On an unusually chilly early April Saturday afternoon I arrived with my sister, Betty Ferree Powers, at the River Inn of Harbor Town in downtown Memphis. It was love at first sight!
The inn is located in the picturesque community of Harbor Town on the banks of the Mississippi River, which this particular weekend was swollen with rain water, causing hundreds of gawking drivers to cruise beside the river to observe trees that typically are in Greenbelt Park but were now eerily standing in swampy water.
Designed by the award-winning architectural firm of Looney Ricks Kiss, a firm known for “creating and preserving that small-town feel,” the River Inn is a 28-room boutique hotel that opened its long-awaited doors on October 29. The $9 million hotel is squeezed into 32,000 square feet of space in two buildings at Harbor Town Square and Harbor Town Circle.
“It brings back an historic kind of luxury…and the décor and architecture is a mixture of Europe and New Orleans.”
— Karl W. Friedrich, General Manager of the River Inn
The clientele consists of business travelers during the week and leisure travelers from the region on the weekends. The inn has four local owners: Lewis Holland, Tom Scott, Joe Weller and Henry Turley, who traveled far and wide, sampling small luxury hotels. They returned to Memphis, where they applied their newfound knowledge to create the best of the best small boutique hotel.
In the mind of Karl W. Friedrich, a native of Austria, who was chosen to serve as general manager of the River Inn, “nothing like the River Inn exists in Memphis nor in Tennessee. It brings back an historic kind of luxury although it is a new hotel with specialized individual service, and the décor and architecture is a mixture of Europe and New Orleans.”
Friedrich brings to the inn more than 30 years of experience in the luxury hotel and resort industry, most recently as general manager of Litchfield Plantation, a small luxury hotel at Pawley’s Island, South Carolina. Prior to that, Friedrich managed four-and-five-star hotels in the Caribbean.
The hotel has a strong European influence, from the intimate libraries that greet visitors when they exit the elevator to go to their rooms to the Port wine and chocolate truffles served at turn-down.
Let me set the stage for you. Picture a small Provencal-style inn with window boxes brimming with colorful flowers; Bevola, New Orleans-style gas lanterns; and narrow streets reminiscent of Paris.
A friendly valet parker greeted us before we entered the lobby, a world away from my hectic professional life that is filled with deadlines and demands. A smiling desk clerk immediately offered us a glass of wine or champagne as we checked in for the weekend.
I stepped into the charming lobby furnished with antiques and Persian rugs, collected by Mr. Holland, hearkening back to the days when cotton or “white gold” was King. A wood-burning fireplace with an antique (1800s) New Orleans mantel kept the chill at bay, and the cushy sofa beckoned me to sit a spell, as we say in the South. A sparkling chandelier is suspended over hardwood floors that were reclaimed from a Virginia textile mill that was being razed. River-themed art collected by Mr. Holland from various Memphis and Mississippi Delta artists adorn the walls of the lobby.
Heart-of-pine floorboards in each elevator lobby were cut from 1700s original-stand timber, once used as support beams in an old mill.
The elevator whisked me up to my “Natchez” penthouse suite, which overlooks the mighty Mississippi. (How appropriate for me, a lover of that jewel of a town.) Mr. Friedrich had sent me a vase of fresh flowers strategically placed on a small round table beside a plate of fresh fruit, a perfect accompaniment to my vino.
Immediately I opened the casement windows to catch the river breeze. It wasn’t long before a long barge beckoned me back to the window. After kicking off my shoes, I made a few phone calls as I wanted to share the moment with friends.
The living room of my suite is decorated with attractive, comfortable furniture, elegant French paintings, and a fireplace. Beside a wet bar is a framed Natchez riverboat scene. In the bedroom tranquility reigns. A four-poster bed, luxuriously draped with Frette linens, is the focal point beside a walnut armoire, and the bathroom has a garden tub and a separate shower with Gilchrist and Soames bath amenities.
The suite has a 32” flat screen HDTV with DVD, high-speed wireless internet access and a CD/iPod dock/radio alarm clock, and a corner desk.
Outside my room, a cold wind snapped the colorful red table umbrellas on the rooftop terrace, which has a fine view of the signature “M” bridge and ‘Ol Man River. It is a perfect place to sip a cocktail or host a private party.
