FORGET THE "IN" PLACES where the "in" crowd goes to eat "in" food. It's much nicer to be out -- out in the countryside, that is -- enjoying an inn.
A country inn might be a Victorian mansion or a rustic log cabin, an 18th century coach stop or a rambling old farmhouse. Sometimes there is a four-star French restaurant on the premises; in other inns, the only chef is a grandmotherly woman who has honed her talents on bran muffins and egg casseroles. The best country inns share several attributes -- charm, architectural and/or historical interest, and that intangible sense individuality composed partly of the personality of the owners, partly of the house's special features.
And, of course, there's wonderful home-cooked food. Whether you are staying at a world-class auberge such as the Inn at Little Washington, or a mom-and-pop bed and breakfast, memorable cooking is as much a part of the inn experience as comfy, quilt-laden beds and a cheerful greeting in the morning.
More than 270 such inns, each regionally renowned for the excellence of its cuisine and accommodations, have been collected into a new book, "The Great Country Inns of America Cookbook," just published by Bob Adams, Inc. of Holbrook, Mass. While actually visiting each of the inns would have been a daunting (not to mention expensive) task, author James Stroman is an avid inn-goer, and knew many of the recommended hostelries from his travels.
According to Carter Smith, the in-house editor who worked on the project, the Dallas-based writer -- a somewhat reclusive person who does not speak to the press -- also knows his food. Mr. Stroman has written several cookbooks, including "Dining Out at Home" (Cornwall Books), "From Texas Kitchens" (Lone Star Books) and two volumes of "Prize Recipes from Great Restaurants" (Pelican) covering the Western and Southern states.
"The first thing he did was to contact state tourist offices, and he got lists of the most highly regarded inns nationwide," Mr. Smith explains. Working from local recommendations, Mr. Stroman contacted the inns, convinced the innkeepers and chefs to provide several recipes, and gathered descriptions and historical information about each. Mr. Smith then whittled this information down to size, looking for ample representation in each geographical area, and a balance of recipes in 10 categories: appetizers, salads and salad dressings, soups, vegetables, seafood and poultry entrees, meat entrees, breakfasts and brunches, desserts, breads, muffins and cookies, and country inn potpourri (sauces, preserves, beverages, etc.).
The territory covered stretches from Lahaina, Maui, to St. George Island, off the coast of Florida. The approximately 400 recipes include a variety of regional specialties: lobster stew from Maine, green chili huevos rancheros from New Mexico, Shaker sugar pie from Ohio, peanut stuffing from Virginia. The recipes were selected and tested by Linda Conway, a cookbook author and editor.
The inns that ended up making the cut were chosen primarily for their culinary reputation, Mr. Smith says, but coincidentally, many of the places that offered the finest food were historically significant as well; on the East Coast especially, the selected inns included many National Register of Historic Places landmarks.
Although inns from all 50 states and the District of Columbia are included in the book, local readers might be surprised to note that the inn-rich state of Maryland is represented by a single entry -- the Winchester Country Inn in Westminster. One of the cookbook's mysteries is the whereabouts of the critically lauded Atlantic Hotel in Berlin and its recipe for scallops Dijonnaise, both of which are listed in the front of the book but fail to appear in its pages. The same fate befalls the Chalfonte Hotel, a Cape May, N.J., mainstay since Victorian times, nationally known for the classic Southern cooking of its late chef, Helen Dickerson. Readers who spot a favorite inn listed might want to check the index to make sure it is actually included in the text.
The Winchester Country Inn is a notable choice; it stands alone in more ways than one. The inn, located across from the Carroll County Farm Museum, is an innovative venture combining historic preservation and social service, funded jointly by government agencies, foundations, and individuals. When it opened for business in September 1986, it became the first bed and breakfast inn in the United States staffed by disabled, mentally retarded and economically disadvantaged adults.
The inn is operated by Target, Inc., a private non-profit organization serving people with disabilities. The group's founder Donald Rabush, professor of special education at Western Maryland College, spotted the historic but neglected property in 1984 and noted its potential, both as a top-notch hostelry and as a vehicle for vocational training. The county, which owned the property, agreed to lease it to Target for 20 years, at a nominal fee of $1 a year.