A night on the town at the crown jewel of restaurants in official Colonial Williamsburg can make you feel like you are starring in a 1940s black-and-white movie.
Judging by its looks, tastes and sounds, the sophisticated setting hasn't changed much since the Rockefellers bankrolled the opening of the inn 65 years ago.
Inspired by the design of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, England, the room features crystal chandeliers, silk draperies, palm leaf columns, wallpaper panels, leather furnishings and individual table lamps. Comfortably spaced tables are arranged around a large dance floor, which by midevening takes on the look of a wedding reception, with men in tuxedos or suits (jacket and tie are required), women in long, glittery dresses, and even children in sneakers that light up with every step.
If the décor hasn't changed much in a generation, neither has part of the menu. The daily specials are the same as they were when the place opened, according to our knowledgeable waiter, Reginald Bassette, who has been commuting to the restaurant from Highland Springs for 24 years.
After enjoying a complimentary pté of Virginia ham on a cracker, my wife, Nancy, followed Bassette's advice and ordered the Regency's signature appetizer, crabmeat Randolph ($17), a crab cakelike dish that delightfully blended lump meat crab, Surry ham and baby spinach with a Dijon sauce. I began with the Regency Plateau ($16), a plate of cold shellfish, consisting of two York River oysters with shallots, two tiny clams, two Gulf shrimp and a mound of crabmeat, accompanied by a brandied cocktail sauce, attractively served over ice on a silver, shell-shaped platter.
Next, Nancy got the lobster bisque ($9), which was creamy smooth and fortified by a substantial chunk of stringy lobster. I initially ordered a Caesar salad, primarily because it is prepared tableside, but our waiter convinced me to go with a salad of three greens treviso (radicchio), Belgian endive and frisee with preserved duck confit and minestrone vegetables, which included kidney beans. All of these were sprinkled with aged balsamic vinaigrette ($10). The waiter was right. It was out of the ordinary. (Where do you find treviso and frisse anyway?)
For entrees, I ordered chateaubriand, which I thought was exclusively a dish for two, and at $36, it probably should have been. The grilled, sliced prime tenderloin of beef was enhanced by a shallot-red wine reduction with mushrooms. The vegetables were exceptionala galette (round cake) of Maytag bleu-cheese and marrow-crusted potato, a root custard, matchstick-sized strips of rutabaga and asparagus.
Nancy selected the Friday special, sautéed Dover sole ($35), which Bassette expertly filleted at our table. The secret of the ease by which he dissected the sole, he confided, is all in the cooking: If it's not prepared properly, no amount of practice will make the job easy. Dover sole, which is among the royalty of fish, and thus appropriate for the Regency Room, was prepared meuniere style, pan-fried in flour with lemon, in a sauce of capers, tomatoes, parsley and butter. It rated four stars.
We finished off the meal with another of the waiter's suggestions, hazelnut ice-cream cake ($8) with strawberries, drenched in a Kahlua chocolate sauce.
Complimentary sweets completed a package that included sparking holiday lights and rose petals in the finger bowl and that made for a very special evening.
Before heading home, we joined the crowd on the dance floor, and as we swayed to an old standard played by a three-piece combo, for a moment we were in one of those old movies, feeling like, if not moving like, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. S
Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for the Washington Post in '99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d', and has a dining Web site, diningpro.com. All his visits are anonymous and paid for by Style.
Regency Room of the Williamsburg Inn ($$$$)
136 E. Francis St., Williamsburg
Breakfast: 7 a.m.-10 a.m., lunch (brunch on Sunday): noon-2 p.m., and dinner: 6 p.m.-9 p.m. daily
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