Restaurant Review

Major Changes at a Grande Dame: Bernards Inn in Bernardsville

The Bernards Inn in Bernardsville has survived 111 years, fire, flood and name changes while pampering a well-heeled clientele. But ownership has brought in a new chef and is launching a multi-million renovation.

Photo courtesy of The Bernards Inn

Through 111 years, 15 owners, fire, flood, Prohibition (when it was a speakeasy), and a handful of name changes, the Bernards Inn has persevered in pampering a well-heeled clientele.

“We know we have a reputation for being stuffy,” says general manager Joshua Barbee, 39. Hired as a desk clerk in 2007, Barbee is now front man for Hampshire Destination Properties, which bought the inn in 2006. “If we want to bring new generations to the inn, we have to create an environment where all feel welcome.”

A multimillion dollar renovation will begin this summer with the lobby, bar and dining areas and, over the next three years, proceed through the 20 guest rooms and three event spaces. The plan is to stay open throughout, says Barbee, though the kitchen may close for a few days this summer. It will be out with the Edwardian manor theme, with its floral drapes, heavy carpeting and dark wood, and in with a vibe Barbee calls “less homey, more chic.”

As for food, the Library bar and Conservatory area will be merged into one local-friendly lounge offering what Barbee calls a “less elevated but still high-end” menu. The 80-seat main dining room, he says, will make its mark with “progressive American cuisine”—emphasis on progressive.

The combined shifts contributed to the departure last summer of noted executive chef Corey Heyer. “We had 13 great years with Corey,” Barbee says. “But ultimately, we had different visions for what the future looked like.”

After an extensive search, Hampshire hired Todd Mark Miller, who started in September. A native of Salt Lake City, Miller did not attend culinary school, but brings 20 years of experience, including stints running Barclay Prime in Philadelphia and Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

“It has been a roller-coaster ride,” he admits. “Corey was there for quite a long time. The clientele and staff are used to certain things. There’s definitely some resistance to change.”

During my visits earlier this year, Miller was still getting his bearings. His prowess with proteins showed in a deftly prepared Griggstown pheasant; rosy, tender venison loin from New Zealand; and braised-then-seared octopus. But perhaps overzealous, he overwhelmed his good work with a dizzying and often disjointed array of crumbles, dustings, sauces and sides. What stood out was the simple butternut squash purée and lightly pickled chayote squash with the pheasant. On the same plate, chunks of microwaved tomatillo bread amounted to gummy distractions.

Two dishes were so outstanding, I’d have come back for them alone. One was superbly fresh beef tartare, diced, tossed in lemon juice, and mounded in a split marrow bone with dabs of smoked-marrow aioli and shards of house-made leek-ash crackers. The other was one of the hoariest items on the menu: the lobster bisque, classically pink and silky, but intensely rich with tomalley, winning over this inveterate bisque hater.

Alas, when we last spoke, Miller was swapping the beef tartare (“people weren’t ordering it”) for tuna tartare. As for the bisque, a longtime Bernards staple, “it’s too rich, and I’m not a fan,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll change it.” Egads, don’t do that.

Some kitchen staff have left, and there may be more bumps en route to the future, but sommelier Terri Baldwin and her renowned wine program we’re told are staying put. On both the casual and fine-dining menus, Miller says he wants “to respect tradition, but also show my own style, which is lighter and very seasonal.” It will take time for all the changes to play out. When they do, we will return.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American
  • Price Range:
    Expensive
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, $5-$25; entrées, $10-$30; desserts, $5-$10
  • Ambience:
    Posh, formal—about to undergo a major redesign for a more contemporary look
  • Service:
    Solicitous and informed
  • Wine list:
    Vast Wine Spectator award-winning list, many bottles under $40, 60 wines by the glass
  • The Bernards Inn
    27 Mine Brook Rd
    Bernardsville, NJ 07924
  • Hours:
    LUNCH: Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm
    DINNER: Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11 pm; Sunday, 5:30 to 9 pm

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