Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Architectural and Culinary Restoration at The Grand View Hotel.

Ever just have a dream you want to follow? Ever been brave enough to follow that dream? Alexander Virden has been following dreams for a while. His latest dream could change the face of downtown Berryville.

Virden used to work on oil rigs off the Louisiana coast. He lived in Algier’s Point, just a ferry ride from New Orleans’ French Quarter. Injuries forced him to leave his job as a diver, but he continued on by working to restore homes here and there.
Virden did eventually leave Louisiana, setting off in an RV and just driving where he felt. Something made him stop at Berryville, and that’s where his roaming ceased.

“I asked about this building,” he told me one Saturday afternoon during a late lunch. “I asked about this big building, and no one could remember what it was. I said “you know that building between that little shop and the post office? And people had just ignored it.”

That building was the old Grand View Hotel. It started off life as the Saint George Hotel back in 1902. Though it received an auspicious start with a gala dance in its grand ballroom, the property passed through a number of hands in its first decade. M.M. Hoagland added the balconies and porches to it shortly after he took it over in 1910. Mr. & Mrs. L.C. Smith bought the place in 1926 and renamed it The Grand View Hotel.

Dr. John H. Bohannan bought the hotel in 1943... He eventually added the commercial spaces in front of the hotel for more revenue. But by the early 70s the hotel was closed.

It was purchased in 1984 by Phillis and Carl Loehr, who attempted a massive reconstruction of the building but were unable to finish. It sat fallow for the better part of two decades, gathering bird droppings and an amazing amount of stored away junk. “You couldn’t walk straight through anywhere,” Virden told me. “You’d have to turn sideways. To get through this dining room there was a path from here to the hall. There was scaffolding, there was stuff packed all the way up to the scaffolding and then stuff on top of it. On the stairs it was packed so tight you only had a path just wide enough to go up or down. We hauled out more than 250 cubic yards of junk.”

“We” in this case would be Virden and his partner, Sandra Doss. While we were there for lunch we heard muted noised from the kitchen where she was working. I got the impression she was very shy.

Virden’s dream when he saw the hotel was to refurbish it - not just as a potential hotel but as an art space. He wants to encourage the arts in the small town. He also owns a space down the street,, 2900 square feet of gallery space and kitchen for local artists. Unfortunately thanks to all the demands and a slow economy he may have to part with that artspace soon.

The hotel, though, had so many possibilities. There are 14 rooms with ensuite baths above the first floor, still in the renovation process but so much further along than they were when Virden first bought the place in November 2005. On the fourth floor there’s a grand open space Virden hopes to utilize as event space -- a large area with its own kitchen that might host artists receptions, weddings and the like. The rooms could be let to artists in residence, possibly. Possibilities seem to be the order of the day at the hotel.

But the main focus these past three years has been on the restaurant. 302 on the Square is part of Virden’s dream -- not just as part of his hotel complex but to finance the completion of the renovations. It’s a time consuming effort, running an eatery -- and it’s eaten into time for actually working on the hotel. But it’s also a labor of love.

The recipes at 302 on the Square are family recipes. The restaurant itself is billed as a “Cajun-American” eatery. “We do the American favorites, hamburger and hot dogs. And we do the kind of food I know from Louisiana, the red beans and rice and stuff.”

I’ve dropped into the 302 before, a couple of summers ago while headed to Eureka Springs. I was taken by a singular dish, the South Carolina Strawberries & Cream ($4.50), only available when strawberries are in season. The marinated berries and heavy cream were served up over a hot flaky biscuit rather than the expected shortcake. The saltiness of that biscuit balanced perfect with the sweetness of the cream and the tart of the berries. It had made an impression upon me.

We dined at the 302 this particular Saturday on many of the eatery’s signature items. We started with simple Grand View Salads ($1.50/$3/$5 based on size), a nice mixture of green leaf lettuce, spinach, red onion, tomato and cheese with a choice of dressings. I went for a simple balsamic vinaigrette and was pleased.

What came out next though was something I can only describe as a momento of my childhood. The dish, listed on the menu as Louisiana Chicken and Gravy ($7.50), was straight out of my grandmother’s recipe book. The thick skillet pepper gravy, smothered free range chicken (all the restaurant’s poultry comes from Little Portion), that flavor of homemade poultry seasoning and a little thyme and butter, all served over a mound of extra long grain rice… that’s the sort of thing that will take me back. It was exactly what I remembered, very warm and hearty and peppery and… I lost myself in the dish. I really did. I took some of the gravy and ladled it onto a piece of the flaky biscuit that comes with the dish. This is the sort of thing that should be well preserved. This.

My dining companion’s selection was the Authentic Cajun Red Beans and Rice with Andouille Sausage ($7.50), served up with a sweet corn muffin. This too was served over the long rice. The roux in the dish was evidently perfect, a gravy-thick base to the substantial heft of the beans and the salty well-seasoned Andouille.

