Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Remodeling a classic at Hotel Roanoke

Hotel Roanoke is modernizing the interior of its 74-year-old Regency Room while preserving its tasteful, formal atmosphere and signature dishes.

Bob Smith of Lucas Construction installs trim above a doorway in the renovated Regency Room.

Photos by Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times

Bob Smith of Lucas Construction installs trim above a doorway in the renovated Regency Room.

There’s new black-and-white tile in the buffet area of the Regency Room, which could have a soft reopening Saturday.

There’s new black-and-white tile in the buffet area of the Regency Room, which could have a soft reopening Saturday.

Shrimp and grits with marinated jumbo shrimp, cheddar-chive stone-grounded grits and crispy fried okra will be served in the Regency Room.

Shrimp and grits with marinated jumbo shrimp, cheddar-chive stone-grounded grits and crispy fried okra will be served in the Regency Room.

food writer Lindsey Nair

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Hotel Roanoke is the grand old lady of the Star City, but it recently became clear that one of her most elegant features was in need of a face-lift.

Remodeling the 74-year-old Regency Room, however, required some difficult decisions by hotel management. They had to strike the perfect balance between modernizing its interior and menu while preserving the qualities that diners expect, including a tasteful, formal atmosphere and signature dishes.

Since the hotel reopened in 1995 after an ownership change and a long closure, the main dining room has had only minor upgrades. The menu was reworked in 2007, but changing times called for an overhaul that could showcase the hotel's commitment to local food sourcing and contemporary preparations.

While the restaurant is widely known for its lavish buffets, the hotel's executive chef, Billie Raper, wants diners to also be tempted by the menu offerings.

"We are really hoping that a la carte becomes more of a player," he said.

If R.L. Lucas Construction of Roanoke continues to work at a rapid clip, the Regency Room will have a soft reopening on Saturday.

New and blue

Hotel restaurants built these days are usually divided into cozy sections for a more intimate experience, so the Regency Room's wide-open, one-room floor plan was outdated and a little unwelcoming for some guests, said food and beverage director Declan McGettigan. Even if 40 people were dining in the restaurant, the crowd looked sparse.

However, a complicating factor was that on certain occasions, such as Mother's Day, Easter and Christmas, every bit of that space is needed.

The designers' solution was to build a wall that divides the room, creating a banquet area on one side. The wall features three sets of French doors with opaque glass panes, so they can be closed for private functions or left open when the restaurant is packed. The banquet room has been named Regency Overlook.

To the left of the hostess stand will be a "soft seating" lounge area where customers can have a beverage while waiting for a table. Because the hotel's bar, the Pine Room Pub, is located some distance away, it has always been a bit awkward to find a convenient place for diners to wait, McGettigan said.

For those who are familiar with the Regency Room's regal red-and-gold color scheme, the most noticeable difference will be new carpet, drapes and fabric wall coverings. The restaurant's look will now include dark blue and tan carpet, champagne and pearl-gray wall coverings, bluish-gray drapes and walls painted with just a blush of blue.

The buffet room is getting new black-and-white tile (don't worry, the mural will not be disturbed) and the small, private Virginia Room is having its original terrazzo floor restored.

Finally, as part of the $750,000 job, larger awnings will be installed over the patio outside the Regency Room to provide more shade for guests. Patio heaters will be used to extend the outdoor dining season, and hotel managers hope customers will use an entrance that leads directly from the patio into the restaurant.

New chef, new menu

It is Raper's job to oversee all food at the hotel, whether it be casual fare in the pub, buffets, the Regency Room menu or a banquet for 1,000 people. Clearly, he has a lot on his plate.

That's why the addition of chef Sandy Krebs late last year has been a relief to Raper. As executive chef of the Regency Room, Krebs can focus on the restaurant alone.

I recently had lunch with Krebs, who joked that "I've lived in so many different places I'm not sure where I'm from."

She started out with her own sweets shop in 1989 and went on to work at several hotels, including The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Later, she opened DECO in St. Augustine, Fla.; the restaurant won a 2009 Achievement of Excellence Award from the American Culinary Federation.

Most recently, Krebs was head chef at the Laughing Seed Cafe in Asheville, N.C., where she indulged her interest in the local food movement by working with nearby farmers. She said the fact that Hotel Roanoke has invested in local sourcing was the main reason she was attracted to the job.

"It is a great marriage of their passions and my passions," she said.

She also liked the idea of spicing up the old menu based on "new Southern" cuisine.

"Had they said 'We are just a traditional hotel with a lot of history and we just want to keep things the way they are,' I wouldn't have been interested."

As a result, Krebs and Raper together have developed a menu that includes the standards such as peanut soup and she crab soup but introduces new dishes and puts a spin on stalwarts such as filet mignon and New York Strip.

The renovated Regency Room will serve pan-fried trout from Sunburst Farms in North Carolina and grilled rack of lamb from Border Springs Farm in Patrick County. The lamb will be served with Chateau Morrisette white wine-rosemary-mint jelly.

Truffle risotto fritters, local chicken pate, corn cake Chesapeake, and shrimp with cheddar-chive grits and crispy fried okra are among the additions, as are the Southern pecan baklava and hot-and-cold chocolate mousse for dessert.

Finally, the menu, which will range in price from about $16 to $40, offers some small plates as well as main course portions.

Down to details

What returning customers may see as general improvements to the Regency Room have been the result of much agonizing over tiny details, McGettigan said.

Lighting with zoned dimming, fresh linens, new dining room chairs and slight changes to the place settings are all the result of much pondering. McGettigan said he even struggled over the decision to switch out the green glass water goblets in favor of blue glass.

On the 14th, a special Valentine's Day menu will be in play, but on the 15th and 16th, the restaurant will return to the full a la carte menu in addition to Valentine's specials.

McGettigan and his colleagues hope guests will see that the renovations were done "in keeping with the standards of the hotel.

"We have to maintain that as much as we can, but we also have to consider new business."