by Eric J. Wallace
Between the Appalachian Trail town of Front Royal and the colonial village of Middleburg are a trio of historical culinary inns that pair countryside luxury with locally sourced cuisine from world-class chefs. Individually, they offer a superlative destination experience. But road-tripping to all three brings a gastronomical vacation as decadent as it is unparalleled.
L’Auberge Provencale Bed and Breakfast
The year was 1980 and newly married French-born chef Alain Borel, was looking to found a country inn. Though just 27, his culinary reputation preceded him.
The fourth-generation chef was raised cooking in his grandfather’s three-star Michelin restaurant at the Hotel du Louvre in Avignon, France. As a teen, Borel helped his father launch fine-dineries in Montreal then Florida and cooked at uncles’ establishments in Seattle and Vermont. By 23, he’d bought the acclaimed Key West eatery, Chez Emile.
Borel married his wife, Celeste, in the late 1970s. They spent their honeymoon touring country inns in rural southern France. Quiet days and mountain views were punctuated by fantastic meals crafted from garden-fresh produce, herbs and local meats. “It was a simple form of luxury, divorced from ostentation,” says Alain, now 67. “We fell in love with the lifestyle and dreamed of doing something similar near a major city in the U.S.”
The Borels soon sold the Chez Emile and started searching for a spot. They found the 8.25-acre property that would become L’auberge Provencale on an airborne scouting trip in the northern Shenandoah Valley. A mid-18th century fieldstone manor, Mt. Airy, overlooked an ocean of rolling pastureland. It lay 10 miles north of the northern entrance to the Shenandoah National Park and the Appalachian Trail town of Front Royal, and just 70 miles southwest of Washington.
A follow-up tour revealed original hardwood floorboards, exposed rafters, plaster walls, gorgeous stone fireplaces and antique fixtures – all in desperate need of repair. Yet, the Borels saw a glimmer of beauty to come. The grounds would provide ample room for vegetable gardens and small orchards. Situated amid an expanse of farmland, he speculated he could work with local farmers to meet other needs as well.
L’auberge opened in 1981 following massive renovations. With Alain’s notoriety and the inn’s emphasis on European-style luxury, the establishment became a magnet for Washingtonians and soon earned a five-diamond rating from the AAA. By the early 1990s, the James Beard Foundation had named Alain a Great Country Inn Chef. Television appearances on the Travel Channel, Discovery’s “Great Chefs” series and other shows followed.
Though Alain is now more or less retired from daily operations, his kitchen is ably helmed by chef Richard Wright. The chef made a name for himself in New York at the famed Gotham Bar and Grill, experience he parlayed into a job sousing at Eric Ripert’s three-star Michelin restaurant, Le Bernardin.
“My goal has been to take Alain’s [farm-to-table] philosophy and blend it with my own influences,” says Wright. “I want to elevate our food by giving it a bit of modern spin and adding fun and interesting twists. But I want to do it in a way that retains (Alain’s focus on) classical elegance.”
The approach results in menus that masterfully combine French and New American styles with Asian influences courtesy of a childhood spent in the Philippines. Offerings are sculpted from local, seasonal ingredients, including produce sourced from an on-site garden and orchard and peppered with global delicacies.
You may start with juicy slices of hard seared Autumn Olive Farms pork belly served atop crisp and silky house-made brioche and Bloody Butcher corn grits, drizzled with duck-egg hollandaise and garnished with microgreens and chopped parsley. From there, it’s on to Maine diver scallops surrounded by grilled heirloom Brussel sprouts, served in a pool of savory chestnut velouté and topped with caramelized maple syrup Granny Smith apples, cubed ventrèche and edible flowers. Next comes a succulent sashimi-grade cut of Madai, Japan’s most historically prized fish, presented atop a traditional, seaweed enwrapped rice cake and simple meuniére broth, and adorned with Siberian caviar and gold flakes.
Wright’s command of aesthetics and ability to carry eaters on global taste journeys that somehow still feel rooted in Virginia is inspiring and brings to mind comparisons to L’Auburge’s much-celebrated neighbor, The Inn at Little Washington.
Recent renovations and additions have boosted luxury factor at the 11-room inn and brought a new 28-seat bar and bistro area. Expect a mix of comfortable Provence-style décor; rustic historical antiques like hand-painted French tiles around fireplaces, or walls ornamented with heirloom 19th-century copper cookware from Avignon; paintings by masters like Picasso, Monet and Matisse; and chic modern amenities like whirlpool tubs and multi-jet showers.
“My parents wanted an authentic, food-based life in the country,” says sommelier Christian Borel, Alain and Celeste’s only son. He’s helped curate the inn’s 1,100-plus-selection wine cellar, which won Wine Spectator Best of Excellence awards in 2016 and 2018. “The joy that living so close to the land has brought them, that’s what we hope to share with our guests.”
The Ashby Inn
The Ashby Inn can be found nestled against the Blue Ridge Mountains some 15 miles west of the Goodstone. Situated along bucolic Route 50 on three beautifully manicured acres in the tiny, historical village of Paris, the Ashby looks like a place that might’ve once been frequented by a young George Washington.
Dating to 1829, the main inn is comprised of an unassuming two-story, white-washed colonial with six bedrooms, black shutters, mullioned windows and a façade of plaster ensconced by boxwoods and ivy. A T-shaped plantation-style addition was grafted onto its rear prior to the Civil War and is now home to an intimate 73-seat restaurant with four interior dining areas and patio seating. The building is neighbored by a renovated schoolhouse and red-roofed chapel, both built in the 1890s. Founded by a pair of local restauranteurs in 1984, it was sold to Charles and Jackie Leopold in 2005 and has since undergone extensive renovation.