By themselves, the beans wouldn’t have been seasoned enough and the sausage would have been overwhelming. Together they were perfect.

The cornmeal muffin, yellow cornmeal, was sweet but not so very sweet as to be Northerly offensive. A pat of real butter made it even softer. Very nice.

Of course, being a restaurant in Arkansas there was of course a Reuben sandwich. This one ($6 served with kettle chips) was one of the better examples I’ve encountered. The sliced corned beef is tender and cut against the grain so that it falls apart in your mouth.

I liked the variation of chopped slaw -- which made it far easier to get a good bite out of the sandwich without mess. The dressing was tangy, and the Swiss cheese was more than ample -- a definite contender to the sandwich rather than an accompaniment or afterthought, a mistake many make with their Reubens. The very soft marbled rye was a nice touch.

And then came the catfish. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big fan of fried catfish. It’s too often done badly -- whether from improper cleaning or a badly chosen source. I just usually don’t order it. But here, I was happy with it.

The batter was light but thoroughly seasoned with salt and pepper, a cornmeal batter that wasn’t overdone. And the fish itself… it… it was clean and flaky and properly cooked, good enough for me to convert.

The catfish is new on the menu… it wasn’t there when I’d made my previous trip. Just another branching out for Virden and Doss. “We get our catfish from Mississippi,” Virden told me. “We make sure it’s clean. That’s a family recipe we use for it.”

The hush puppies that come along with it are yellow cornmeal orbs with chunks of white onion and a little sweetness to them, an inch and a half in diameter. I’d consider the hush puppies and fish to best be eaten with the terrific green tomato relish offered with them… but then again, I love tomato pickles like this. That’s what I grew up on. My dining companion was not as convinced, preferring a little cocktail sauce with his fish.

There were French fries, and they were decent -- but then there was the coleslaw. I am used to coleslaw either being crunchy or very soft, and if it’s crunchy there’s a real lack of flavor to it. Not here. Somehow or another Doss has managed to make this a worthy coleslaw. “She makes it all up in small batches,” Virden told me. “She cuts up the cabbage and stuff and makes up the dressing separately, and she only combines them a little bit at a time as we go along.” It works. The crunchy vegetation is matched with a sweet and creamy dressing that doesn’t have any hint of staleness to it.

And then there was dessert. While strawberries were undoubtedly out of season, there were other options on the menu -- including several ice cream treats. One of the desserts we sampled was The Grand View Brownie Bar ($2.50, an additional $1.75 a la mode). This long brownie was topped with a thick chocolate frosting, and there was just about as much chocolate inside. It’s a smack-your-lips chocolate concentration. The premium vanilla ice cream comes from nearby Highland Dairy.

I forgot about the brownie (until I looked at the notes and photos) once I tried the Dang Good Pie ($3.50, a la mode for $1.75 more). The recipe comes from a friend, whose grandmother's grandmother had it in her collection. Five generations back, a recipe dating back to the 19th century… and well now. We’re talking about a pineapple-coconut pie. My first thought when I tasted it was how buttery it was. It was very much like pineapple upside down cake -- but with coconut. It was almost meaty in texture, with such a strong and delicious brown sugar flavor to it. The crust was handmade, too, unsweetened butter crust nice and crisp, with a little dotting of whipped cream to top it off. I loved this pie. This is one of the best pies I have ever had in Arkansas. And it’s generational. Wow.

It was an impressive meal -- especially for lunch -- and much of it went back with us as leftovers.

There’s far more work to be done on the hotel. Virden’s next project is to complete the renovation of the Garden Room on the back of the first level and to add a small greenhouse off the back so he and Doss can start growing their own herbs and vegetables to use in the restaurant. That’s going to be quite a bit of work, but I’m sure they’ll manage.

I enjoyed the chance to sit down with Alexander Virden but lamented one thing. This was the second time I’d attempted to make it up on a Friday night, but both times snow on the roads had postponed my trip. I have to go back -- and probably will -- come this April or May. I have to go enjoy the Hootenanny.

That’s right, every Friday night starting at 7pm local musicians come in and jam the way the hollows around these parts have been jammed for more than a century -- with good local folk music played on local instruments. I want to hear the hoot and holler and kick back with a sing-along or two. This experience will have to wait for another time, sadly. Seems I keep bringing snow to north Arkansas this year.

There is more you can learn about The Grand View Hotel… on the website documenting its rebirth. You can also find a complete menu for 302 on the Square and start planning for your next run through town. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Both can be found on the Berryville Square. For more information you can call (870) 654-3952.

302 On the Square on Urbanspoon


  1. I LOVE that building and have been planning on doing a painting of it for some time! So glad to hear of someone doing something great with it.

  2. Not only I'm excited for the renovations and the new and improved facilities, but I'm also interested about the revamped cuisine for their buffet. Things are looking up.

    cookbook buy

  3. Pretty good restoration work. The structure looks brand new inside and out. I can hardly believe the place has been standing since the early 1900's.


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