It’s A Wonderful Life (Again) at the Falls Village Inn
Last week, Christmas came early to Falls Village, CT, with the reopening of the Falls Village Inn, which dates back to 1834. For the past four years, the inn had been dark (after a brief interlude as an ill-conceived German restaurant) and the town (population 1,200) had been holding its breath, hoping that someone would come along and resuscitate it. Everybody seemed to share a similar vision: They wanted a down-to-earth New England tavern where anyone—firemen, weekenders, families with children—would feel welcome and where you could put up your out-of-town relatives for the night. But the asking price was ridiculous: $1.2 million. It seemed like the inn might stay dark forever, but then the bank foreclosed, the price kept dropping, and some starry-eyed buyers came along. What the buyers—Colin Chambers and Susan Sweetapple—didn’t know was that a Fairy Godmother who lived a stone’s throw from the inn would come along to help them make magic.
Chambers and Sweetapple had never intended to become innkeepers and restaurateurs. They were weekenders who had fallen in love with northwestern Connecticut through their connections to the Lime Rock Park race track, and they were looking to buy a house. “One day, our real estate agent Elyse Harney Morris drove us up to the inn but I didn’t want to get out of the car,” recalls Chambers, an advertising executive whose clients include Lime Rock. But Harney knew that Sweetapple, who worked for a national hotel chain, just might see the potential in the historic but woebegone inn. “We didn’t immediately bite, but we couldn’t get it out of our minds,” says Sweetapple. “We could tell this was a special place and a special town.”
But they had no idea just how important the inn was to the town’s collective consciousness. “As soon as we closed on the inn last April, people started knocking on the door, asking us when we were opening and offering us advice about what to serve,” says Sweetapple. “We thought we could open quietly, and leave quietly if we failed. We realized that would be impossible. People in the town cared too much.” The new owners started a Facebook page and had hundreds of friends within days. When they asked what people wanted on the menu, they got 50 responses, including several pleas to serve grass-fed burgers from Whippoorwill Farm in Salisbury, which is owned by Robin and Allen Cockerline, who had lived in Falls Village for many years.
And then one day in June, the world renowned interior designer Bunny Williams, who has been spending weekends in Falls Village for more than 30 years, showed up on the inn’s sloping front porch. “She stuck out her hand and said, ‘I’m Bunny Williams and I want to help you decorate the inn’,” recalls Chambers, who had no idea who she was. “I quickly Googled her and I couldn’t believe it. We were not her typical clients. We had no budget.” And then Williams made the couple an offer they couldn’t refuse: She would make this a pro bono project.
Why did Williams offer to work for free? “Falls Village needed this inn,” says Williams, whose much photographed house and garden (see: An Affair with A House) is just 100 yards from the inn. “Falls Village needed a soul, a reason for people to visit. I thought the least I could do is to volunteer myself. I had always thought about buying the inn myself, but I had too much on my plate. I thought, I will show Colin and Susan how to do this right. I’m not sure they knew what they were in for. They were very surprised when I said they were going to have to move some doors upstairs because there were no walls big enough for king size beds.”
“Bunny said we had to have king-size beds—California kings,” says Chambers, who was much more surprised when she personally demonstrated how to make those beds last weekend. (The linens she specified were not yet on the beds for these photos.) “At hotels where I’ve worked, they taught us to make beds very tight with everything tucked in,” says Sweetapple. “But Bunny showed us how she makes her beds at home, so you just lift up the covers and slip in.” The owners learned that Williams has opinions about everything when it comes to hospitality (although this is her first hotel-and-restaurant project.) “As she says, ‘You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression’,” says Chambers. “For instance, she insisted that we rebuld the front steps outside. I thought the old stone steps were kind of charming, but she felt they were not welcoming and she was absolutely right.”
Now entering the inn is like coming home. There are coat hooks in the front hall that make it feel like an elegant, Bunny Williams-style mud room. There are garlands on the front staircase that lead to the four completed bedrooms—two are suites with trundle beds for kids—that feel like guest rooms you might find at Williams’ own house. Williams had local help to execute her vision: Pete Rich, a house stager, hunted for old furniture at places like Johnson’s in Millerton and would email Williams photos for approval, while Robin Cockerline, the illustrator and co-owner of Whippoorwill Farm, shopped for rugs, linens, sconces and dishes for the restaurant. “Joan Osofsky of Hammertown was very generous,” says Williams. “She allowed us to buy everything at cost.”
The 40-seat Tap Room was packed on the opening weekend. “We want this to be a casual, comfortable place where you can always get a hamburger,” says Chambers, noting that guests can choose between a conventional burger ($10) or the Whippoorwill grass-fed burger ($15) The menu is exactly what the Facebook fans wanted (and Williams decreed no “drizzling” on any of the plates): Chicken Wings ($10), Shepherd’s Pie ($17), Chicken Pot Pie ($15). Last Sunday, the lunch specials included chef Jose Lalvay’s fish tacos ($12) and more than one guest requested it be made a menu staple. For dessert, there is coconut, chocolate and lemon cake from Jason Young’s Sweet William’s Bakery, which started out around the corner in Falls Village before moving to Salisbury.
While Chambers and Sweetapple get accustomed to being innkeepers, Williams continues to guide them and plot how she will decorate the main dining room and porch that overlooks the town green, which are set to open in the spring.“It’s been fun to work on a tight budget—you can’t buy good taste,” says Williams. “The real miracle is going to be when we’re finished!” It’s impossible for the owners to recall how they planned to tackle this project before Williams stepped in. “Bunny is our super-hero,” says Chambers.
The Falls Village Inn
33 Railroad Street, Falls Village, CT; 860.824.0033
Rooms: $199 to $279
Tap Room Hours:
Thursday & Friday 4 - 10 p.m. (kitchen open 5 - 9 p.m.)
Saturday & Sunday noon - 10 p.m.