Nestling into a distressed leather wing chair in a room hung with large prints of John James Audubon's American birds and crystal light fixtures overhead, and a fire roaring nearby, it's hard to remember that you aren't in a 19th-century tavern.
Welcome to Willow Creek Farm, Clyde's Restaurant Group's latest production in the Broadlands neighborhood near Ashburn, and an extravaganza surpassing all of their previous efforts.
The numbers alone are mind-boggling: four antique buildings moved from Vermont and southern Virginia and assembled into one mammoth restaurant; 12 years of planning; more than 18 months of construction; 650 seats inside and more than 100 outside; four bars (two allow smoking); four main dining rooms; 265 employees; and more money for construction and other costs than anyone at Clyde's wants to talk about.
And then there are the collections: carriages -- several hanging from the ceiling in the Carriage Bar, one in a back hallway and a couple out front; wooden mortars and pestles; silver horse event trophies; hand-hewn wooden dough boards; pewter plates; salt-glazed jugs; prints of the Loudoun County area; two giant carved, wooden pigeon heads (that came from a former inn); giant weather vanes; ship's carvings; shop signs, naive artwork; and hand-wrought chandeliers.
"We wanted it to be a real traditional place, a place that looked indigenous to Virginia, because everything out there is brand new," said Clyde's executive vice president Tom Meyer, explaining how Willow Creek Farm grew in their minds and finally took shape at its site just off the Dulles Greenway. Unexpectedly gracious touches abound, such as the curbless sidewalks that adjoin handicapped parking spaces.
With its handsome rugs in the wide-board entryway of the main stone-clad Samuel French Tavern building and the twin cupolas of the Chandler Barn, Willow Creek Farm, which opened Dec. 1, is a feast for the eyes and a solace for the stomach.
Favorite dishes that have become classics at the dozen other Washington-area Clyde's properties are on the menu here, but so, too, is a constantly changing array of new dishes, created under the direction of executive chef Michelle Giroux and pastry chef Travis Olson. Dishes never vary outside mainstream American tastes -- nothing is too spicy, and there aren't daring pairings of ingredients -- but many of the dishes are just better prepared than others in the chain.
Yet Willow Creek Farm is about more than the food; it's a major new gathering place -- not just for families from nearby developments, but for singles and adults out for a night on the town. The Audubon Bar and dining room, just off the front entrance, are the chain's first adults-only rooms.
"There are more than 400 other seats in the restaurant for families," Meyer said. "As much as we all love children, these are rooms where adults can dine without toddlers running around."
Most of the restaurant's seating is devoted to booths that can hold four people, or perhaps five with a slant-back or Windsor chair pulled up to the end. Reservations were not immediately available for Sunday brunch for our party of four adults and two children, but when we finally arrived, Willow Creek was more than prepared for us: One highchair and one booster seat arrived immediately.
There is a special children's menu, which offers much more than the standard chicken tenders and macaroni and cheese. Drinks for the children -- orange juice and milk -- were delivered in plastic cups with tops and straws. The baby wanted to teeth on spoons, and as fast as he discarded one, a waiter arrived with another, presented atop a folded napkin on a plate. And when the baby got rambunctious, the same waiter arrived with toy cars, and one for the baby's older sister. And toward the end of the meal, when the baby got restless, other staffers offered to show his mother around other rooms, as she tried to walk off his frustrations.
Service was unfailingly polite, though during a dinner, our waitress was too eager to pick up dishes we hadn't quite finished. The hosts and hostesses at the front desk had a few missteps during one visit as they tried to choreograph seating and accommodate the large crowds, but there are pleasant areas for what were only short waits.
Our brunch dishes were good but not spectacular. The grits of a shrimp and grits dish were too firm, and the scattered bits of bacon would have been better incorporated into a sauce. The eggs Benedict was standard issue, but the hollandaise sauce was tangy, the poached eggs perfectly cooked and the English muffins very fresh. Oatmeal pancakes filled the plate and were unexpectedly light and fluffy. Buttermilk biscuits were crumbly but a little heavy, though the pear butter was better than any apple butter ever hoped to be.
The stars of the meal were the soups -- a creamy crab, a hearty bowl of black bean chili and a navy bean and vegetable.
Barbecue shrimp -- fresh jumbo shrimp sauteed and sauced with a smoky, medium spicy sauce -- were a perfect match to a light and fluffy biscuit in one of the starters. In contrast, duck confit-filled wontons were pretty but tasteless, though the underlying Asian slaw was crisp and tart. The smear of hoisin sauce on the plate would have been better used on the wontons.
The special, grilled filet mignon, was beautifully charred on the outside and cooked exactly medium rare; the accompanying creamed spinach looked grey and dull but tasted much better; and gorgeous crusted cheddar potato croquettes had no flavor.
A dish of spicy shrimp and linguine had a touch of red pepper that didn't overwhelm the tomato sauce, or the meaty shrimp.
But the desserts, different from many at other Clyde's restaurants, were a special treat. The orange Seville cake had light buttery layers filled with not-too-sweet icing, accented with candied kumquats. The brownie sundae, served in a silver coupe dish, was decadently chocolate with mounds of whipped cream and thick fudge sauce. The menu description of the dark chocolate layer cake doesn't fully convey the rich taste of the chocolate layers, the chocolate mousse filling or the dusting of cocoa powder on top.
In such a beautiful restaurant, it's easy to remember that a great dining experience is not all about the food.