Shortly before my 8:00 p.m. dinner in Currents restaurant, which serves gourmet American/Continental cuisine, my sister and I spent a few moments in The Little Bar, a cozy nook adjacent to Currents. Signature drinks in the bar include a Mud Island Iced Tea, a Currents Cosmo, and an Island Mojito, served with a variety of appetizers including seared foi gras, duck confit, tuna tartar, and shrimp beignets.
We were seated in an alcove in the elegantly appointed Currents restaurant, which features rich red upholstered chairs, oil paintings of the Mississippi River, white tablecloths, and lovely floral arrangements. I began my multi-course dinner with a Cosmopolitan. Dinner was served on bright red chargers with white plates. The servers, who wore black pants with crisp white long-sleeved vests, were attentive with impeccable timing.
For an appetizer I chose jumbo lump crab au gratin with just the right amount of sherry, and my sister ordered escargots, which I sampled. Then came a cleansing amuse bouche, a muscadine grape sorbet. My entrée was a pan-seared halibut served with grilled asparagus and homemade breads and rolls, some of the best I have sampled in any restaurant. I could not resist dessert—a chocolate and espresso flan with three sauces: Godiva chocolate, brown butter caramel and vanilla bean crème anglaise. (A tasting menu is available for $68.)
The three-room restaurant is open daily for breakfast from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m., and dinner service is from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m.
From its second-floor wine cellar, Currents offers an extensive wine list (1,100 bottles) by a professional sommelier.
The talented and friendly chef of both Currents and Tug’s, the inn’s casual grill across the street, is David Schrier, who took time from his busy kitchen to greet me and my sister. I was also impressed that the general manager left a Memphis Symphony performance to return to the hotel to greet guests in Currents that evening.
Returning to my room, I discovered lagniappe or “something extra” in the form of Port wine in a decanter and chocolate truffles on my turneddown bed.
On Sunday morning I leisurely sipped good coffee with cream as I read The Commercial Appeal. Then it was time for a tour of the property that included Tug’s, which appeared to be a popular eatery for hotel guests and residents of the neighborhood. This restaurant offers comfort food, a fully stocked bar, a food counter, and an attractive patio. The walls are adorned with Mississippi River memorabilia and pictures of boats. Hours of operation: 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and weekend breakfast from 7-11 a.m.
Returning to the hotel, I was served a delicious Sunday brunch menu: a Cajun Bloody Mary with a salmon plate with chopped eggs, capers, red onion, parsley and toast points; an entrée of saffron risotto with lobster, peas, lemon and piquillo peppers; an amuse bouche of wafer-thin pineapple carpaccio, honey yogurt and macerated raspberries; and a simple finale dessert of sorbet with a lemon cookie and café au lait.
The cute white cottage at the entrance to Island Drive is under renovation and will offer full spa service by the end of the year to hotel guests who presently use Harbor Town Day Spa, located a mere six doors away. A small Fitness Center is located inside the hotel.
Proximity to downtown, the international airport and two major interstates make the River Inn a convention destination for executive retreats and small business and professional seminars. The two buildings house three meeting rooms, including the elegant Belle Memphis conference room. Seating provides ample room for a dozen executives or seating for a private dinner party with up to fourteen guests. Nineteenth-century charm meets twenty-first century computer technology in the board room with a gas and wood fireplace and antique buffet, which complement the overhead PowerPoint projector, retractable screen and wireless internet service.
The inn offers two packages: a Gourmet Retreat Package and a Golf & Gourmet “Stay & Play” package.
According to Friedrich, the River Inn is “getting nice write-ups,” and more and more people are finding out about the hotel. “Business is good,” said Friedrich, who recently learned that his inn had been awarded Four Diamonds. They are working to become a member of the prestigious Relaix et Chateau.
David Noonan, Front Desk Manager, offered exceptional service, which could only have been improved upon by offering me another overnight stay in this fine property
For more information or to make a reservation call 877-222-1531 or 901-278-260-3333.
Address: 50 Harbor Town Square/Memphis, TN 38103.
Web site: www.RiverInnMemphis.com
Rates: range from $245 (standard room) to $595 (Penthouse suite)