The Comeback Inn
Two years after a fatal fire, Charlottesville's historic Clifton Inn returns with updates and acclaim.

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Astorm had knocked out the power on a chilly November night, so the inn's workers and guests stoked the fireplace and lighted candles on a table in the living room. Sometime after the staff went home late that night, fire consumed a large part of the Clifton Inn, killing two lawyers from New York who had come to Charlottesville to recruit students at the law school.

Two years later, sitting in that lovely room now with Brazilian jazz jumping on the sound system and the smell of bacon summoning me to breakfast, it's hard to imagine the tragedy of that night in 2003. There were lawsuits and settlements, heartache and strain over how to rebuild the grand 1799 home built by Thomas Mann Randolph, an early governor of Virginia and son-in-law of Thomas Jefferson.

But Clifton is back, and late last year it became the first U.S. hotel in three years to receive one of the highest honors a hotel can win, membership in Relais & Chateaux, the French association of 450 high-end, independently owned boutique hotels and restaurants.

Sitting atop a hill overlooking the Rivanna River, Clifton looks much as it ever did, a welcoming white clapboard Colonial on 100 acres of lush Virginia countryside.

Inside, however, this is a new Clifton, restored to its post-Colonial splendor but updated in decor, systems and safety. First things first: I've never seen a more fire-conscious hotel -- extinguishers in every room, detectors galore. Management converted fireplaces to gas, installed a new alarm system and keeps a security person on duty overnight.

Coming back was not easy. Clifton's owners, Mitch and Emily Willey of Alexandria, faced suits from the families of the fire's victims, an investigation by the Albemarle County fire marshal and the task of convincing the public that the inn was safe.

Gradually, the new Clifton came into view: The suits were settled for an undisclosed sum. The fire marshal concluded an eight-month investigation by declaring the blaze accidental.

And the core of Clifton's staff remained on the payroll, managing the renovations. The showcase wine collection had to be replaced because of heat and smoke damage. Some antiques salvaged from the fire were restored.

"We wanted to preserve the architectural integrity but make Clifton more light, more hip," says Mitch Willey, who, with his wife, bought the house in 1983 when it was "almost uninhabitable," with overgrown grounds and an owner who had never set foot in the cottage out back.

After the fire, the Willeys redid Clifton's seven guest rooms in the main house (another seven are in three cottages) with a mix of Colonial pieces and contemporary comfort (high-speed Internet, too). Where the fire destroyed original floorboards, carpenters used old, local wood to re-create that weathered, rustic look.

Rare for a historic inn, the bathrooms are state-of-the-art: "I have a thing for views from showers," says Willey. "I do my best thinking in showers." So he insisted they be large, with lots of sunshine. The water pressure makes almost any home shower seem like a pathetic trickle.

A formal house has been transformed into a hybrid designed for a younger clientele, featuring the kind of amenities found in small hotels of a similar price range ($200 to $500 a night, plus dinner at about $90 a head). The Bose CD player in our room came with Norah Jones, Louis Armstrong and Vivaldi at the ready. The dining room music was the kind of chill sound heard in 14th Street nightclubs.

"People in their thirties and forties want modern amenities and not too heavy on the historic," says Jessica Sheffield, Clifton's director of sales and marketing.

Before the fire, Clifton was known for fixed-price dinners at set sittings. The new Clifton has an expanded, glassed-in veranda as well as a more formal dining room. Dinner is now a la carte. The chef, Christian Kelly, stayed on through the renovations and has added a chef's table in the kitchen, as well as a tasting menu.

The Inn at Little Washington's Patrick O'Connell had been by for dinner the night before we arrived, and Clifton was still abuzz about that royal visit; travelers making their way down the coast with Relais catalogues in hand are showing up at Clifton after stopping at Little Washington, about an hour and a quarter away.

Dinner at Clifton has German and Austrian touches -- bacon-wrapped rabbit loin came with a toasted walnut spaetzle, and leg of venison is served with braised red cabbage and juniper sauce -- but Kelly is not afraid to add Asian touches to the same menu (Vietnamese barbecued shrimp with coconut rice, and tea-smoked tofu with fried rice cake and miso broth).

Breakfast on the veranda is traditional but with satisfying flourishes such as a sweet potato hash with plenty of good old russets mixed in.

In the renovation, the Willeys added a bar, hoping to lure locals to stop by after work. Whether it's the martinis or the view, it's working; I think it's the martinis. In addition to a traditional olive and citrus version, Clifton offers a cranberry and ginger martini with a nice kick, and a luxurious lavender martini infused with the plant that lines the walkway to the swimming pool. (The champagne cocktails, on the other hand, can get a bit gimmicky; one features Pop Rocks around the rim.)

Clifton has found a path between the hominess of a bed-and-breakfast and the too-cool luxury of a boutique hotel. When a guest showed up with 5-year-old daughter in tow, Clifton's staff didn't treat her as one of the family, as might happen at some B&Bs, or disdain her as a troublesome pest, as happens at too many snooty small hotels. Rather, she got close and sweet attention from a waitress and was made to feel she was in a special place. Result: She was charmed and charming, satisfying all.

In a society in which expectations of service decline with every phony promise of "customer care" from corporations that spend on marketing instead of training, Clifton has found a recipe that works: It attracts young stars in the hospitality trade (being near a college town helps) and supplements with strong hires from countries where service is still an honorable pursuit.

We walk down to the nearby lake at dusk and watch a beaver glide home from work. The sun sets over the Blue Ridge, and we follow the show of colors back to our room, where a bottle of sherry awaits on the table near the CD player.

Louis Armstrong plays a jaunty "Skokiaan" and we fall into the couch to watch the last streaks of light slip away.

Later, sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to raid the cookie jar (a Clifton tradition), there's no need to worry about having to make chitchat with your host. At Clifton, you feel like a guest at the weekend place of some rich guy, without the rich guy.

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