The couple furnished the rooms with 19th-century antiques like hand-painted wardrobes, fireplaces with ornately carved encasements, blanket chests, quilts, repurposed oil lamps, fourposter beds, oriental rugs and more. Modern touches keep the scheme feeling more vintage-chic than antiquated: Think boutique mattresses and chairs; bathrooms equipped with hammered copper sinks, granite countertops and jacuzzi tubs; bright paint; skylights, decorative windows and balconies.
Views of the surrounding landscape and grounds seem plucked from a Jane Austin novel. A mile to the south is the 1,860-acre Sky Meadows State Park – formerly an estate of billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon. The Appalachian Trail crosses Ashby Gap less than 1.5 miles to the east. Northward, grassy pastures roll toward the forested peaks of 1,926-foot Paris Mountain.
But it is the restaurant that steals the show. Executive Chef John Leonard joined the team in May 2019 after a five-year run at the Goodstone. Leonard says the move stemmed from a desire to pursue new culinary directions.
“I grew up in Georgia surrounded by old Southern foodways,” says Leonard, whose dad was a butcher and mom an avid gardener and culinarian. Coming to The Ashby Inn has given him the freedom to explore those early influences and seek to blend them with the French techniques that have characterized his career.
To do it, Leonard is steadily introducing Southern heirlooms to the Ashby Inn’s vegetable garden, including Alabama Red okra and Ole Timey Blue collards. He’s partnered with local farmers to boost supplies and add variety. Foragers bring regional wild foods too.
Coming to The Ashby Inn has given Chef Leonard the freedom to explore those early Southern foodways influences and seek to blend them with the French techniques that have characterized his career.
And the results are exquisite. Leonard is dishing out French-inspired tasting menus run through a blender of new-Southern rock-and-roll and cooking like a man with something to prove. Though a la carte options are available, the five-course chef’s tasting menu is magic.
Look for playful amuse-bouches like a sweet pea custard with garden-fresh mint and sautéed beech mushrooms topped with shiso and pumpernickel crumble. Mains bring delights like a hard-seared duck sous vide paired with delicately crisped leeks, white asparagus, locally foraged morel mushrooms and an elderflower sauce enriched with veal stock and muscatel – all surrounded by wisps of robust red onion and port sauce.
“I’m cooking from the heart and having more fun than I ever have before,” Leonard says.
The Goodstone Inn
The Goodstone Inn sits on the outskirts of Middleburg amid rambling, Old Virginia estates crisscrossed by creeks and century-old stone fences.
A paved, roughly mile-long driveway offers time to admire the 265-acre property. The route is lined with antique streetlamps and ivy-wrapped brick walls. Thick forests give way to rolling pastures, working orchards and mountain views.
The drive concludes at the 18-room inn’s Carriage House parking lot. The beautifully renovated stable complex now boasts four guest suites, a 40-seat bar, a lobby and bistro area, and The Conservatory, a 50-seat fine-dinery.
The way inside leads through a fountain-centered courtyard brimming with gardens. To the right and left are cobblestoned porches and stable-themed doors, respectively. The flagstone walk passes through blooming crape myrtles, boxwoods and stands of exotic flowers.
Stephen Elhafdi, the inn’s sommelier, directs us to a table. The 53-year-old Moroccan native wears swept black hair, an elegant navy suit and a striped maroon tie. He joined the Goodstone in 2013 following 30 years in D.C.’s fine-dining scene – “My countryside retirement,” he jokes. His 500-plus-selection wine list has won Wine Spectator awards of excellence for five straight years.
“Food and wine are like a good marriage,” says Elhafdi, pouring a starter of German Riesling. “Incorrectly paired, it’s chaos. But when the two elements meet in harmony? It’s magical. Each enhances the other.”
Elhafdi found his match with Executive Chef Jan Van Haute, 38, who joined the Goodstone in 2019. The latter’s resume includes stints at the acclaimed Vue de Monde in Australia, three-star Michelin gems in Tokyo (RyuGin) and Belgium (Hof van Cleve), and the Belgian embassy in Washington, D.C.
Van Haute says the ability to source upward of 90 percent of ingredients from neighboring farms and an on-site garden, greenhouse and fungiculture facility lured him to the Goodstone. There, he dishes out a sophisticated but playful hit-parade of tastes, combining worldly inspirations with hyper-local, farm-to-table cuisine.
Even salads get the royal treatment. Take, for instance, a bowl of miniature vegetables from the garden. The salad includes blanched spring onions, paper-thin slices of heirloom cherry tomatoes and pickled cucumbers, grilled zucchini, chives and sautéed chanterelle mushrooms. Haute, a baby-faced bear of a man, arrives tableside to provide a splash of warm vegetable bouillon with soy, ponzu and sesame oil, and a garnish of pea sprouts and edible flowers.
Meaty mains feature Blue Ridge staples like fowl, beef tenderloin or rack of lamb. But there are surprises too, like a delicate scallop ceviche.
The scallops are cubed and compiled in a circular cake and presented in a pool of white miso. They’re topped by a disc of shaved watermelon radish and adorned with dollops of citrusy yuzu gel, avocado crème fraiche, edible flowers, sprouts and shaved croutons. The dish is finished with a bright whorl of watercress, yuzu and avocado oils and gels.
The meal takes about two hours and is a portrait of decadence. It leaves an afterglow of having experienced something wildly fantastic.