Bowling, archery, tennis, golf, swimming, horseback riding, underground bunker tours: There are no shortage of activities at the Greenbrier, the dowager resort in the valley of the Allegheny Mountains. Spread across 6,750 manicured acres in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., the 239-year-old retreat has hosted 26 American presidents and served as a secret relocation facility for the U.S. government during the Cold War.
Clearly, the Greenbrier wants to keep its guests on site, not just with entertainment, including a new chapel, but with food. At peak season, the resort offers 20 places to eat and drink, including an outdoor gazebo, courtesy of room service. Eating on property comes at a price, however. Meals include an automatic 20 percent service charge and a 6.4 percent tax to benefit the historic landmark’s preservation.
Over the course of a three-day visit to the genteel resort in March, I sampled a half dozen of the property’s cafes, bars and restaurants, including the Forum, which bakes a respectable pizza; Prime 44 West, an adequate steakhouse; and afternoon tea, a daily sugar rush in the grand Upper Lobby that impressed me not for its confections, but for its weekend offerings of a tarot card reader and a guitar player.
Most of my meals were spent in two of the resort’s senior attractions, the casual Draper’s, opened in 1990, and the formal Main Dining Room, introduced in 1913. What I discovered was the need for some TLC in the Greenbrier’s kitchens.
Never mind the signage, frilly as a wedding cake, posted outside the Greenbrier’s onetime coffee shop. Just to peek inside Draper’s is to ID the inspiration behind the lunch-and-dinner venue off the lower lobby: Dorothy Draper, the acclaimed interior decorator whose signature bold colors and use of baroque accents are in full bloom, here and throughout the resort.
Up front is a cotton-candy-colored ice cream parlor, where the best-selling flavor is coffee; booths that look like outsize corsages fill out the dining room, parts of which look onto the casino. Families gravitate here for the Southern-leaning menu and relatively relaxed experience. Unlike in the Main Dining Room, there’s no dress code at Draper’s, whose faux windows frame various painted Greenbrier vistas.
It doesn’t take long to find blemishes, food-wise. A snack of clam hush puppies appears to be part of a black pepper promotion. The dark balls are zippy but dense, and an encounter with a chewy clam finds us saying “no, thanks” to the rest of the appetizer. (To his credit, a server notices and takes the disappointment off the bill.) There’s so much breading in the crab cake, it ought to be billed as a crouton. Attempts to be trendy or broaden horizons result in misfires, such as a black bean soup that has the consistency of a dip and a kale and butternut salad with only trace amounts of the squash and an unfortunate pastry shell of sweet potato mousse. Barbecued pulled pork is too sweet.
If Dorothy Draper put her stamp of approval on a dish, chances are you will as well. There are more assertively seasoned chicken salads out there, but what the menu calls the designer’s pet, topped with sliced almonds, looks bridge-club ready in a frame of melon and grapes and two small popovers. The Greenbrier’s billionaire owner, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, gets a pat on the back from both the menu and me. “Mr. Justice’s Favorite Fried Chicken,” golden and homey, is shored up with buttery whipped potatoes and green beans with admirable crunch.
“Somebody likes flowers,” a dining companion says as he takes in the garden captured on the theater-length drapes in the epic 350-seat Main Dining Room.
Somebody also likes show tunes, judging from the music wafting from the piano behind the host stand. “Be Our Guest” accompanies an amuse-bouche of dilly salmon mousse on a coin of brioche. Later, “The Sound of Music” proves a much-needed distraction from a leathery piece of trout on a creamy barley risotto that deserves better. Eating the veal Oscar, I’m tempted to put in a request to match my mood: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” sums up my feelings for the $54(!) main course, bland veal topped with superior crab. It doesn’t help that the lags between courses are glacial and some of the dishes are tepid.
If the only meal you tried in the most formal of the Greenbrier’s dining options was breakfast, you might want to extend your stay. Behold the emerald chandeliers, competing with streams of daylight for your a.m. attention! A moment after you’re seated, a perky server drops off a peach smoothie shot, “compliments of the chef.”
A lavish buffet spread ($29 for adults) seems to take every appetite into consideration, and so does the a la carte script. The most decadent omelet in recent memory: “Lorraine,” bursting with ham, bacon and Gruyere cheese and escorted by diced fried potatoes, a crumb-topped roasted tomato and a little pitcher of cheesy Mornay sauce, rich on rich. Buckwheat pancakes are tender, nutty in flavor and dusted with powdered sugar. (Corned beef “hash,” salty as a deer lick, is one of the few morning slips, and when a server sees me hunting for signs of potato, she informs me the restaurant’s hash is spudless.) Greenbrier’s polish extends to toast, orders of which arrive swaddled in thick napkins with a monogrammed G.
The morning crew deftly balances folksiness with efficiency and charm. When I ask if I could take leftovers back to my room for a sleeping companion, my server, dapper in a white jacket, throws up his hands and smiles. “This is the Greenbrier,” he says. “Everything is possible!”
Really? Then why, when I return for dinner, can’t I find a Caesar salad that isn’t weighted down with dressing, or a pork chop that’s juicy rather than dry? Cornmeal-crisped oysters and roasted rack of lamb are pleasant surprises; the seafood gets a lift from a lively slaw, and the meat shares its plate with tasty polenta fries and eggplant caponata. With entrees averaging $44, however, there’s little room for errors. Too many dishes taste as if the chef is taking a break. And there is precedent for that at the Greenbrier: Among other restaurants at the resort, In-Fusion and Slammin’ Sammy’s — cringe-worthy labels for an Asian outpost and a sports bar, respectively — go dark during winter months. With a few exceptions, the evening menu is as quaint as the dress code that forbids hats but encourages bonnets (“always in style for the ladies”).
The only thing less inspired than some of this food is the name of what should be the crown jewel at the Greenbrier. Main? Minor is more like it.
Tom Sietsema is a food critic for The Washington Post.
300 W. Main St., White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
Open: Lunch, dinner daily at Draper’s. Breakfast, dinner daily in Main Dining Room.
Prices: Sandwiches and entrees at Draper’s, $8 to $29; entrees in Main Dining Room, $34 to $54.
Sound check: Draper’s, 69 decibels / Conversation is easy; Main Dining Room, 65 decibels / Conversation is easy.