Do you fancy a pleasant drive through some of Connecticut’s prettiest countryside to visit a classic, 19th-century, New England country inn on whose terrace or porch you can revel in an idyllic lake view and delicious European cuisine? Then the Hopkins Inn overlooking Lake Waramaug in the Litchfield Hills is definitely for you.
The Hopkins Inn has been in operation since 1847. Franz and Beth Schober have owned and operated the inn for over 40 years, while their son, Toby Fossland, who grew up at the inn, has worked alongside them since 1991. The inn is normally open year-round, its restaurant from late March through January 1. The Hopkins Inn is not affiliated, but appears to enjoy neighborly relations, with Hopkins Vineyard located across the road, the two attractions undoubtedly complementing each other.
The inn didn’t have to change much to open for outdoor dining, as it is blessed with a spacious flagstone patio and wrap-around porch that have long attracted lovers of al fresco dining. My companion and I visited the inn on Sunday, May 24, the fifth day the State of Connecticut allowed compliant restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining. We found the inn’s staff rigorously observing the hygienic practices required of them. Its considerate customers also appeared to be wearing their masks except when actually eating or drinking, a great improvement upon what I have witnessed in some parts of Connecticut. The scene inspired confidence in a time of uncertainty.
It was a thirsty day. From the wines by the glass ($6-$13.50), my companion ordered the Aichenberg Grüner Veltliner ($8), an appropriate selection to accompany the terrific Austrian (and sometimes German) fare we’d be experiencing. I began with a nice stiff Manhattan ($10.50), then graduated to a glass of Smoke Tree Pinot Noir from Sonoma, California ($13.50).
Slices of warm bread from Albert’s Bakery in Deep River were served with butter, the bread replenished, as desired, by the solicitous staff. While we awaited our first course, we took in the more-generous-than-required spacing, the peaceful stillness, a pair of women seated on a bench across the street, and the late afternoon light falling upon the lake and nearby Litchfield Hills.
I rarely comment on prices negatively, believing that restaurants have a right to charge what the market will bear and that they’ll find out pretty quickly if they have overshot the mark. But I can’t resist commending the inn for prices that seemed quite restrained considering the bucolic setting and high-quality food. Appetizers, for instance, ranged from $4.25 for a loaf of house garlic bread to $13.75 for bratwurst served with sauerkraut. In between was a plethora of options, including clams casino ($10); escargot ($9.75); marinated herring ($8) with apple, sour cream and red onion dressing; shrimp cocktail ($10); smoked salmon ($13.25) with onion, capers, cream cheese, bagel and coleslaw; and Bündnerteller ($10) with Swiss-style, thinly sliced, air-dried beef served on a board with pearl onions, cornichons and tomato.
From the appetizers, my companion enjoyed the soup du jour ($5), a lusty cream of cauliflower and broccoli with a sprinkle of fresh parsley. I elected the pâté à la maison ($7.75)—scoops of pork liver pâté served over a Boston lettuce leaf with diced hard-boiled egg, thinly sliced red onion, water crackers and a superior coleslaw.
Salads ($5.25-$7.75) are an especially strong suit of the Hopkins Inn, with its house, Caesar and spinach salad dressings available for purchase at the inn or in the refrigerated section of the produce departments of many Connecticut grocery and gourmet stores. If you can forgive the literary inversion, I come to praise the Caesar ($6) not to bury it, my companion especially extolling its housemade croutons. But the spinach salad ($7.75) was arguably even better, with fresh spinach leaves, sautéed bacon, mushroom, hard-boiled egg and a small pitcher of house spinach salad dressing. The inn also offers entrée salads ($17.75-$22.25), including a Cajun spice-rubbed, rare tuna salad ($22.25); grilled chicken breast salad ($21.25); and Steirischer Backhendlsalat ($17.75) with pieces of lightly breaded and sautéed chicken (Backhendl) served over lettuce with Kürbiskernöl dressing.
Some restaurants have reopened with rather limited offerings, but the Hopkins Inn clearly isn’t one of them. Sixteen main dishes were in evidence, ranging from $17.25 for Sauerbraten with slices of braised leg of marinated beef served with spätzle and red cabbage, to $28.25 for an eight-ounce Black Angus sirloin steak grilled and served with chef’s herb butter. The intriguing entrées included broiled Atlantic salmon with herb butter ($23.25); broiled sea scallops in special garlic sauce ($23.25); a seafood sauté ($18.75) of salmon and scallops in a basil cream sauce; Backhendl with lingonberries ($20.25); chicken cordon bleu ($23.25); Lammhaxen or braised lamb shank ($23.75); Wiener Schnitzel ($22.25); veal piccata Hopkins ($23.25); and even veal kidneys Dijonnaise ($21.75).
While we were drawn to so many of the entrées, the two we selected were exceptional. My Jäger Schnitzel ($23.25) might have been the best I’ve enjoyed in this country, with lightly floured and sautéed veal scallops topped with bacon, onion and mushroom in a red-wine-and-lingonberry sauce accompanied by a baked half apple, red cabbage and spätzle. And we were blown away by my companion’s generous, partially deboned, Maple Leaf Farms, roasted half duck ($26.25), its skin beautifully crisped, plated with two pretty orange pinwheels, mixed vegetables and perfect rösti and escorted by a small pitcher of delicious orange sauce.
Two dessert chalkboards displayed a dozen enticements ($8.50). We were sorely tempted by desserts like cheesecake Hopkins; crème caramel; chocolate mousse; Kahlúa and mint parfaits; and Grand Marnier soufflé glacé (frozen Italian meringue). My companion selected a decadent Toblerone sundae garnished with a thin triangular wafer and whipped cream.
In the meantime, I exclaimed over superbly restrained Linzertorte with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.
As the last traces of sunlight disappeared and the country air took on a slight chill, my companion and I sipped piping-hot black coffee ($2.50) and a cappuccino ($4.75) by lamplight and pledged to return.