Crows are common enough in Rappahannock, but you should probably prepare to mourn the imminent loss of 24 in particular.
Heidi Morf and Vinnie Deluise, proprietors of the unique art gallery/gourmet lunch counter/coffee shop known as 24 Crows, are retiring. This Sunday (Nov. 20) is the shop’s last day of operation at the corner of Crest Hill Road and Zachary Taylor Highway in the heart of Flint Hill’s distinctive, drive-through downtown.
There are apparently local buyers who would like to continue operating the site as a restaurant, but details are sketchy at this point, and Vinnie and Heidi prefer not to talk about that. This is probably in part because they’ve been there/done that, but mostly because they are more focused at this point on putting their feet up.
“We’re going to relax for a little while,” says Vinnie, in typical understatement.
“Plus, now we have to move to Canada,” says Heidi, joking, also typically.
Between the two, they’ve had feet on the ground of Rappahannock County’s hospitality industry for more than 30 years.
Four and Twenty Blackbirds was the name of the B&B they opened in a 1986 in Amissville, where they say they enjoyed more than anything making dinner for guests. Both had worked briefly for the Inn at Little Washington — Vinnie, now 69, as a waiter in the 1970s; Heidi, 63, about a decade later in the kitchen (it was the reason she first came to Rappahannock County). They first met in the parking lot the Inn still shares with Trinity Church.
Their B&B was popular; the dinners were more so. After a while, the two had health department approval to serve dinner to non-guests, up to 12 of them at a time. After a while, they began looking into their own restaurant; in 1989, they drove by the Flint Hill landmark old-timers remember as the Corner Post restaurant, and the building was for sale.
They opened Four and Twenty Blackbirds as a restaurant there in 1990. Three weeks after their opening, Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman published a glowing review. There were lines for dinner that next weekend — and for much of the next 17 years.
“People always ask why did we stop the restaurant,” says Vinnie. “And we always say, we just wanted to be home at night.”
Though they first considered opening just a gift shop in the building they now owned outright (you can ask Vinnie to tell the story about borrowing $200,000 in 1989 when his and his wife’s combined income was $7,000), “somehow lunch got into the mix,” and 24 Crows — for years, you could recognize Vinnie’s old Toyota pickup from the license plate, “24 Crows” — was born in 2007.
The place quickly found its niche in the two-block stretch of Flint Hill’s main road, which also has been the home, for most of that time, to two other popular full-service restaurants, Griffin Tavern and the Flint Hill Public House.
With tables and comfortable chairs set in a gallery space filled with colorful works by artists near and far and a small lunch counter in front the kitchen pass-through, coffee and scones available early, Heidi’s homemade ice cream and lunch almost daily, 24 Crows became a place where people just liked to hang out.
“Vinnie and Heidi have connected a lot of folks,” said John MacPherson, who counts he and his wife, Diane, among them. “I think they have a very rich social life because of 24 Crows — and I know a lot of people in this county have a rich social life because of 24 Crows.”
“There are a lot of culinary entities here in the county that come and go,” said MacPherson, who with Diane has for the past decade and a half run the Foster Harris House, which also serves dinner to non-guests of their B&B. “Or even counting the Inn at Little Washington, which is such a staple and icon — but for the number of people who visit 24 Crows, and the quality and the innovative nature of what they do, and the feel of it — it can never be replaced.
“I totally get it that it’s time to retire,” said MacPherson. “But it’s going to be a gaping void.”
Heidi and Vinnie say they mostly want to thank all those who’ve become customers — and, in many cases, friends.
“One of the best parts of this has been the people you meet,” says Vinnie. “Some of our best friends first came here for coffee.”
And Vinnie says he and Heidi are grateful to all those who’ve worked for them — singling out chef Mark Metcalfe, whose tenure goes back to their Four and Twenty days, and Laura Skauge, and former chef Rachel Rowland, nowadays a force of nature in the kitchen across the street at the Griffin.
Heidi says she will continue to pursue the mosaic and jewelry art career that the release of Four and Twenty Blackbirds allowed to take off; Vinnie says the couple will get some time to travel — the Caribbean, in particular St. John, V.I., is a favorite destination — and is studying art himself, with Heidi’s help.
And they’re not leaving town, says Heidi — for Canada or otherwise.
“We love Rappahannock,” says Vinnie.