Charmed by a Country Inn
By Stan Swofford
Imagine sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of a century-old farmhouse-restaurant and marvelling at mist rising from a wide, crystal-clear, ancient river as fireflies begin practicing a show that will soon have surrounding hills twinkling like diamonds.
The peace and beauty of the place and moment lull you into a wonderful reverie -- but not for long. Competing for, and soon winning over, your senses are delicious smells wafting through the open windows from the kitchen and dining room.
Well, you don't have to just imagine. The place is real, and it's only about two hours from Greensboro. This is River House, a country inn and restaurant nestled in a natural bowl formed by mountains and the North Fork of the New River in Ashe County in northwestern North Carolina.
The natural beauty of the mountains and the New River is reason enough to drive the approximately 130 miles from Greensboro. Add the superb food, charm and hospitality of River House, and a weekend there becomes one that many people repeat over and over again.
Coasting beside the river
``Elegance, without a sign of pretentiousness.'' That's what innkeeper Gayle Winston says she strives for at River House. Her guests believe she has succeeded, judging from the comments in the inn's guest book:
``A delight! Along the river are shades of green, patent yellow to emerald, and all the shades between. There are sounds not often heard by those who rush. Hospitality! Wonderful food! And many wonderful memories.''
``As nice as visiting a special friend's home.''
River House is actually one three-story main house and five outbuildings. River House's restaurant, bar, dining room and sitting room is on the first floor, and Winston lives on the top two floors. Winston converted the outbuildings into seven guest rooms. From outside, the outbuildings look just like what they used to be - a chicken house, carriage house, caretaker's house and weigh station (where produce was weighed) on a working farm. But open the doors, and you'll see rooms filled with antiques, books, paintings, a huge Jacuzzi whirlpool tub and a king-size bed.
Winston said she likes to think of all her guests as honeymooners. Add sensuousness to the elegance she strives for at River House.
One of the first things a guest notices at River House is the books: novels, biographies, history books, every kind of book. They line the walls of guest rooms in the main house and the out-buildings, and they've been well read. Hundreds of cookbooks fill two wall-size bookshelves in the sitting room of the main house. Winston accumulated them over the years as she developed and honed her culinary skills. They signal to guests that this is place where food is very special.
Guests browse the books in the library or chat in rockers on the front porch and watch ducks and canoes glide down the river. Others gather in the bar for drinks while waiting for dinner. Some, such as Debra and Peter Perret, drove up from Winston-Salem. Others traveled from Doe Run in nearby Virginia. Some were local, from West Jefferson, less than 10 miles from River House. Some visit regularly from Blowing Rock and Boone, about 30 miles away.
Amy Hart, bartender as well as River House manager, distributed menus as she mixed cocktails and poured white wine. Winston moved easily from the kitchen, where she assisted chef Bill Klein, to her guests, greeting many by their first names. She says she's never had a guest she didn't like. ``This is like having friends over every day,'' she said.
The restaurant is open to the public for dinner, as well as overnight guests. There are two sittings for dinner, one at 6 and one at 8:30.
A sample dinner menu might include appetizers such as warm asparagus salad with mushrooms and hollandaise; red pepper soup with creme fraiche and lobster; frog legs with carrot-lemongrass broth and plum tomato.
Entrees on a recent night included tenderloin filet with melted leeks, potato gnocchi, and mushrooms; duck breast with lentils du puy, artichokes and savoy cabbage; and marine halibut with tapenade, tomato tartlette and zucchini.
Winston hired Klein as the River House chef seven years ago, when he was only 21, and trained and supervised him for three years. He was so talented that she encouraged him to get his culinary arts degree. Klein then studied for a year in France with some of the country's best chefs. He also worked in four-star restaurants in San Francisco before returning this year to Ashe County, his home, and to River House.
But Klein still defers to Winston, especially when it comes to desserts. Desserts are her domain. There are people who travel a hundred miles or more several times a year for another piece of Winston's chocolate bourbon cake or another helping of her bread pudding.
Veteran River House guests enjoy initiating newcomers to Winston's bread pudding. ``You can't leave here without trying it,'' said one, as she summoned a waiter to order another serving. The pudding is crusty outside, moist and rich inside and chock-full of currents that have been soaked in brandy. She was right; the dessert was to die for.
