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Stumbling in Staunton

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.

515 West Frederick Street
Staunton, VA 24401
(540) 886-5151

October 2004

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 4:00 p.m. 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 lot–and 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 breakfast–orange juice, strong coffee, a variety of breads, pastries . . .cereals, and blueberry pancakes–was 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 ($17.50).

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 the palate.

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 resuscitated.

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 magazine–lovingly preserved in the hallway of the main building–clearly 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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