Inns across New England are upping their culinary game with new chefs, renovated dining rooms and a fresh set of cooking classes. We took a look at a half-dozen—one in each New England state—that really stand out.
GrayBarns, 194 Perry Ave., Norwalk, Connecticut (283-489-9000) graybarns.com. Photo credit: Noah Frecks
Guests who break break bread at the Tavern at GrayBarns start dinner with a sourdough baguette made by Flour Salt Water’s Rob VanKeuren. “He doesn’t use any leaveners, any bleached flours—everything is naturally fermented. He’s got a starter that’s from Italy 90 years ago,” executive chef Ben Freemole says, mentioning just one history-steeped aspect of the revamped inn and restaurant in Norwalk, Connecticut. The converted 19th-century textile factory was a popular spot in the ’50s and ’60s—drawing Golden Age Hollywood stars like Lauren Bacall, Spencer Tracy and even Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher for their honeymoon—before it reopened in August after a two-year renovation that also included a rustic remake of the inn’s former 1920s speakeasy.
“We take classic food you would serve for dinner parties or at home or just out of your garden and we try to put a restaurant spin on it—nothing too pretentious, nothing too precious. It’s food that’s good to share, and has some memory involved in it,” Freemole says of the menu that changes every few weeks. When it comes to VanKeuren’s sesame semolina bread, “It reminds everybody of those really bad breadsticks from the past, but it’s super, super delicious.” Tuna tartare dressed in olive oil, shallot and lemon nods to one chef’s first job in a kitchen, and they also created a clam toast inspired by Pepe’s pizza. One version of the cheeseburger—the patty’s grind made with 20-percent bone marrow for some “oomph”—included pickled green tomatoes, bearnaisesauce and shredded lettuce. “It kind of reminded everyone of going to McDonald’s as a child,” Freemole says.
But GrayBarns’ sourcing goes far beyond the golden arches. A nearby farm supplies fresh eggs and grows radish and sunflower shoots, shiso and pea tendrils to garnish dishes. The restaurant’s expanding its on-site garden beds from six to 24 to plant sour clover, tomatoes, haricots verts and marjoram, with staff taking turns tending to them. Then it’s off to the farmers market, a habit that Freemole picked up while working at New York’s shuttered molecular gastronomy playground wd-50, where the staff frequented Union Square every week. Says Freemole: “We came back with taxis full of vegetables.”
GrayBarn’s colonial accommodations are far removed from that bustling city, but its six suites are stocked with luxurious modern comforts—Frette linens, Nest thermostats, heated travertine floors and Le Labo toiletries—that live among Corona typewriters and reclaimed wood.
The property’s original Windsor chairs were updated with black lacquer, and Tavern guests can relax in one by the bar or terrace overlooking the Silvermine River and Guthrie Pond or move to the library for after-dinner drinks. Come back for breakfast and lunch—or grab one of VanKeuren’s croissants instead. Better yet, this fall the inn is slated to open Mercantile, a country store stocked with home goods, homemade provisions and a cafe and bakery, so you can take a taste of the retreat home with you.
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