A Southern Wake-Up Call

Only a short drive from Columbia, Winston-Salem beckons visitors as a city of arts and innovation.

Only a short drive from Columbia, Winston-Salem beckons visitors as a city of arts and innovation. On a recent trip, we checked into The Graylyn International Conference Center, the historic mansion and grounds that sits across the street from the Reynolda estate, adjoining the Wake Forest campus. Driving up the winding drive of rolling grassy hills, past the gatekeeper, to Graylyn feels like a 100-year step back in time. This 1920s stone manor was built by Mr. and Mrs. Bowman Gray who purchased it from their friends, the Reynolds, who resided at neighboring Reynolda. Bowman Gray, son of Wachovia co-founder James Alexander Gray, was once the president of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. 

The property was designed to resemble a British manor house, and Mrs. Gray even had the grounds shaped into the rolling hills that now greet each guest. Apparently, she also scoured Europe for the perfect piece for each nook in the vast home, including a 15th century French carved stone doorway which guests still step through in moving from the vestibule to the larger entrance hall. 

As I walked into the lobby, it was hard to take in the immense beauty and scope of the hall, composite of so many incredible details. Larry, the Butler, showed us up to our room on the third floor by way of the spiral staircase tower. He showed us how the steps are cantilevered through the wall, while above concentric rings of brick create a “beehive” ceiling. 

A spacious room greeted us, drawing us in by the warm tones and mahogany wood. A window alcove with a beautiful arch looked out on the estate grounds, and exquisite queen beds with a blue and yellow floral print and matching chairs and ottomans invited us to relax a moment before unpacking. Sitting on one of the ottomans was a large canvas bag filled with local goodies: a bottle of red wine from Childress, a local vineyard; a box of the famously paper-thin Salem Baking Company Moravian cookies; a Winston-Salem cookbook; two Sunshine beverages; a sweet smelling candle; and a Winston-Salem mug … the perfect combination of treats to enjoy at once and to savor later as memories of the trip. We noticed on the side table a “pillow menu” offering descriptions of goose down pillows, memory foam contour pillows and body pillows that could be brought up to us in addition to the ones already on our beds. We excitedly ordered one of each to try that evening. 

Once we were settled, Larry met us downstairs for a tour of the mansion. Perhaps most striking was the library, as the 17th century hand-carved French paneling and doors once graced the walls in King Louis XIV of France’s palace. A bullet hole still remains in one of the panels from a failed assassination attempt on one of the royal family members. 

For dinner that evening, we were escorted into a private room — formerly the ladies’ parlor — which was the perfect size for a party of two to four to enjoy together. It even had its own private bathroom with an original marble and brass sink. Candlelight danced above the linen tablecloth, and framed antique China plates adorned the ornate green wallpaper. Erwin, native to Barbados, introduced himself as our server for the evening. We perused a menu of delightful courses prepared by Executive Chef Gregory Rollins. Classically trained and originally from the Caribbean, Chef Rollins has a reputation for adding a touch of island flair to locally sourced meals. I enjoyed a small bowl of cream of mushroom soup with scallions, followed by the Graylyn Spinach Salad in a balsamic reduction with cranberries and goat cheese to start. For my entrée, I ordered the Filet Mignon in a balsamic demi-glace, served with roasted fingerling potatoes and vegetables. The steak was seared to a perfect medium-rare, and the vegetables and accompanying flavors complemented it beautifully, as did the recommended glass of cabernet sauvignon. For dessert, I ordered a slice of caramel cheesecake — an excellent finish to a truly delectable meal. 

The next morning, we went to breakfast at Mary’s Gourmet Diner, known as “Mary’s of Course,” a funky restaurant downtown. Winston-Salem is, rather unexpectedly, quite a foodie town. Mary’s offers fresh breakfast and brunch items, many made with local, mostly organic ingredients, like farm-fresh eggs and Giacomo’s sausage. I ordered a vegetable and egg scramble with one of their famous biscuits served with homemade apple butter, as well as a half order of cinnamon swirl French toast. 

We left full and satisfied, then headed for a morning excursion at Old Salem. Founded in 1766 by the Moravians, Old Salem is one of America’s most authentic and well-documented remaining Colonial sites. This area of town is truly living history, as costumed interpreters demonstrate household activities and trades of the 18th and early 19th centuries. We traversed the old streets of Old Salem, popping into Winkler Bakery (1800) for a taste of their Moravian sugar cake; stopping by the Timothy Vogler Gunsmith Shop (1831) for a demonstration in how they are still carrying on the tradition of the fine artistry of Gunsmithing, including working a forge; surveying the working gardens where their horticulture program preserves the utility, practicality and beauty of the Moravian landscape; and enjoying many other stops in-between.

We concluded our journey in time by lunching at The Tavern, built in 1816. Here too tradition prevails, and the servers don attire that would have been appropriate for the first meal served there. Additionally, many of the ingredients for the offerings on the menu are still sourced from the Old Salem gardens. I enjoyed a hot bowl of pumpkin bisque with a delicious mixed green salad topped with apples and candied pecans. Their bread basket included not only soft baked rolls, but crumbly biscuits and mini muffins as well.  

Departing Old Salem in a virtual food coma, we then contentedly drove to Reynolda Village for our appointments at European Day Touch Spa. Located in a charming, old white house, European Touch Day Spa is the oldest and finest day spa in Winston-Salem. Reynolda Village is across the street from Graylyn and connects to the Wake Forest University campus by a charming trail through the woods; with its inviting restaurants, boutiques and day spa, it invites both locals and tourists to visit for a while. Masseuse Stephanie Spry escorted me across the hardwood floors to a private room for my massage. For an hour, I was in a state of mindless bliss as I was pampered beyond description. 

