Belle Grae Inn and Restaurant (Belle Grae Inn is now operated under new management and the restaurant is now closed. Please send us your feedback on your experience at the Inn. Feedback
515 West Frederick Street
Staunton, VA 24401
Following an extended stay in Richmond
and subsequent stopover at Monticello,
my wife and I had planned to dine and spend the night in Charlottesville.
But the prospect of enduring a tumultuous UV football weekend and slew of other
local festivities sounded more raucous than relaxing; thus, we opted instead
for a scenic forty mile plus jaunt and the quietude of Woodrow Wilson's
birthplace: sleepy, diminutive Staunton (pronounced "Stanton"), VA.
And the Belle Grae
Inn, which sports impeccable credentials, seemed the perfect spot to settle
in: Seventeen rooms and suites set in a beautiful 1873 Victorian structure and
other restored 19th-century houses. Lauded as one of the top ten
inns in Virginia, it is listed in
the Select Registry as one of the
"Distinguished Inns of North America" and simply gushed
all over in Frommer's Virginia, 7th Edition. And the food...
Ah, the food... "Dining is a must at Belle Grae!" proclaimed the Select Registry enthusiastically... three
big stars had been bestowed by Frommer... the praise appeared to be unceasing. We
were looking forward to a veritable gastronomic orgasm.
... But major misgivings were not long in rearing their ugly
heads. Tables and chairs on the front porch were somewhat askew and layers of
pollen and dust covered magazines. The screen door was badly smudged. Probably
just children's dirty fingers, I reasoned... But scary scatological scenarios
began to dance through my head; visions all the more graphically conceptualized
when we later discovered that the proprietor's two dogs freely roam the inn's
property... utilizing the expansive grounds as their public privy (to which an
odoriferous offering in one of the parking lots clearly attested).
Upon entering the main building, we glanced into the two
small dining rooms. And although it was now fast approaching in the afternoon, dirty breakfast dishes and
stale pastries were still piled on one of the tables. The office where we
registered could only be described as disheveled, and a soiled rubber mat had
been carelessly thrown over the outdoor railing on the stairway leading to the
upper parking lotand was still there at the time of our checkout the
following morning. Needless to say, our initial impressions were considerably
less than favorable.
Our suite, domiciled in the Jefferson House, circa 1865, did
ameliorate our fears somewhat. It was clean, spacious, and attractively
furnished with antiques and reproductions, albeit the possessor of bargain
basement bedding (mattress and pillows) and a rather dark and brooding bath.
The public areas, however, continued to give pause. The rear patio/garden was
slightly unkempt; and while the breakfast room was light and airy, the surface
of the tiny bistro bar was tacky to the touch. The place wasn't exactly dirty...
but one did receive the distinct impression that it was several notches below
pristine and not particularly well maintained.
But the greatest disappointment was yet to come: the cuisine. . .or reasonable facsimile thereof. To give credit where credit is due, however,
the complimentary breakfastorange juice, strong coffee, a variety of breads,
pastries . . .cereals, and blueberry pancakeswas quite acceptable. Dinner,
on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster and totally unforgivable.
"You can eat fried chicken at home," proprietor Michael
Organ once pontificated (according to Frommer), "Here you can have quail."
Hardly. Not only was this distinctive game bird conspicuous by its absence from
the bill of fare...so was anything that even vaguely resembled the Epicurean
delights we had been led to believe would spring forth from the kitchen.
In point of fact, from the perspective of an ever vigilant,
sometimes skeptical restaurant critic, the menu struck me as downright
suspicious. It listed only three appetizers: soup du jour ($4.50), shiitake
mushroom and smoked Gouda tart with tarragon mayonnaise ($6.95), and stuffed
artichoke hearts with sun-dried tomato remoulade ($8.95); two salads: fresh
baby greens with buttermilk dill or honey poppy seed dressing ($3.95) or
classic Caesar with Parmesan cheese and croutons ($5.50); and four entrées:
pork roast loin with Gorgonzola and shiitake mushrooms ($16.95), pan-seared
Atlantic salmon filet served with lemon butter and white wine caper sauce
($18.95) chicken roulade stuffed with spinach, Boursin cheese, and sun-dried
tomato crème sauce ($18.95); and
grilled flank steak served with sautéed shiitake mushrooms and leeks over
mushroom port wine demi-glace
There were no daily specials... this made be doubly wary; and
prices, given this establishment's illustrious reputation, seemed ridiculously
low... which only succeeded in trebling my suspicions that gastronomic adversity
was undoubtedly lurking just around the corner. Thus, we began negotiating the
options with the skittish circumspection of a minnow in a shark tank,
conscientiously considering which items were the least likely to provoke
paroxysms of peristaltic indisposition.
My wife decided to start things off with the Caesar salad,
which, as it turned out, distinguished itself as one of the highlights of the
evening. The greens were fresh, the croutons appropriately crunchy, the
dressing, sans anchovy, applied
judiciously. Generic, to be sure, but generally quite pleasing. Not so my
mushroom and Gouda tart, which
sported a soggy crust, odd texture, and precious little to tempt the taste
buds. Ribbons of tarragon mayonnaise made a valiant effort to snatch victory
from the jaws of defeat but couldn't quite pull it off.
If appetizers were something of a mixed bag, entrées
positively hit the bottom of the barrel. My wife's pork was so dry that her
fork literally bounced off its surface. Even with a knife and a good deal of
effort it was still tough going; there is no doubt that a chainsaw would have
improved the circumstances dramatically. My chicken roulade wasn't quite as
distressed, but it was still far from moist; and any flavor that managed to
escape from the bland confines of the spinach and Boursin cheese stuffing was
purely coincidental. The crème had
obviously decided to absent itself from the sun-dried tomato crème sauce... The result was an overly
viscous concoction that did little to please the eye and even less to engage
A mound of off-tasting scalloped potatoes accompanied both
dishes. "Stale" is the word that came immediately to mind, as if these hapless
spuds had spent entirely too much time languishing in the nether regions of the
fridge before making their journey to the stove or microwave. And, although I
can't swear to it, they also had all the earmarks of having originally stolen
into the kitchen garbed in a fetching cardboard box or plastic pouch and then
Neither espresso nor cognac was available the night of our
visit, and the coffee arrived off-puttingly lukewarm. Of the proffered
desserts, the caramel/apple cheesecake proved to be the pick of the litter. This,
along with the aforementioned Caesar salad and an excellent bottle of 2001
Naked Mountain Chardonnay from Virginia
($36.00), provided the only high points of an otherwise dismally discouraging
evening at table.
I have absolutely no doubt that there was once a time when
this establishment lived up to its lofty reputation and effusive press notices,
as a 1992 article from Bon Appétit
magazinelovingly preserved in the hallway of the main buildingclearly
bears witness. Unfortunately, that time is no more. The Belle Grae Inn is, in my opinion, suffering from a chronic case of
benign neglect. Whether its Phoenix
can eventually rise from the ashes is, indeed, problematic. At the present
moment, however, this hostelry/eatery simply cannot be recommended.
The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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