If you want to experience New England in all its New England-y glory, head east on I-95 for Essex, Connecticut. Situated at the southern end of the lovely Connecticut River Valley, Essex Village (pop. 2,500) developed as a small ship-building center during the American Revolution. Stately, late 18th and 19th century homes line Main Street, the village’s impossibly picturesque main drag, which can be strolled at a leisurely pace in about ten minutes.
While future posts will explore Essex further, this one is dedicated to Main Street’s legendary Griswold Inn, and in particular the Sunday Hunt Breakfast. The Gris, as it’s known affectionately by locals, opened for business in 1776 and has provided lodging, meals, and respite to travelers ever since (the ranks of whom are said to include George Washington, Mark Twain, and Albert Einstein).
I’ve never stayed overnight at the Inn, so I can’t speak at all to its accommodations. Dining options include seasonal lunch and dinner menus focusing on fresh seafood, as well as a wine bar featuring small plates, cheeses, and desserts. Apart from a fish and chips lunch this past Christmas Eve, which was excellent (carolers added a lovely holiday touch to the meal), I haven’t experienced these additional options, but plan to.
Available only on Sundays from 11 am-1 pm, the Hunt Breakfast is a buffet-style brunch served in the Inn’s cozy maze of small dining areas. According to the Gris, the tradition began during the War of 1812 when the British occupied the Inn. Based on some cursory research, Hunt Breakfasts are indeed an English, foxhunting tradition, dating back to the time of William the Conqueror. After a vigorous morning hunt, participants would gather for a hearty meal, wine, and revelry. In the U.S., the tradition seems to be alive and well in Virginia foxhunting country, but it’s not something you’d typically associate with New England. Nonetheless, the Griswold Inn has made its Hunt Breakfast (minus the hunt) a popular tradition on the Connecticut shoreline.
While the Hunt Breakfast is served year round, I highly recommend trying it in winter, or at least the cooler months of the year, when the hearty, unlimited fare and roaring fireplaces are perfect anecdotes to a bitter chill outside (for me, personally, the dark, cozy rooms and heavy food don’t have the same appeal in summer). We usually make a reservation for the first seating at 11am to beat the rush.
Upon arrival, you enter the “lobby” of the Gris, a charming room where you can relax while waiting to be seated and admire the nautical, antique paraphernalia that decorates the Inn. As mentioned, seating for the buffet is spread over a number of small rooms. The buffet table is located in the largest room in the back. This is obviously the best place to be seated if you want quick, easy access to the buffet. We prefer the smaller areas located off this room which offer a bit more privacy (plus on the walk back and forth you can work off 2 of the 2,000 calories you’ll consume).
The Hunt Breakfast consists of one long buffet table of hot and cold foods, plus omlette and waffle stations. The buffet tables starts with a basket of scones, biscuits and cornbread, followed by three salads (this time it was a green salad, pasta salad with artichokes and roasted tomatoes, and a chickpea salad). Then comes the hot foods, starting with your standard breakfast fare: scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, ham, and potatoes. The buffet also typically includes roast chicken, fish, and cooked vegetables. At the end of the table you’ll find desserts, normally an apple crisp-type dish and my personal favorite, a british-style chocolate pudding (gooey chocolate cake with melted chocolate oozing underneath).
The made-to-order omlette station is helmed by a highly-skilled omelette master, who will throw in whatever toppings you choose from the array available- three kinds of cheese, peppers, onions, mushrooms, bacon, sausage and so on. . . .The cholestoral-concsious can request egg whites.
At another table you can grab fresh, belgian-style waffles and smother them in as much maple syrup, chocoalte sauce, whipped cream, or fruit topping as you like (sorry, forgot to get a photo of this).
While brunch drinks are not included in the price, you can top your meal off with a bloody mary, mimosa, or champagne cocktail if you choose.
At $18.99 per person, the Hunt Breakfast offers good value and a satisfying start to a Sunday afternoon. Combine it with a visit to the Connecticut River Museum (more to come on that in future posts), which offers eagle watch tours in February through mid-March.
Unfortunately, Essex is not readily accessible by public transportation. Driving time from NYC is around 2 hours, no traffic (easily double that if you’re traveling on a Friday night, so plan carefully).