.

“My grandmother had a beach house in Rehoboth and after I went there, I basically never left,” said Bowers. “I loved it.”

Bowers said the most popular dishes so far at the Lemon Leaf in Smyrna have been turkey with dressing, chicken and dumplings and meatloaf in addition to the seafood selections.

“I like down-home cooking that’s done well,” he said.

Alfree said he’s hoping to provide a comfortable, almost nostalgic experience for guests.

“We want to offer comfort food that’s affordable in a friendly atmosphere. That’s been the secret to our success,” he said.

He remembers dining at the Wayside Inn which was a fixture for decades on the corner of U.S. Route 13 and Mt. Vernon Street in Smyrna.

“When I was younger, that’s where we went for special occasions,” said Alfree. “I want the Lemon Leaf to be like I remember the Wayside Inn was.”

However, he also wants to give customers a few more exotic dishes in case they want to try something new.

“We’ll always have the comfort food,” he said, “but we also have specialties like short ribs, surf and turf, and osso buco” which is a dish of pork shanks braised with vegetables, white wine, and seasoned stock.

Desserts are also an important part of the menu. Alfree borrowed the recipes from his Sunday school teacher, Joanne Mulford, for the lemon meringue pie, coconut cream pie, Georgia peach cobbler, Richard’s mud pie and the Ghirardelli brownie sundae.

Chef Bowers has been working diligently to master the recipes, especially the lemon meringue pie.

“There’s a little piece of my soul in every pie,” he said smiling, referring to the painstaking work of making the delicious creations from scratch.

The restaurant employs about 35 people.

“Some are cross-trained and work at both restaurants,” said Alfree. His Chestertown location employs more than 65 people.

At the Smyrna restaurant, the café has two dining rooms downstairs. Upstairs features four dining rooms including the “Jack and Jim Rooms,” named after his father, Jack, who was a twin, and Jack’s twin brother, Jim.

“The doors between those rooms can be opened up for large groups or meetings,” said Alfree.

Another room features beautiful views of downtown Smyrna from the rounded second-floor corner of the building that helps give the building its distinctive look.

“There were two more smaller rooms upstairs, but after reading reviews of the Inn at Duck Creek and talking to people who had eaten there who said they felt like they were practically on top of each other, we decided to use those rooms for wait staff stations which has dramatically improved our service,” Alfree said.

Also on the first floor is JR’s Past-Time Pub which features a variety of clocks as the main interior decorations.

“The name came from the old bar that was next to the Lemon Leaf in Chestertown,” said Alfree. “When we were going to re-open it and we were cleaning it up, in a cabinet I found a history of all the bar’s different names. The first one on the list was Gus’ Past-Time Pub. So I named it JR’s Past-Time Pub and that’s where the clock theme came from.”

Supporting first responders and military personnel

The owner and staff of the Lemon Leaf Café and JR’s Past-Time Pub want to show their support to all military personnel and first responders – police, firefighters, ambulance crews and paramedics – with a special discount on Sundays.

“We offer 10 percent off to all military personnel and first responders on Sunday for their entire party,” said Alfree. “Some places only offer a discount to the person, but here, it’s good for the whole check. It’s one way we can give something back for their service and dedication.”

How the Lemon Leaf got its name

Alfree grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland but moved to California.

In California, he and his friends got tired of eating out every night, but they still wanted to have great meals. So they started a dinner club and each took turns cooking on Thursday night and setting a restaurant-quality table.

One Thursday night, Alfree was stuck at work and didn’t have time to shop for ingredients for his meal, but his friends refused to let him off the hook. So he rummaged through his pantry and refrigerator and whipped up a recipe from his grandmother for chicken and dumplings.

For the table centerpiece, he used lemons and lemon leaves from his backyard. His friends nicknamed the place “The Lemon Leaf Café.”

So when he moved back to Chestertown and started a restaurant, he knew exactly what he was going to call it.