We headed back downtown for an upscale dinner that evening at Spring House. Occupying the last standing mansion on “Millionaire’s Row” (5th Street), formerly the home of a Winston-Salem entrepreneur who engineered technology to keep tobacco from molding in the warehouses, this restaurant has the charm of a large, old house with lots of different rooms for seating. Their menu featured creative delicacies such as petite crab cakes with shrimp and tasso gravy and a lemon saffron remoulade; bacon-wrapped jerk pork atop smoked mashed sweet potatoes in a mango, rum, ginger and macadamia nut sauce; crispy buttermilk fried chicken atop a corn waffle with brown sugar and smoked apple infused maple drizzle; and blackened grouper and crispy pork belly with golden lentils, caramelized pumpkin and blood orange confit with toasted pistachios. The drink menu was just as impressive with concoctions like “Smoke Signals” of Dickel Barrel Select #8, Henessey, pecan syrup, lemon and smoked ice; and “Pomegranate Gin Sling” with Sulter’s Gin, pomegranate juice, agave syrup and lime. It was difficult, to say the least, to choose off of either menu! 

Saturday morning we breakfasted in the Graylyn sunroom looking out on the perfectly manicured grounds. A beautiful buffet was spread in the adjoining living room, complete with an omelet bar, pancakes, grits, bacon, eggs, muffins and croissants, as well as cereal, toast and fruit. 

After breakfast, we headed out for a day of vineyard touring and wine tasting in the Yadkin Valley, the most densely populated wine region in the state. With North Carolina ninth in the country in wine production, the Yadkin Valley can easily be described as the Napa Valley of the Southeast. Our first stop was Raffaldini Vineyards, one of the premier Italian wineries on the east coast. Manager Thomas Salley greeted us and showed us to the tasting room, situated in a beautiful villa atop a tall hill overlooking the vineyard which was surrounded by ridges of the Brushy Mountains. As we sampled their award winning wines, we were also offered homemade wine-infused chocolate brownies, happily enjoying dessert first. Following the tasting we were served a picnic lunch of select cheeses, pasta salad, chicken salad croissants and spinach salad, along with our favorite wine from the tasting — a medium bodied, crisp 2014 Pinot Grigio with a dry finish. We then enjoyed mini pecan pie tarts and lemon squares, as well as seconds on the wine-infused brownies. 

From there we proceeded to Dobbins Vineyard, a small family-owned business with a local feel and amazing wine. Charles King, the owner, was very friendly and poured us samples from nine of his best bottles and also offered us a complimentary dark chocolate pairing with the tasting. One of my favorites was his 2013 Cabernet Franc. 

Our next stop was Laurel Gray, where they not only offered tastings of their impressive and original wines, but also shared samples of their delicious sauces … such as an artisan vinaigrette, a chocolate cabernet wine sauce and a caramel chardonnay wine sauce. Lastly, we visited Shadow Springs, a beautiful vineyard surrounded by idyllic ponds. They also offered a chocolate pairing with their tasting, and I especially enjoyed a red blend called “French Kiss.” 

We returned downtown for dinner that evening at Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro, named after the owner’s grandmother, known for its classic favorites mixed with unexpected ingredients. The vibe of the restaurant was upscale with salmon roses on the table, yet the feel was also somewhat reminiscent of a diner, giving it a delightfully unusual appeal. We shared two appetizers to start — clams in a white wine sauce with tarragon, tomato, garlic, lemon, parsley and pecorino, as well as the black-eyed pea fritters with collard green pesto, bacon, sambal aioli and chive oil. For our entrees, we ordered the duck breast with roasted turnips, butternut squash puree and blueberry relish as well as the boneless fried chicken breast with peach chutney, mac and cheese and string beans. For dessert, (yes, we had another dessert) we easily chose the chocolate crème brulee … one of the best desserts I have ever had. 

After dinner, we stopped by Tate’s Craft Cocktails. Located in downtown’s lively Fourth Street area, Tate’s was included in the “100 Best Places to Drink in the South” list by Imbibe Magazine. This modern, cutting edge bar features live music and a lengthy selection of crafted cocktails. We sat upstairs and enjoyed the view down over white Christmas lights. I finally decided that I could not read through the entire menu before making my drink selection and settled on the “Mad Cardoon” — vida mezcal, pierre ferrand 1840, cardamaro, lemon and pineapple. 

Sunday morning we were back downtown for brunch at Sweet Potatoes. Owner and chef, Stephanie Tyson, and owner, Vivian Joiner, have built an award-winning reputation for unique Southern food and warm hospitality. We sat at the “community table,” which was a wonderful option for sharing a meal with new friends. Byron was our jovial server, further augmenting the friendly atmosphere. Sweet Potatoes is famous for their brunch, especially their sweet potato biscuits and fried chicken over sweet potato pancakes. I elected the “Un-French Toast” — a sweet potato bread pudding battered and deep fried, served with honey ginger butter and warm fruit preserves. Other menu highlights included their barbeque shrimp and grits; a roasted vegetable and sweet potato frittata; and a seafood omelet. 

We departed from our weekend knowing we had only experienced a small portion of all that the tucked away town of Winston-Salem has to offer its guests, and determined to visit again to discover more about this unique city.