Just as good, though, was breakfast at River House, and Winston prepares it to order after placing a pot of freshly-brewed coffee outside each guest's room. Her gourmet breakfasts include fresh-squeezed orange juice, fresh fruit, and a choice of hot foods, including French toast, pancakes, sherried eggs and omelets. Her mushroom and cheese omelet is on a par with her bread pudding.
A remarkable life
Winston, at 72, embraces innkeeping and cooking with the same verve and enthusiasm that have marked her many other pursuits during her remarkable life.
Winston, a 10th generation Ashe County native, was fresh out of college and armed with an English degree when she went to New York in the 1950s looking for a job as a journalist. She landed at Time magazine, where she met Leslie Stevens, a copyboy who had written a play and needed a producer.
At 23, Winston became his producer. ``I guess I didn't know any better,'' she said. ``I just went out and begged for the money.'' She got it, and produced Steven's play, ``Bullfight,'' off-Broadway. She produced several other plays, and worked with people such as Joanne Woodward and Roger Stevens, for whom Stevens Center in Winston-Salem is named.
Winston took her fund-raising prowess into the political arena where she worked for Democrat Adlai Stevenson in his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency against Republican Dwight Eisenhower. During this time Winston worked and became friends with two young men who would make quite a name for themselves in political circles: Jack and Robert Kennedy.
In 1958, she married Ron Winston, a film and television writer, producer and director whose work included the Hallmark Hall of Fame series and the television show, ``The Outer Limits.''
Winston loved New York -- its different people, cultures, ideas and food, especially the food. She became a regular reader of Gourmet magazine, and her original edition of Gourmet Cookbook is still with her in River House.
Ron Winston died in 1973, and Gayle Winston moved back to Ashe County to an environment that was worlds away from New York City. But Winston tackled her new world with the same enthusiasm as when she produced her first New York play.
Winston bought the house and farm that had belonged to her great-grandfather, and, along with brief stints as a schoolteacher and librarian, she became a cattle farmer. Her farm, which was not far from River House, eventually grew to 1,000 acres and supported 350 head of beef cattle.
Winston, however, missed the fine restaurants of New York. Beginning in 1976, she began opening and operating a series of restaurants, including, the Troutdale Dining Room in Troutdale, Va.; the Glendale Springs Inn, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway; Greystone Inn in Roaring Gap; Old Salem Tavern in Winston-Salem; The Tavern in Abingdon, Va.; and, finally, River House.
She has sold or closed all the other restaurants except Old Salem Tavern and River House.
Winston bought River House in 1988. She had admired the property for years, and knew something of its history. The house and farm had been the property of James Larkin ``Doc'' Ballou, a physician, inventor, environmentalist and ecoologist, who died in 1966. Winston renovated the cottage that had been his office, and it's now one of her guest rooms.
Winston has expanded the property to about 170 acres, including a mile of river frontage.
The New River, despite its name, is even older than the Nile, geologists say.
Ponder that as you sit on the River House front porch and watch a mother duck and her babies paddling by. Time, at least in the anxious way we have come to know it, seems irrelevant here.
Like it has for thousands of years, the river flows serenely and gracefully toward its destination, an elegant complement to River House and its innkeeper.
WANT TO GO?
Where: River House Country Inn and Restaurant
How to get there: From Greensboro, take I-40 West to Winston-Salem. Then take U.S. 421 North to Wilkesboro. Just north of Wilkesboro, turn right on N.C. 16. Proceed on N.C. 16 through Jefferson and travel about 10 miles to the North Fork New River Bridge. Immediately after crossing the bridge take a sharp left turn onto Old Field Creek Road. Go down a dip for 100 feet to a stop sign, and turn right. The river is on your left, and River House will be the first house you see, about a half-mile on the right.
What to do: Many North Carolina and Virginia mountain attractions are within easy driving distances of River House. The Blue Ridge Parkway is about 20 minutes away. Blowing Rock, Tweetsie Railroad, Boone and Grandfather Mountain are no more than an hour's drive. The New River State Park, where you can rent and launch canoes, is about 10 miles from River House. The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., is about an hour's drive. Also, you can hike or ride your bicycle on the near-by Virginia Creeper Trail, or visit Mount Jefferson, Grayson Highlands and the Bluff Mountain Nature Conservancy.