One name has long been absent from discussions of Charlottesville’s great restaurants: The Old Mill Room at the Boar’s Head Resort. Once a local standard bearer for high-end cuisine, the hotel dining room was overtaken during the past decade by a growing collection of top-tier local eateries with a fresher, trendier feel.
The Boar’s Head team hopes to change that with a recent resort-wide renovation featuring significant changes to the lobby restaurant, now known simply as The Mill Room.
The history of the Boar’s Head dates back to 1834, when an advisor of Thomas Jefferson’s built a mill on the banks of the Hardware River. More than 100 years later, the mill would inspire and provide building material for the resort’s flagship restaurant.
Over the years, the Boar’s Head Resort and venerable Old Mill Room became destinations for Charlottesvillians and travelers alike. In 1987, the restaurant earned the AAA Four Diamond rating, and in 2001, the resort was named to the list of Historic Hotels of America.
But according to resort marketing manager Joe Hanning, the Old Mill Room and hotel surrounding it “started to look dated.” Modern travelers found the space wasn’t conducive to their lifestyle and pace, he says. “We have everyone from millennials to senior citizens, and we wanted a space they could enjoy equally,” he says.
The goal of the renovation, started in early 2018, was to maintain the Boar’s Head’s old-world charm while adding modern amenities. The Mill Room still features the massive, hand-hewn, heart-pine beams taken from the Hardware River mill, as well as the original hardwood floors, while new glass walls let in more natural light and provide views of the lakes and hills behind the resort.
“The Old Mill Room was too closed off,” Hanning says. “We still have the same spaces, but they have been reimagined.”
The focus on quality ingredients and Southern cuisine has remained, but the new Mill Room highlights local ingredients as never before. The resort now includes an on-site hydroponic garden in the old Trout House space, from which all greens on the menu are harvested. “We like to say you can skip the farm and go straight to the table,” Hanning says.
Mill Room Chef Dale Ford, who’s anchored the Boar’s Head culinary team since 2016, says he takes pride in caring for and serving produce from the Trout House garden. He and his team spend time every day tending to the plants, of which there are currently 16 varieties—fresh edible flowers, herbs, kale, and nasturtiums.
“We have 300 heads of lettuce ready to harvest,” Ford says. “The space is big enough to totally sustain the Mill Room’s greens.”
The fish-free Trout House salad, in which every item is taken from the garden, is a regular feature at the Mill Room. Ford says he plans to rotate menus about four times per year and offer a vegan special nightly. In addition to his own hydroponic farm, he’s developed a close relationship with surrounding produce and protein purveyors. For instance, he sources heritage pork from Autumn Olive Farms, near Waynesboro, and organic produce from Rockingham County’s Wayside Farm. A unique partnership with UVA’s Morven Farm, where students cultivate an acre of vegetables, also provides Ford with such items as pickling cucumbers, fiery peppers for his housemade hot sauce, and fleeting seasonal ingredients like garlic scaps. “At no other time in my career has a farmer come to me and said, ‘Chef, what do you want me to plant for you?’” Ford says.
Paired with the Mill Room’s seasonal flavors are 14 beer taps—a collaboration with Three Notch’d Brewing Company will soon flow from one—classic cocktails, and a thorough wine list of local favorites, value picks, and high-end Napa and Bordeaux varietals.
The Boar’s Head and Mill Room renovation hasn’t been without flare ups. Construction took longer than management anticipated, and early reviews and online commentary haven’t all been kind. Folks longing for the resort’s classic nostalgia have been a noisy group, while others complained the new menu plays it safe. But Ford and Hanning are optimistic about the Mill Room’s future.
“We are a Four Diamond restaurant, and we’ll continue to offer Four Diamond quality and service,” Hanning says. “It’s all about good American fare.”