Bed Check: A Richmond hotel that’s handsome, if not historic


The Berkeley’s builders designed the hotel to fit with the surrounding architecture. (Berkeley Hotel)
May 20, 2011

The Berkeley Hotel sits, grandly, in Richmond’s Shockoe Slip, just a stroll down cobblestone streets, past Italianate-style buildings and a fountain in the plaza, to the rebuilt James River and Kanawha Canal.

Given all the surrounding history — this was Richmond’s mercantile center in the 18th and 19th centuries, with produce and tobacco streaming through — it’s all too easy for the casual observer to fit the Berkeley right into that picture. With its clean brick facade, is it another one of the warehouses so quickly rebuilt after the devastating fire and evacuation that the city endured in the Civil War?

That facade is clean for another reason, it turns out. The Berkeley was built in 1988, as part of a much later rejuvenation of Shockoe Slip, which is named for the creek that once flowed through the area. Since this is a protected historic district, the builders designed the hotel to fit with the surrounding architecture, and the results are handsome.

The handsomeness extends indoors, to the lobby and even to the rooms, which are somewhat basic but still tasteful: all muted colors, with the exception of turquoise-, gold- and olive-striped curtains. This is not Kimpton funky or Thompson sleek or Jefferson ornate, just simple and comfortable. My room had a desk with a comfortable chair and free WiFi, a more-than-serviceable (if not Westin-quality “heavenly”) bed and, possibly best of all, a television with something rare these days: good old-fashioned cable channels and HBO instead of those in-house systems that require you to page through screen after screen of announcements and promotional videos. There was a moldy smell in the bathroom when I checked in, but after the first day of housekeeping, it had disappeared.

The best part about the Berkeley might be the service. I checked in hauling a bag of perishables (don’t ask), and when I asked the desk clerk whether my junior suite (an upgrade, even though no one knew I was a travel writer) came with a refrigerator, she had a two-part answer: a) unfortunately, no; and b) she’d be happy to store my bag in the fridge in her office. The valet was quick and cheery, and all the staff members, throughout my stay, greeted me by name and were quick to ask if I needed directions, shopping advice or dining tips.

There‘s no fitness center on-site, but not to worry: The staff sent me to a large, well-equipped YMCA only a block away, where I had unlimited use as a hotel guest.

My only complaints came at breakfast, about which I’m notoriously picky. The “fitness breakfast” of granola and yogurt is a bit of a misnomer, since the granola is really nothing more than a crumbled, rich — i.e., high-calorie — oatmeal cookie. I could handle that; what’s wrong with a little morning indulgence? But the hotel also advertises a “seasonal fruit cup,” only to deliver tasteless grapes, strawberries, pineapples and melon. To live up to the “seasonal” claim, the Berkeley would have to be in Costa Rica.

Those are mere nitpicks. And they’re easily avoidable, since the Berkeley is about a block from the Urban Farmhouse Market & Cafe, where the food is locally sourced, fresh, hearty and delicious. The second morning, that’s where I headed for breakfast.

I’d heard that the Dining Room at the Berkeley has its own charms, but I wanted to stroll around the slip instead. After all, what’s the point of staying in such a prime location if you’re not going to get out and enjoy it?

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post. He got the cooking bug from his Indiana-born mother who let him use her stand mixer when he was 8 years old because it was cool.
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