One of my favorite food writers, Amanda Hesser, can’t hide her disdain for hotel breakfasts – but I have to confess that they are some of my best food memories.
There was the hotel in Venice, Italy, where songbirds flitted overhead as we enjoyed frothy cappuccino, good rolls and slices of Italian ham. There was Hotel Columbia in Telluride, Colo., during our honeymoon, where I snacked on cherry yogurt with local granola every morning. Best of all were the breakfasts at Hapuna Beach Prince Resort on Hawaii’s Big Island, with tropical fruits, fresh-made omelets and if you chose, a Japanese-style breakfast with fish, vegetables, steaming hot rice and a fresh egg that you cracked and broke over everything (I wasn’t quite brave enough to sample it, but I loved knowing that it was available!).
So when I found out about the hotel breakfast (or technically, brunch) at Aiken’s The Willcox, I couldn’t wait to try it. The Willcox is a historic hotel, built during Aiken’s heyday as a Winter Colony, and has played host to luminaries such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and the Vanderbilt family – and famously had to turn away the Prince of Wales during Masters Week when there was literally no room at the inn.
The hotel regularly makes the lists of the best hotels in the world, according to publications such as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel and Leisure, so I had high expectations. We went straight after church, and my pretty dress and Sean’s suit fit right in as we walked up the steps past the white columns into the hotel’s interior, which is all beautifully carved dark wood and comfortable sofas. Located at the rear of the hotel, The Restaurant at The Willcox offsets the dark wood with a wall of windows, while white tablecloths, deeply padded Parsons chairs, sparkling chandeliers and silky tapestries continue the elegant theme.
The crowd that day was definitely on the older side, outside of one laughing table with a young family and us (grin). We chatted companionably with our black-suited waiter, asking him his favorites. From the menu, he suggested the eggs Benedict, French toast or the Belgian waffle – although, he said with a laugh, if he could choose anything in the world, it would be simple hash and grits.
We laughed, too. The menu, after all, would be decadently rich for an everyday brunch – but perfect for a special occasion or vacation. Along with the breakfast options, the brunch offers incredibly rich-sounding entrees like a ricotta and rosemary bread pudding with smoked applewood bacon, a warm crab gratin with buttered ciabatta, Prince Edward Island mussels and even a duck confit.
Those looking for lighter options could choose the superfood brekk with quinoa, roasted butternut squash, kale, corn, red onion and poached eggs (our waiter said on average two people per brunch order it) or my selection, the egg white omelet.
Since my husband, Sean, had chosen the eggs Benedict, our plates contrasted each other nicely. But the egg white omelet was surprisingly decadent, too. Served on a sculpted white plate, the omelet was like a hot and light foam, with an interior that was buttery and dense with Parmesan cheese and a crisp and crackly brown exterior. Spinach adds vitamins and a pretty touch of green, and I made sure to try a bit of the savory sun-dried tomato pesto – like smoky romesco sauce – on each bite.
I’d also ordered a side of the plump and moist sausage – similar in flavor to smoked sausage – and the hearty whole-grain bread that came with the omelet helped cut all the richness.
The eggs Benedict were served with bacon and white toast – a change from the Canadian bacon and English muffins I’m more used to – but the eggs were perfectly poached, with creamy centers that swirled deliciously with the glorious tangy hollandaise sauce. It was a perfect rendition, delightfully rustic thanks to the crisp and smoky bacon, which had more flavor than its Canadian cousin, and the sturdy white toast. Sean also ordered a side of cheesy grits, which weren’t too thick (thumbs up) but also weren’t too cheesy (thumbs down).
As we ate, we enjoyed watching a parade of food coming from the kitchen – beautifully plated Caesar salad with enormous croutons, thick Belgian waffle topped with glossy fruit and served with its own pitcher of syrup. So don’t judge: We ordered a “dessert” for breakfast in the form of the recommended French toast.
It was the exclamation point to our meal. The cinnamon bread was stuffed with a cream cheese that was both tart and sweet and was served with sliced cold bananas, hot syrup and a generous smear of hazelnut Nutella. The flavor and temperature mix was amazing – so much so that we clashed forks over the last bite and I didn’t give in!
After brunch, we took a slow walk around the grounds and the public rooms of the hotel. It would have been lovely to slip upstairs for a nap in one of the elegant rooms, but that would have to be a memory for another time.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: The Willcox Inn, 100 Colleton Ave., SW, Aiken
HOURS: Brunch, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays
ENTREE COST: $5 to $13
SECOND HELPING: (803) 648-1898, thewillcox.com or facebook.com/thewillcoxhotel