General Lafayette Inn and Brewery

I have a passion for historically significant places and spaces. When my wife and I honeymooned in Charlottesville, Virginia, we visited the presidential homes of Jefferson (Monticello), Madison (Montpelier), and Monroe (Ashlawn). The tour guide at Ashlawn had this disembodied “staring through you” look that was probably the inevitable result of doing too many years of the talk.  The other homes’ guides still seemed passionate (maybe they were replaced periodically?).

Yes, I think it is possible to do something a lot and still like it…like drinking beer, for example! One odd compulsion I had when visiting these places was touching a tree that had been alive when these presidents had lived in their homes. I think there was a living connection to them through the trees. My wife thought it a little funny but she played along.

So when I visited the historic General Lafayette Inn and Brewery, I really was looking forward to sitting in a property where the French General himself drank, ate, and slept.  That the Inn had been operating for nearly 50 years before Lafayette had even quaffed his first ale on the premises (maybe, as a Frenchman, he only drank wine, who knows?), shows what a true historical treasure that it is. The place’s recent history, like the ales themselves, has had a generous share of both bitterness (hops) and sweetness (malt). As the website tells it:

“In the mid-1990’s, the Inn closed its doors after centuries of continued operation, during which time new life was breathed into the old building.  In 1996, after extensive restoration by local preservationist Mike McGlynn, the General Lafayette Inn opened its doors once again.  While maintaining its Colonial appeal and upscale dining atmosphere, the Inn now housed its own microbrewery, producing local and nationally award-winning beers….in June 2003, McGlynn succumbed to cancer at the early age of 50.  Prior to his passing, he requested that the integrity of his work at the Inn be carried forward by Chris Leonard, who had already been the Inn’s brewmaster for four years.  In March 2004, that request was finally granted when Leonard–along with members of the Leonard family–proudly took ownership.”

The bartendress on duty, a likable younger woman who had some Philly sass, told me that she has a passion for historical architecture. She shared that she sometimes sits up in the rooms above the restaurant and bar and thinks, “General Lafayette stayed here.” As it is, the General Lafayette Inn and Brewery is a bridge of sorts between the centuries. I could even argue that drinking a brew there (all ales) is a patriotic duty. The ales were all absolutely amazing…I had a sampler of the Loch Ness Monster Scotch Ale, the Phantom, the Grim Reaper Imperial Stout, and the Raspberry Mead Ale. Since, I try to be moderate in my libations as a rule, I concluded my consumption with a pint of the Sunset Red Ale. The naming of the brews oddly did not tie into any aspect of the Revolutionary War era. Heck, there is even a brew named after a Daryl Dawkins dunk “Chocolate Thunder” (for those of you who are both Sixers fans and who are old enough to remember that man-child dunking prodigy–and the shatterer backboards–from Lovetron, who possessed a knack for inventiveness in nomenclature). I swear, I make none of this up.

Although the ales were awesome, this naming issue of the brews seemed to get at the heart of a restaurant/brew pub in search of a 21st century identity. The question of how much to preserve the past while existing as a modern entity seems to be fermenting away unresolved. The food, a bacon cheeseburger, was fine. Not remarkable. Not sure the food is the brews equal but it would be a premature and unfair assessment to conclude this on the basis of one burger. It is just that the ales are so good I almost expected the food to be phenomenal. Maybe it is. The food reviews on Google are decidedly so-so, with some positives and some negatives.

When I came in, I was surprised about how dark the place was. Being tall, I have learned to watch my head in buildings built in ancient days where men were five foot four inches. Thus, I was wary of cracking my head on a beam unseen. When I left, I was almost hit by a speeding car that was going much too fast for the road it was on (it was a bit of a blind left turn for me). The darkness of the place seemed to be symbolic of a place that has a lot of history but does not know how to shine light on it. Nearly getting hit by a speeding car alluded to the difficulties in modernizing the edifice into the contemporary landscape of strip malls, and cars moving fast like the passage of time, ignorant of the jewel on the side of the road that was a blur in the window at the 60 mph you just passed.

When I got ready to leave, Chris gave me a bottle of the General Lafayette 275th Anniversary Ale (pictured above). Hmm, to break it open and enjoy or to keep full and preserve it?  This also helps define what seems to be the dilemma of the establishment.  I am rooting for it too continue to live long and prosper but I feel hardly capable to to be one to offer strategic advice as Lafayette did to Washington.

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