By Paige Gance
Even with 50 percent less wine and fewer seats, business has perked up since the Southern Inn, a downtown Lexington landmark gutted by a fire in July 2010, returned from the outskirts of town just over a year after the blaze.
“It’s always been on Main Street in the middle of everything,” said Erin Berryhill, a bartender at Southern Inn for four years. “Everyone is so excited to see it back.”
Peter and Florence Macheras opened the restaurant in 1932. The building itself was nearly 200 years old.
James D. Farrar Jr., a regular customer, grew up in the city and calls the Southern Inn “a mainstay in Lexington for decades.”
He recalls when George Huger bought the restaurant from the Macheras family in 1998 and brought a new standard of culinary sophistication to Lexington. “It’s great to see it back in town,” said Farrar, who came across the remains of the restaurant during a run the morning after the fire.
Berryhill said she got the call at 3:30 a.m. Half asleep, she joined Huger and the other employees outside the restaurant until sunrise when the fire department finally quelled the flames. Together, they helped clear the rubble.
About half the staff members remained loyal to the restaurant after the fire and worked at the Southern Inn II. It opened in September 2010 in the Rockbridge Square Shopping Center, far from the foot-traffic and visibility it enjoyed in downtown Lexington.
Huger said reopening the restaurant in at a less-than-ideal location was still better than closing the business for a year as the downtown structure was rebuilt. He estimated the cost of rebuilding at around $750,000.
Since reopening the downtown restaurant, Huger said business has increased 10 to 15 percent from 2009, which was a weak year in the restaurant industry.
Funds from the restaurant’s insurance policy allowed the Southern Inn to stay open at the new location and contributed to the reconstruction, but Huger said the restaurant was underinsured. He said he has increased the amount of the policy and is more vigilant about ensuring coverage of new purchases, such as artwork.
The Southern Inn reopened at its original location July 15. The second location will be used as a base for its catering business and space for large groups to rent for special occasions. The lease runs through late summer 2012, and Huger said he would decide whether to renew the lease at that time.
Changes in the Main Street building’s layout make the second location a helpful asset. The new structure conforms to modern fire codes, which caused the back half of the basement to be unusable. The Southern Inn used to keep its pastry kitchen, wine cellar, bakery and catering equipment in the basement.
The wine list has decreased from 150 to around 70 bottles and the pastry kitchen was squeezed into the front half of the basement. Huger said customers will not notice these changes, but it has forced the restaurant to adjust how it operates.
The bakery also had to move to a new addition in back of the restaurant
More noticeably for restaurant-goers, the once inaccessible, vacant apartment above the restaurant has been transformed into a new dining area. But the stairs that were needed to make the upstairs area possible have limited the seating downstairs.
Huger said the restaurant has six to eight fewer seats than before the fire. This is because the downstairs area has limited room to rearrange tables or bring chairs in for larger parties. Now groups larger than 12 need to rent the entire upstairs area.
Huger said the changes have not affected sales on special weekends, including parents’ weekends at Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute, which are still booked well in advance.
David Millon, a W&L law school professor and frequent Southern Inn customer, said the new building maintains the historic character of the original, which Huger said was the most important goal in the renovation.