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HAMPTON’S FORD STAGE STOP AND INN

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The stagecoach has a special place in the history of the West. From romance to robbery, stagecoaches are at the center of much of the glamour many of us recall from our childhood's misty memories fueled by stories, movies or books.

But during a recent evening visit to Hampton's Ford Stage Stop and Inn in Collinston (about an hour's drive north of Salt Lake City), we also had a chance to see the leisurely almost luxurious part of stagecoach travel rarely portrayed in the shoot 'em Westerns of our past.Nestled in a grove of lofty trees on the bank of the Bear River, this stately two-story fieldstone home offers a haven of a different sort. Once one of the main stopping points along the heavily traveled trails leading in and out of northern Utah, this old stagecoach stop has been converted into a restaurant offering an extensive menu of American favorites on Friday and Saturday nights. While once hosting the likes of Horace Greeley as well as members of the infamous "Hole in the Wall" gang, it now offers Western hospitality to travelers weary of fast food or trendy eateries.

The interior is beautifully restored and furnished with antiques, paintings and of course the obligatory mounted heads of buffalo and elk that adorn several of the larger dining rooms on the first floor. Waitresses dressed in pioneer garb hustle among the tables, serving up generous portions of Grandma's bubble bread and honey butter, just for starters.

The menu features a dozen or so dinners, ranging in price from $19.95 for the five course meals to $14.95 for "lighte" fare, which are served with either soup or salad and the dessert of the day. The entrees include halibut, shrimp and crabmeat salad and a seafood and vegetable stir fry.

We sampled two of the five-course meals and one of the three-course meals for $15.95. The latter, "Godbe's Favorite," was a platter-size extruded turkey filet, baked and breaded, and served with a lively mustard cream sauce. It is served hot and, despite the artificial texture, it was very good - with a crispy crust and a juicy interior.

Other three-course meals include the "Buggy Ride," a choice of one of the meats of the day; "Hampton's Choice," a grilled cube steak smothered with onions and mushrooms; and "Southwest Pork," pork strips sauteed with onions and seasoned with a mild barbecue sauce.

The other two entrees were a bit uneven. "The Shepard's Purse," two large shoulder lamb chops, were medium, a bit overcooked to our liking, and the breaded halibut on the "Chef's Platter," a little soggy. But the four hefty beef barbecue ribs that came with the chef's special of the day were tender, and half of them had to be taken home.

Other five-course dinners included "The Gillnet," a seafood combination of halibut, crab legs and seafood stir fry; "Bigler's Pride," an 8-oz. rib eye and crab leg combination; and "The Open Range," a hearty-sized T-bone steak. A couple at the next table, hosting some visitors from Great Britain, delayed their meal so the waitress could take a picture of the English gentleman and his steak as a memento of his stomach-stretching trip to America's "Wild West."

Each of the dinners came with a choice of homemade soups, a cream of broccoli and cauliflower and Mexican tomato, served with tortilla chips floating in the mild tomato stock. Both were served piping hot with distinctive flavors.

Salads are a blend of crisp greens topped with shrimp and crabmeat slices, and the entrees come with two starch portions, potato au gratin and sausage rice. The vegetable choice displayed some nice twists. It was green beans, sauteed with slices of red cabbage and onions. The dessert choice was a delicious lemon cake roll.

Hampton's Ford Stage Stop and Inn is a little hard to find. (Even after arriving in Collinston, we had to interrupt a farmer's bath to get directions, which he kindly yelled through the screen door while remaining in the tub.)

But the scenery and spacious skies, as well as the hearty fare and warm hospitality, should please nearly everyone, from jaded city slickers to history buffs with a hunger for the old West.

Rating: * * * 1/2

Hampton's Ford Stage Stop and Inn, 3585 Bigler Road, Collinston. 458-3301 or 257-3889. Serving dinner Friday and Saturday, from 5 to 9 p.m. Reservations recommended. Accepts check with guarantee card and major credit cards. Adjacent theater open Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.