WATERVILLE - Kristen Birkmayer admits having taken a winding route to her current vocation of restauranteur.
"I come from a restaurant family in Pennsylvania; however, my degree and experience is in engineering."
What brought her to northwest Ohio was the Ford Motor Co., which offered her a job at the Maumee Stamping Plant.
After a successful career with Ford, however, the company closed the Maumee plant a year ago. What might have seemed stressful to many - the requirement to lose her job or face transfer to a different state - appeared a bit of a blessing to Birkmayer and her husband, Kevin.
"My husband and I had always wanted to build a restaurant, so the timing seemed right."
The result is The Neighbor's restaurant at 7541 Dutch Road in Waterville, which celebrates the first anniversary of its opening this Saturday.
In the past 12 months a firm and loyal clientele has been built up and one of the star dishes at the restaurant has become its original version of spinach-artichoke dip.
"People say we've got the best spinach-artichoke dip they've ever eaten," said Birkmayer.
She suspects she knows why that is. "Probably, most places don't prepare it from scratch and we do. So everywhere else it tastes the same."
At The Neighbor's the dip is served with pita points, each toasted and brushed with an herbed garlic oil.
"It takes no more than 15 minutes to make; it's pretty easy," she said of their most-requested appetizer which Birkmayer is sharing as this week's Cook's Corner feature.
The dip pictured on this page was whipped up by chef Jeremy Cleaves.
"The recipe is one of the ones I started with. A former chef dreamed it up especially for Neighbor's."
Other signature dishes include a slow-roasted beef brisket and Birkmayer's mother's spinach salad, with its creamy poppyseed vinaigrette dressing.
"I do have other recipes that I don't give away - like my mom's salad dressing. It's very complicated. People ask all the time when I'm going to start bottling it."
In honor of the restaurant's one-year anniversary, the Birkmayers rolled out several new menu offerings Wednesday. Among these are a homemade apple bourbon-glazed steak, a mesquite Boursin chicken, and many new sandwiches.
"I love to cook," Birkmayer confirmed. "I write all the menus. A lot of the dishes I come up with myself. I'm no chef, though."
She's also put her home decorating skills to work at Neighbor's.
"A lot of the colors and fabrics are something you might find in many new homes," including the color scheme with its emphasis on a currently popular home palette of sage greens, yellows and mustards.
"We wanted the feel to be like the feel when you visit your neighbors." In fact, "No need to knock!" is the unofficial motto.
The restaurant features both the more formal front room, where adult couples are inclined to dine, and a game room for kids. There's also a patio for warm-weather dining. The Neighbor's is open seven days a week and has full bar service.
"I know most of my customers and I want them to feel like a guest in my home, not a customer."
That's the kind of dish the spinach-artichoke dip is: something your girlfriend might set out when you and your spouse are over to play cards or catch up on gossip.
If she did, you'd sit up straight and compliment her profusely. It's that good.
The Neighbor's Spinach artichoke dip
16 oz. cream cheese
1 ½ c. shredded Mexican blend cheese
1 T olive oil
1 T minced garlic
¼ c. finely diced yellow onion
½ c. chopped artichoke hearts
½ T salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper
1 c. chopped steamed spinach
½ c. half & half cream
1. Steam 8 oz. fresh spinach.
2. Drain and chop spinach.
3. Blend all ingredients.
4. Place spinach artichoke mixture in oven safe casserole dish.
5. Heat at 325 degrees until bubbly.
Serve with pita chips, toasted French bread or tortilla chips.
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