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Bernerhof's storied creature comforts pass the taste tests

Email|Print| Text size + By David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / February 8, 2004

GLEN, N.H. -- The Bernerhof is a throwback to the age when carriages and wagons carted rusticators along the high road through Crawford Notch to the hotels on Mount Washington. Unlike the four-wheel-drive SUVs whipping around the inclined curves today, those carriage horses put one hoof in front of another and plodded up the mountains. They went only so far on a tank of oats, hence the Bernerhof, a wayside inn since the 1880s. When we pulled in on a Friday evening, the boxy, gabled Victorian structure stood in the winter mountain landscape like something from a Mitteleuropean fairy tale, glimmering in white lights against a backdrop of pointy dark pines.

There was nothing Grimm about Carla, however, who jumped from behind the desk when we pushed open the door. She held out her hand, bade us welcome, and introduced herself.

"Can I make you dinner reservations in the valley?" she asked, once we'd finished the formalities of credit card and guest register. Rich, meaty smells wafted from the kitchen behind the lobby. It was a no-brainer. We had picked the Bernerhof partly for the reputation of its restaurant.

Carla grabbed half our luggage and led us upstairs, pointing out the common refrigerator on the second floor and the basket of extra blankets. We passed a vast room with a gigantic brass bed and a spa tub in a bay window, another with a wood stove, and a suite that included a bedroom, sitting room, and spa area with sauna and twin Jacuzzi. At the end of the hall at the end of the staircases on the third floor, we stopped before a small jungle of houseplants straining toward a window as Carla opened the door to number 10. We'd booked late for a holiday weekend and number 10 was all that remained.

Inn materials describe it as one of two "classic New England" rooms; we thought of it as the cozy nook under the eaves at Great Aunt Minnie's where the youngsters bunk down on family visits. Roughly 15 by 17 feet at floor level (and considerably smaller at the ceiling), our weekend retreat featured a queen bed, two round night tables dressed in rosy fabric and white lace, a pine dresser, a 21-inch TV, and a wicker chair with a reading lamp. The less space-challenged bathroom had a new pedestal sink, new tile floor, new toilet, and huge fiberglass shower stall, but no tub. We could forget about Poconos-style frolics.

The Bernerhof's restaurant started specializing in Swiss cuisine in the mid-1950s, but Scott and Teresa Stearns, who now run the dining operations, barely nod to that tradition by offering cheese fondue, Wiener schnitzel, and spaetzle in both the restaurant and the more casual pub. The chef-couple met in culinary school, and their Rare Bear Bistro leans toward fancy contemporary American fare. We supped on a fennel-potato bisque, an appetizer of rabbit stewed in red wine (think "lapin au vin"), a wild mushroom-leek-parsnip strudel with wilted greens and crisp polenta, and meltingly tender pan-roasted duck breast sliced over risotto.

Unlike the casual camaraderie of most ski-country dining, the Rare Bear has a ceremonial feel. Next to us, a couple celebrating their sixth anniversary made goo-goo eyes over shared courses, while across the room, two families toasted "the beginning of our long weekend together." (The waitress, by the way, brought out a children's menu for the younger family members.)

The pressed white linens were gone and light flooded the dining room when we returned in the morning. June Phillips (she and husband George bought the Bernerhof last year) presided over the aptly billed country breakfast of juice, fruit, banana bread, scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns, and coffee and tea. It was perfect fortification for a day outdoors. Instead of joining fellow guests on the lift lines at nearby Attitash and Wildcat ski areas, we took our trekking poles and snowshoes down to Echo Lake State Park, where we watched ice climbers clamber up a frozen waterfall while we hiked to the 1,140-foot summit of Cathedral Ledge.

We're not big shoppers, but we admired the near-museum quality samplers in Richard M. Plusch Antiques in downtown North Conway, and got a good deal on down bed pillows at the Ralph Lauren/Polo outlet.

By the time we got back to the Bernerhof, the snug rooms of the Black Bear Pub were filling quickly with folks dining on burgers and sandwiches at small tables. A dozen family members just off the slopes crowded in for drinks from the martini menu. We grabbed the high two-top between the fireplace and bar and perused the list of about two dozen microbrews, including three on tap. Entrees of bratwurst with spaetzle and venison meatloaf suited the pub's beery ambience, while sharing the finesse of our bistro meal.

The Bernerhof's good food has one downside. The pub and restaurant eat up the space that would hold a parlor and guest lounge in most Victorian inns. Would we rather dine well than sit by a fire? If we'd booked sooner, we could have done both.

Patrica Harris and David Lyon are freelance writers from Cambridge.

Bernerhof Inn

Route 302 (Box 240)

Glen, N.H.

603-383-9132 or 800-548-8007

www.bernerhofinn.com

What we liked most

The ubiquitous bear motif (the bear is the symbol of Berne, Switzerland, for which the inn is named), from the weather vane down to the wall-mounted faux bear rump in the pub.

What we liked leastIt was brutally cold out, but our room remained far too warm.

What surprised usThe sophistication of the restaurant.

You know you're at theBernerhof Inn when . . .

A 10-year-old beats you at chess in front of the pub fireplace (and in front of his family).

Rates: Doubles with breakfast: country room with shower, $99-$124; fireplace country room with full bath, $119-$159; deluxe Jacuzzi room (one of four has a fireplace), $129-$159; suite with fireplace and Jacuzzi or Jacuzzi and sauna, $149-$189. Room 10: $99-$124.

Rare Bear Bistro dinnerentrees: $16-$24; five-course tasting menu, $55; Black Bear Pub dinner entrees, $11-$20. Both open Tuesday-Sunday for dinner through February; Tuesday-Saturday in March; closed April; reopening Tuesday-Saturday in May.

Directions: Take Interstate 95 north to the Spaulding Turnpike (Route 4), which turns into Route 16. Follow to Glen Junction intersection of 16 and Route 302. Head west on Route 302 for 1.5 miles; the inn is on the right, a mile from Attitash.

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