While I was growing up near Albany, N.Y., in the 1970s, my family used to dress up a bit every Mother's Day, pile into our station wagon and drive up to the old Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls to lunch with a throng of uncles, aunts, cousins and the reigning matriarch, my grandmother. The Queensbury seemed the peak of posh to us with its uniformed waitresses, crisp white linen tablecloths, heavy, crested silver plate and glass chandeliers. But perhaps nothing said class so much--or brought the younger set back to our senses so rapidly--as what unfailingly appeared next: the relish tray.
That elegant cut-glass tray, with its neatly divided compartments, each sporting a baby spoon, didn't fool us. Whether it was beets and onions, corn and cranberries, pickles, watermelon or rhubarb, the tray provoked in us the same profound mixture of fear and revulsion from one year to the next. Chopped and pickled, relish is designed to whet the appetite, but it only dampened ours. It was all we could do, given the genteel surroundings, to say, "No, thank you," rather than, "Not in this lifetime."
Already an anachronism in the 1970s, the relish tray disappeared from the Queensbury, and most other restaurants, years ago. So imagine my surprise the other day when our waitress at the Laurel Brigade Inn suddenly appeared at my elbow, relish tray in hand. No, not a few olives and carrot sticks, the crudites that so often masquerade as "relish" these days. This is the real deal--wilted cucumber slices in vinegar, pickled watermelon rind, smooth apple butter and cottage cheese. My 5-year-old twin sons, Will and Daniel, went goggle-eyed as I spooned a tiny sampling of each onto our bread plates.
But let's back up. The Laurel Brigade is in a charming stone building on West Main Street in the heart of Leesburg's historic district. A log portion of the house dates to 1759, the stone portion to the 1820s. In 1945, after serving a century as a private residence, the inn was opened by the father of the current owner, Ellen Wall, as a Colonial-style restaurant and bed and breakfast. Wall's dad named it after the Laurel Brigade, a gallant Confederate Civil War unit that battled up and down the Shenandoah Valley and led the last Confederate charge at Appomattox. The inn has always intrigued me: I imagined quiet afternoon teas in plush anterooms, the walls featuring sketches and paintings of doomed heroic rebels, perhaps a sword or two hung over the mantel for good measure.
When I call, though, I find that tea isn't served--which is just as well, because my dining companions of choice, Will and Daniel, are feeling a bit too bellicose for so subdued an activity. I have been describing the exploits of the real Laurel Brigade, and they are eager to see with their own eyes proof of this derring-do.
Wall herself seats us at tables in the large 100-seat dining room off the back of the inn. Jutting into the lovely garden, it is a pleasant airy room with a duly beamed Colonial ceiling, white tablecloths and silver plate. But the terra cotta flooring and newish pine give away its true heritage as a 1950s addition, one that apparently is headquarters to the Leesburg Lions Club, featured prominently in the various framed proclamations and large blue and gold seal adorning the walls. I ask about the cozy dining rooms with fireplaces and polished wood floors that I had spotted in the front of the inn--in the stone portion--but am told they are private dining rooms frequented by "women's clubs" or used when wedding receptions (for which the inn is a perennial favorite) fill the rear.
The room slowly fills with a couple of dozen people, with most of the men wearing jackets. The menu is standard American fare: burgers, salads and sandwiches for lunch; fish, steak and chicken for dinner that can be ordered a la carte or for about three dollars more as a meal with rolls, an appetizer (such as melon, soup or pate), a green salad, sides of mashed potatoes, carrots and string beans, and dessert. I order a petite filet mignon dinner for $21.50, and the boys split a quarter chicken meal for $14.50 (plus a $5.50 plate charge).
Our waitress, Kelly, is cheerful and efficient; the boys are charmed. Will leans his head in toward mine. "Dad, can you ask her 'bout that war stuff and the sojers?" he whispers.
"You can ask her, okay?"
"No, Dad, you," he says. Kelly is now standing by, aware that a request is brewing.
"We were wondering if you have any pictures of the Laurel Brigade around," I venture, mouthpiece for my sons.
"Why, yes, we have pictures of the inn on little cards up front," says Kelly brightly, addressing the boys.
"No sojers?" Will asks when Kelly has departed.
Enter the relish tray. With a childhood reflex, I am again a little repulsed by the flaccid vinegary chunks, but I try a bit of everything and am rewarded for my efforts. The watermelon rind, despite its disconcertingly rubbery texture, has a delicate, sweet pepperminty flavor. The apple butter, though I first mistook it for steak sauce, is a fine spreadable for the warm rolls at our table. The cukes in vinegar taste like cukes in vinegar, the cottage cheese like, well, cottage cheese.
My shrimp cocktail arrives, closely followed by our mixed green salads. The shrimp is soggy, the salads crisp. Our entrees arrive and quantity is not a problem. But it appears that the spiciest thing at the inn, by far, is the relish. My petite filet mignon is dry and tasteless. The big bowls of beans and carrots are overdone and underdone, respectively. We all lap up our mashed potatoes, and the boys seem to enjoy their chicken, though before I can shush them, they begin shouting across the table to each other (to my mortification): "This chicken tastes like bacon!"
I try a bite, and although the skin is crispy, it is otherwise bland, as is the somewhat greasy meat--disappointing, particularly by southern standards. (And, yes, there was a hint of bacon, but I wouldn't put it past the power of suggestion.)
Even as we work on our meals, I nod to the boys' relish plates. I wheedle a little, using dessert as a carrot, and to shut me up, they stab slivers of relish. There is a downbeat when they seem to agree with me that it sort of tastes like candy--and then they react just as I used to, only more so.
"This is yuck, Dad," said Daniel, quietly handing me a bit of half-chewed cucumber.
Oh well, I tried. I reward their courage with a hot fudge sundae and strawberry shortcake, which go down easily.
Our bill ($42 plus tip) arrives, and it is then I realize that perhaps we are misjudging the inn for failing to honor the Brigade and for its overall blandness. For there, in quotes under the inn's name, is its so apt motto:
"Colonial cookery for gentle palates."
William Horne's e-mail address is email@example.com.
Laurel Brigade Inn
* Address: 20 W. Market St., Leesburg; 703-777-1010.
* Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Sunday breakfast, 8 to 11 a.m.; Sunday lunch and dinner, 12 to 7 p.m.; closed Mondays.
* Credit cards: All major cards except Diners Club.
* Prices: Complete dinners, $14.50 to $28; complete lunches, $12 to $15; lighter lunches (burgers, salads, sandwiches), $6 to $9.
* Miscellaneous: Catering on site; three private dining rooms; garden and main dining room available for wedding receptions. No smoking in dining rooms.
CAPTION: Charlotte Seace takes an order from John and Frances Klotz, of McLean, at the Laurel Brigade Inn in the heart of Leesburg's historic district.
CAPTION: Waitress Allison Meyer serves lunch at the Colonial-style inn, part of which dates to 1759.