In August, Salisbury's White Hart Inn found itself in prestigious company as one of Bon Appetit's "America's Best New Restaurants," joining the list of 50 nominees of "spots that killed it this year," according to magazine editors.
The honor was noteworthy for a couple of reasons: It came less than six months after the White Hart relaunched its formal dining menu in January, following the inn's reopening under new management in September 2014. It was also one of the only restaurants on the list not in a major city, another point of pride for the destination in bucolic Litchfield County.
When partner and executive chef Annie Wayte heard the news, she was "over the moon," she says. "Never in a gazillion years did I expect that." But, she admits, "It's a lot of pressure at the same time to maintain that."
The England-born chef began her career in London, cooking in some of the city's most prestigious restaurants before opening fashion designer Nicole Farhi's restaurants Nicole's and 202 Cafe. When Farhi decided to open a flagship store in New York City, Wayte told her, "Well, there better be a restaurant attached to it," she says. And after replicating both of the London eateries in Manhattan, she made her home in the United States.
As a New Yorker, she and her husband grew fond of the Litchfield Hills, often renting a home for weekend getaways. The White Hart became a pit stop toward the end of the two hour and 15-minute trip, where they'd relax and have a burger and beer.
"It was such a relief to be here, escaping the city for the weekend," she says. But the inn closed abruptly in 2010 and remained dormant for several years — until Wayte and several other investors decided to buy it in May 2014. (She now splits her time between Salisbury and New York City.)
Just a few weeks later, as Salisbury prepared for its annual Memorial Day parade, Wayte and the team decided to announce their presence at the inn by inviting parade-goers over to enjoy lemonade and cookies. The response was emotional.
"Basically, we had 1,000 people descend upon the place, people in tears crying with relief that the place had reopened. People have a tremendous amount of memories in this building."
They spent the summer completing cosmetic renovations — luckily, the guest rooms had been revamped just months before the inn closed — and readied a menu for the inn's casual and comfortable tap room, welcoming guests for a Labor Day opening. The team made it a priority to open the tap room before the formal dining room, Wayte says, to "give it back to the locals as their meeting place." In January, she and chef de cuisine Paul Pearson (also England-born) quietly opened the formal dining room for service, but they didn't make it official until mid-March.
The distinction between the tap room and the dining room, which opens for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights only, is important, says Wayte, describing the food as fairly simple but with "the best possible quality ingredients." The author of the "Keep It Seasonal" cookbook says she's happy to be within 40 minutes of a network of farms in northwestern Connecticut, southwestern Massachusetts and the Hudson Valley — coincidentally, these are some of the same farmers she had worked with as a city chef. Now that she's based in the country, the closest farms "can come at a minute's notice."
The tap room's menu features the kind of comforting fare enjoyed with a beer by the fireplace (which is lit as soon as the first frost hits). There are English touches — Scotch egg, fish and chips with peas — and a lamb burger with goat cheese and polenta fries. Chicken liver mousse is a top seller, along with "today's toast," with ever-changing spreads like smoked fish, chorizo or roasted eggplant. Diners can dine casually on hamburgers with cheddar or hot dogs with sauerkraut, each with a side of fries, or the elegant hake dish with green olive relish, spinach and lentils. Appetizers and snacks are $5 to $14; sandwiches are $10 to $18; entrees are $16 to $25.
"I want people to come in and feel like they can have a toast and pints, or they can come in, have a bottle of wine and three courses. Whatever they want to do," Wayte says.
In the dining room, the menu is simple but graceful — four appetizers, four entrees and four desserts, which change regularly according to seasonal availability. The tuna crudo, a light and clean presentation with apples, yuzu, finger limes and nasturtium, was accented by cucumber until its season came to an end and Pearson replaced it with shaved turnips, sliced paper-thin. Recent features included ricotta truffle gnocchi with smoked tomato, maitake mushroom and kale; and roasted scallops with beets, freekeh, fennel and grapefruit. Dessert by pastry chef Gabby Rios is equally satisfying: Confections include a whiskey cake with apple compote and mascarpone, and a chocolate caramel tart with crème fraiche. Appetizers are priced at about $13 to $16; entrees are $28 to $37.
There's also a regular "dish for two," a large-format entrée intended for sharing — roasted chicken, lamb racks, whole tail of monkfish, savory pies, often presented tableside. The chefs feel strongly about this cozy offering. "It's like being in somebody's home when they cook for you," Wayte says.
Wayte also hopes to introduce a general-store component to the White Hart, with an emphasis on to-go prepared foods like meats, salads and cooked vegetables.
Although the Bon Appetit mention was a thrilling boost for the staff, "it's definitely challenging; expectations are high for people coming here and I hope we maintain that," Wayte says. "It's particularly hard in the countryside where you don't have a wealth of people that you can pull on."
But as the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley have become known for several noteworthy fine-dining destinations, she believes that the White Hart will help "channel that food energy" in northwest Connecticut.
"I have no doubt it will, but I don't know how long it's going to take."
White Hart's tap room is open Monday through Saturday for lunch, noon to 2 p.m., and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m., and Sunday for brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner, 5 to 8 p.m. The dining room is open Friday and Saturday, 6 to 9 p.m. The inn is at 15 Undermountain Road in Salisbury. 860-435-0030, whitehartinn.com.