Puttin’ On the Ritz

Luray’s lustrous Mimslyn Inn and its restaurant, Circa ’31, bring a touch of elegance to the Shenandoah Valley. The Thornton Grille, in nearby Sperryville, is destination dining, too. 

I really should have pulled up to the newly grand Mimslyn Inn of Luray in a luxurious Packard sedan, not a Honda Civic. This magnificent old hotel, situated on a high knoll set back from Main Street and within walking distance of the celebrated Luray Caverns, simply exudes vintage elegance. Built in 1931 by Henry and Elizabeth Mims, the Mimslyn was the toast of the town back then, luring even the most discriminating city folk to this gorgeous swath of the Shenandoah Valley. Boasting features such as a redbrick and Corinthian-columned façade, a sweeping spiral staircase in the main lobby, a fine restaurant, gardens and terraces, a solarium and suites splendid enough for Eleanor Roosevelt, this hotel introduced a new, Great Gatsby-style sophistication to this otherwise rural slice of Virginia.

Though it remained open throughout the 20th century, the Mimslyn’s shine faded over the years. Thankfully, the hotel-loving Asam family (they own the Bavarian Inn in West Virginia) purchased the property in 2005 and spent a few years—and several million dollars—bringing her to lustrous, 21st-century life. The 45 rooms and suites were completely refurbished, as was the lobby and, of course, the fine dining restaurant, now named Circa ’31. What was once a mere basement visited only by the staff has been transformed into a blissful day spa/fitness center and a casual-chic lounge, the Speakeasy. As I discovered on a recent weekend in early spring, the Mimslyn Inn is back—and how.

After a surprisingly short drive from Charlottesville that made me wonder why I hadn’t been there before, I checked in to the Mimslyn (with my husband and daughter) on a late Friday afternoon. I must admit that I wasn’t expecting such (affordable) luxury in Luray. Since the hotel had just re-opened and it was still the off-season, we had the sense of trespassing on another era, of sneaking into a Rockefeller mansion while the owners were away, and being treated like Rockefellers ourselves.

It was difficult to pull myself away from our spacious, spanking-new third-floor suite—high ceilings, big windows, king-size four-poster bed, two flat-screen TVs, virtual fireplace, enormous Jacuzzi tub—but I was eager to explore. Just as the sky darkened outside, I swirled down the spiral staircase, passed the laughter and glass clinking of a private party in the hotel’s magnificent Blue Ridge Room and slipped into the swank Speakeasy Bar and Restaurant for a before-dinner drink. A sense of humor and whimsy infuses this jazzy little joint, which was inspired by the Prohibition era and the Mimslyn’s own early history. The décor features intimate, cream-colored leather booths, Tiffany-style lamps, bistro tables, a handcrafted wood bar, and huge, black and white photographs of silent movie stars on the walls. I plopped down on a corner couch next to Greta Garbo and ordered a concoction called “Joe’s Password”—Southern Comfort, ginger ale and cherry juice—which was served, like many of the Speakeasy’s signature drinks, in a coffee mug, just in case of a raid. I gazed into Valentino’s eyes and suddenly had an appetite.

A more casual complement to Circa ’31 upstairs, the Speakeasy’s menu features nostalgic, Southern-inspired comfort food with a creative twist—pot pie with pulled chicken, grilled rib-eye steaks, sausage and grits, homemade soups and specials like tempura squash blossoms stuffed with lump crabmeat, mascarpone, spicy-sweet peppers and a peach cream sauce. Eager to taste executive chef Richard Mellar’s cuisine, I ordered a few appetizers. I had to stop myself from devouring all six crispy pulled pork spring rolls served with a spicy house-made Rooster dipping sauce. Smoked just outside the door, the pork was so succulent and so abundant that, each time I lifted a roll to my mouth, a piece or two fell out of the wonton onto a bed of fluffy micro-greens. Reinforcements came in the form of my husband, Enrico, and our 6-year-old daughter, Mila. Together we polished off the rest of the spring rolls and a serving of local Turner ham dip (laced with sweet relish and crushed pecans), which we spread on sturdy slices of grilled bread.

Ready to put on a bit more of the Ritz, we headed back upstairs and traveled back through time, once again, to Circa ’31. Just off the main lobby, the Mimslyn’s spacious dining room is a truly elegant place: floor-to-ceiling windows, potted palms, finely dressed tables with high-back cherry-stained chairs, and murals depicting 1930s guests arriving at the Inn. We were seated next to the grand piano and enjoyed the soft jazz and candlelight as we perused the menu. After a delectable amuse-bouche of salt cod and Yukon gold brandade, we shared starters of house-made wild mushroom ravioli (fresh marinara and just a hint of black truffle) and a warm stack of vine-ripe tomatoes and goat cheese with a swirl of black fig reduction.

I don’t usually request a children’s menu, but the Mimslyn is an exception. Finally, a chef who understands that children, when encouraged, will eat much more than chicken nuggets and hot dogs! After considering the chicken ravioli with Parmesan purée, Mila decided on the Angus beef slider on a house-baked roll. Just as she was beginning to wonder why we didn’t order our own fries (they were crisp and light), our entrées arrived. Enrico’s braised lamb shank with dried cherries, stone-ground polenta and garlic juice was, like most of the dishes, simply prepared (to allow the freshness of the main ingredients to shine) and artfully presented. My local brook trout was stuffed with a texture- and flavor-rich blend of Granny Smith apples, Peppadew peppers and herbed orzo.

