While those who live here know that Rappahannock County has changed much in 10 years, on the surface – say, from your car on one of our two U.S. highways – it looks just exactly like it always has.
The same is true of the Griffin Tavern.
Ten years old this month, the Griffin looks the same – it’s still the same grand 1850s Victorian manse with gardens and a columned veranda that it was when Oasis CD owner Mica Solomon sold it to Huntly residents Jim and Debbie Donehey in 2002, a landmark along Flint Hill’s low-speed stretch of U.S. 522.
Inside, though, it’s different. Is it that there’s no more smoking allowed in the pub? No, that’s not quite it. No, it’s that there’s clearly a lot less fuming on the grounds.
“Yes, it has gone through a lot of periods of being dysfunctional,” says Debbie Donehey, smiling as she reminisced recently at a table in the bar with executive chef Rachel Rowland, now in her second year leading the Griffin’s kitchen, and pie-maker and gardener Mary Frances Bywaters, who’s worked at Griffin in various capacities (but always making pies, and now cakes) since before it opened in May 2003. The comparisons to family dynamics seem unnecessary.
The Griffin Tavern’s thank-you party starts at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 9 – in the tavern’s back yard – with games for kids, food on the grill, beer on tap, live music, giveaways and more. At 5 p.m., the Doneheys plan a special toast to the many who’ve come to own the mugs that hang throughout the bar. For more information, visit griffintavern.com or call 540-675-3227.
“But I have to say,” Donehey added, “it’s pretty darn functional now.”
Actually, no matter what might have been happening behind the scenes, Griffin Tavern has always presented itself — to occasional visitors as well as the many who treat the place as a second home — as nothing but highly functional and always friendly.
So while the county itself ponders 10 years of beneath-the-surface changes – tourism revenue is significantly higher than it was a decade ago, but agriculture (the original reason for all those open vistas that tourists remember) remains a challenge, as do affordable housing, emergency services, rural entrepreneurship and . . . um, February – the Griffin plans to celebrate its changes with a party on Sunday, June 9.
“After we moved here,” says Donehey, speaking of the late 1990s, “it became obvious that there just weren’t many places, other than at the post office, at church or the fire hall, for people to go to just socialize and meet each other.”
Both Doneheys being fans of English-style pubs – especially Jim, who worked for some years in England and who actually designed and built Griffin’s distinctive cherry-paneled bar in his garage – the couple decided that’s what they would aim for. They looked for places for a few years before Solomon told them he planned to move his operation further south. They bought his place, the former Bradford House, before it went on the market.
“I’m proud to say that we’ve done what we set out to,” Donehey says. “We wanted it to be the social place of the county.”
Debbie Donehey was quoted when the restaurant first opened as saying “I always wanted a restaurant that offered home-style cooked meals using fresh ingredients and local produce,” but the Griffin’s menu was more English pub than American bistro for its first few years. It went through several changes and a few overhauls.
Rowland had left the revamped Blue Rock Inn in 2011 and was working at Claire’s in Warrenton when Debbie Donehey called – again.
“Deb and I had talked over the years,” says Rowland, who actually started out in the kitchen across the street at Vinnie Deluise and Heidi Morf’s Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds (since morphed into the daytime gallery-and-gourmet-lunch-spot 24 Crows). “This time, the timing was just . . . right. I was just . . . ready.”
The Griffin kitchen is nowadays decidedly upbeat, down-home and no-nonsense – much as the Griffin’s pub has always been – and while Rowland’s menus still include the Griffin’s trademark burgers and fries, they also change daily, and display equal parts adventure, inspiration and the sort of confidence that only comes with experience.
“She’s put together the strongest team we’ve ever had,” says Donehey.
“I need to say how grateful I am to the people in this kitchen,” Rowland said, complimenting the staff mostly for its “transparency” – professionalism, she means, with a distinct lack of game-playing. “When you work so many hours with people in the kitchen, it’s really great if you can just lay everything out there, and everyone understands things work so much better when you can do that.”
“This is my second home, really,” said Bywaters, a lifelong Flint Hill resident who is 72 and started working for the Doneheys “the same day I lost my job [at the Flint Hill Grocery, which was closing the day Donehey visited and hired her on the spot].”
Bywaters has had two grandsons working at the restaurant. She opens up early and starts baking most mornings, and wants a visitor to know that she made the curtains on the windows that look out from the bar to the side deck – which is being expanded to the short fence that separates Griffin from the Flint Hill Baptist Church.
“Ester Settle and I started those flower beds next door,” Bywaters says, nodding toward the churchyard and cemetery, speaking of an old friend who fought a long battle with cancer, succumbing three years ago. Bywaters survived cancer, though she’s clearly not about to theorize why, but does appreciate the practical side.
“When I first met Debbie, I told her I had cancer, and she just said, ‘Well, Mary Frances, you’re going to have to get rid of that before you come to work here.’ So I did.”