Public House — and Flint Hill — back on the map

CHILLING OUT: Executive chef Marvin Swaner and general manager John Gruber take a break from fine dining for a chat at the pub bar.Alex Sharp VIII | Rappahannock News
CHILLING OUT: Executive chef Marvin Swaner and general manager John Gruber take a break from fine dining for a chat at the pub bar.

Though the recent cultural revival of Sperryville is well documented – with publicized introductions of antique stores, restaurants, galleries, yoga classes and a whiskey distillery over the past 10 years – less than 15 miles to the north, another county village has emerged as a visitor destination for food and art. With a new and revamped Flint Hill Public House and Country Inn, the “Town” of Flint Hill is again “on the map” – and everyone in town could benefit from the success of a cosmopolitan new neighbor.

“We’ve come a long way from copperheads in the walls, raccoons in the attic, squirrels running through the hallways,” said Public House executive chef Marvin Swaner, speaking of the ambitious renovation to the hundred-year-old building completed in December.

Swaner kept a watchful eye on a buzzing kitchen during a lunch meeting with longtime colleague and restaurant general manager John Gruber and co-owner William Waybourne. The three became acquainted at Houlihan’s Front Royal, where Gruber and Swaner developed a loyal following in their years running the restaurant and bar. In Front Royal, Waybourne and his partner and Public House co-owner Craig Spaulding (who together also own the acclaimed Long View Gallery in D.C.) were regulars and big fans.

CHEF SWANER in the kitchen, prepping for a large event. Swaner said his favorite Public House meals are the custom breakfasts he prepares for overnight guests, because he feels he gets to chat with guests one-on-one.Courtesy photo
CHEF SWANER in the kitchen, prepping for a large event. Swaner said his favorite Public House meals are the custom breakfasts he prepares for overnight guests, because he feels he gets to chat with guests one-on-one.

“When John and Marvin first approached me and Craig on Valentine’s Day 2011 about backing them in a restaurant, I told them I knew that the Public House had been closed for several years and had been on the market for an extended time,” Waybourne said, noting that the men quickly contacted seller Sheila O’Brien Wolk, took a tour, got bids on renovation costs, made an offer and closed the sale by June 17.

For the necessary renovation,Waybourne said, he knew the man for the job right away.

“We really were able to draw the line between interior and exterior,” architect Ernesto Santalla said last week of his redesign, which focused on blending art with architecture on the inside while maintaining Flint Hill’s historic spirit on the outside. “The exterior is of historical significance to the area. And local code required a complete re-do of the interior . . . We wanted to take the ‘country’ out of ‘country inn.’ And we approached it as a contemporary project, something that’s done in 2012 that responds to the way we want to live now. And we made a fresh contemporary interior, as opposed to something derivative.”

One of the redone guest suites in the Flint Hill Public House and Country Inn.Alex Sharp VIII | Rappahannock News
One of the redone guest suites in the Flint Hill Public House and Country Inn.

Waybourne said that Santalla’s “interior motive” was to raise the “wow factor” for guests when they first walk through the front door. When you’ve crested the steps to the former schoolhouse and local landmark and step inside, it’s as though you’ve entered a trendy yet refined metropolitan eatery. There is room to breathe, soft tones and high-end art galore. But ask Waybourne and he’ll tell you that the most satisfactory “wows” he overhears come when visitors head through the pub and out the back door to his insisted-upon bright orange deck.

“Our only disagreement was over the orange deck. However, painting it orange has accomplished exactly what I wanted – everyone is talking about it, probably more so than the art,” Waybourne said of Santalla, the Cuban-born architect he first met during a project at the Long View Gallery. “Granted, there are not that many orange decks in Rappahannock County to talk about.”

Gruber said that the reasonable prices at the Public House have already lowered prices elsewhere in the village. And though last Sunday Gruber said he seated eight tables of former Houlihan’s regulars that day, he understands the importance of filling seats with county natives.

When Gruber and Swaner first approached gallery co-owners William Waybourne and Craig Spaulding (shown here, now co-owners of the Public House) on Valentine's Day 2011 about backing them in a restaurant, Waybourne recommended the look into the then-closed Public House.Courtesy photo
When Gruber and Swaner first approached gallery co-owners William Waybourne and Craig Spaulding (shown here, now co-owners of the Public House) on Valentine's Day 2011 about backing them in a restaurant, Waybourne recommended the look into the then-closed Public House.

“Because we know that for a restaurant to survive here we need to appeal to the locals,” Gruber said, noting that on Sundays, a Bud Light only costs $1.50, a slice of cheesecake just $4.50. “And we’re already getting a lot of repeat business from people who live around here. We’ve had some of the same people here three or four days a week since we opened in January.”

Along with Swaner-inspired fine dining, the Public House also offers a cozy pub and social backyard with a soon-to-be-completed 300-square-foot patio (the orange deck’s already in action) for music and outdoor events this spring.

Upstairs are four high-end suites for overnight guests that include flat-screen televisions, views of town and full-sized bathrooms. For the month of March, those rooms are just $85 a night.

When asked about her new neighbors, longtime Griffin Tavern owner Debbie Donehey described the relationship with the “new Public House” as more “syngergistic” than competitive.

“They’re going to bring in people to the county that have never been before, and when folks see that there are multiple options in one location, they tend to come back to that location,” Donehey said, noting this weekend’s “Shamrock Shuffle,” a collaboration (from 11 to 4 this Saturday, March 17) involving a St. Patrick’s Day “pub crawl” in town, since each establishment boasts a pub within walking distance of the other. “So I think it’s a very positive thing for Flint Hill, as a village, and for Griffin Tavern having some new customers.

“We definitely want the county to see that we’re working together,” Donehey continued. “They are already very active in the county, in a very positive way, which I think is fantastic. So anything we can do to make Flint Hill more the destination, I think is positive for both businesses – well really for all the businesses in the village. “

Donehey said now that there is so much to offer visitors to the town, a sidewalk loop to link all of the unique Flint Hill establishments – Merry Moo Market, 24 Crows, Griffin Tavern and the Public House – would “really tie it all together.”