A veteran of both large hotels and small, chef-owned restaurants (i.e. Richmond’s La Grotta and Sensi), Mellar, a Gloucester native, is clearly more than able to rise to the varied challenges of a hotel with two restaurants and a busy event calendar.

Word of advice: Don’t skip dessert at the Mimslyn. Or breakfast, for that matter. At dinner, Mila became uncharacteristically possessive after my third request to taste her exquisite, thyme-infused vanilla ice-cream drizzled with local honey, while Enrico, who said he’d pass on dessert, changed his mind after the first bite of my impeccable pear and almond torte. More delightful than chocolates on your pillow, pastry chef Sabre McWilliams’ desserts and baked goods make staying at the Mimslyn seem even more of an extravagance. At breakfast the next morning in the sun-filled Circa ’31 dining room, we almost fell off our chairs tasting her flaky, just-out-of-the-oven cherry and pineapple Danish and fruit breads, perfect with the Mimslyn’s rich, locally roasted coffee. Luckily, we saved room for Mellar’s breakfast entrees each morning—fluffy cheese blintzes, a fried ham and Gruyère sandwich on toasted brioche, and a pon-hoss (Virginia scrapple) napoleon with fresh tomatoes and hollandaise.

Pampered and happy, we were ready to explore Luray. First stop: the Caverns, of course. Despite their fame, I didn’t expect them to hold a candle to the cuevas we had visited last year in Mallorca, Spain. But after an hour down in this dreamy, geological otherworld and a haunting performance by the world’s only stalacpipe organ, we were sold. The vintage car and carriage museum next door was equally impressive—the rows upon rows of shiny, beautifully maintained Rolls Royces, Model T’s and Hispano-Suizas kept the vintage mood of the Mimslyn alive and made us wish we owned a natural wonder, too.

After sandwiches and salads at the bustling Artisan’s Grille, we strolled up and down Luray’s Main Street and eventually stumbled upon Apple Cottage. Owned and operated by Ilene Reilly, a former aerospace engineer, this little organics shop and apothecary is a place both new and timeless. Wearing a purple cap and a cotton apron, Reilly gave us a tour of her store’s many wonders—teas, natural creams and ointments, aromatherapies and gourmet foods—as well as a fragrant lesson on medicinal herbs and roots. I had a hunch that a woman who hasn’t seen doctor in 20 years and sells edible flowers and herbs to local chefs would have good taste in restaurants. I was right. Thanks to Ilene, we were able to snag the last three seats at the Thornton River Grille on a busy Saturday night.

We set out for Sperryville in the darkness and crossed the Shenandoah National Park under a vivid, starry sky. After about 20 minutes of twists and turns, we arrived in the picturesque little village of Sperryville. We drove past a coffee roaster, an art gallery and a bed-and-breakfast or two before arriving at what we thought (it was dark!) must be the Thornton River Grille. Animated by silhouettes, the interior glowed, and the parking lot out back was packed. Inside, I had to pause for a moment to admire the scene: a single dining room, walls paneled in white pine, soft light from sconces and candles, a dozen or so little tables filled with happy diners and—the best part—three spots set at the pine bar in full view of the chefs at work in the open kitchen. Pinch me, I thought. This is my idea of heaven in restaurant form.

Perched on our stools, we barely spoke as we watched intuitive chef Tom Nash work the grill—shrimp, flat iron steaks, tenderloin—and, together with sous chef Jake Majeski, put together plate after plate of simply beautiful food. I’ve eaten many plates of shrimp ‘n’ grits over the years, but Nash’s duo of char-grilled (in front of my eyes) shrimp on top of a mound of creamy cheddar grits with a scoop of red eye (ham and coffee) gravy definitely takes the prize. We devoured a plate of sautéed herbed gnocchi next, tossed with slivers of shiitake mushrooms and truffled cream. I couldn’t control my fork when the three entrées were served—a roasted garlic risotto “cake” topped with wilted arugula, roasted tomatoes and warm goat cheese; a quintessential broiled lump crab cake; and a truly memorable, demi-glazed beef tenderloin with perfectly cooked fingerling potatoes and glistening leaves of spinach sautéed with abundant garlic.

When our server, who, as Mila noticed, looked a lot like Thomas Jefferson, asked about dessert, we couldn’t say no. But as we were leisurely enjoying our plate of “brownie decadence,” we saw that by 9:15 on a Saturday night in Sperryville, just five miles from the Inn at Little Washington, we were the only diners left. After a quick peek into the general store next door, we thanked the chefs and said good night. I didn’t realize until we returned to our mansion—I mean, to our room at the Mimslyn Inn—that we’d forgotten to take our doggie bag. I would’ve driven back over the mountains to get it, but sleep and the comfort of my luxurious surroundings got the better of me.

The Mimslyn Inn: (800) 296-5105

Thornton River Grille: (540) 987-8790

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