The Whately Inn Has Come a Long Way Since It Hosted BurlesqueStephen “Chip” Kloc III, chef and owner of the Whately Inn, remembers cooking dinner for his regular Wednesday-evening crowd back on Sept. 13, 1984.
The date is etched into his mind because what happened that night was unforgettable, and what’s happened since has become another important chapter in the long and intriguing history of this landmark establishment and family business.
“I noticed the ceiling — the paint was bubbling,” he recalled. “So I poked it, and a hole formed. I’m looking up, and all of a sudden it sounded like a train going through once the air got to it.”
‘It’ was a small fire that broke out in rafters dried by the intense heat generated by the broiler located below. The blaze went straight up a dormer, ignited the roof, and then proceeded to burn down from the second floor.
“There were probably 30 people in here at the time,” recalled Chip’s father, Steve, who followed his father, Steve Sr., into the restaurant business and eventually inspired the third generation to do the same. “But over the years, about 500 people have said they were at the inn that night.
“No one wanted to leave,” he continued, adding that there was a remarkable sense of calm amid the calamity. “Some people were saying, ‘oh, the fire’s just in the kitchen; it’ll be fine.’”
Several patrons left, but took their plates with them, said Chip, adding with a laugh that most people did, in fact, pay their bill.
With help from several fire departments, the first-floor kitchen, bar, and dining area were saved, but the entire second floor, except for the porch deck, was a loss. A renovation that took more than a year to complete provided a new, 75-seat second-floor banquet room where there had been none.
Though devastating for the Klocs, the fire turned out to be a pivotal turning point for the inn, which today focuses much more on quality cuisine and banquets and weddings — a far cry from its former role as a home for burlesque shows that played out on a stage that is now part of the dining room (more on that later).
These days, the excitement is in the delectable flavor and value of traditional American cuisine with French influences that Chip Kloc has perfected over his three decades learning and working alongside his father.
From the rack of lamb dijonaise to the broiled jumbo shrimp Francoise to the house specials of broiled filet mignon, beurre noisette, and prime rib, fine cuisine now takes center stage.
For this Restaurant Guide’s focus on landmark institutions in the Pioneer Valley, BusinessWest toured the historic inn that markets itself with the slogan ‘eat greatly at the Whately,’ and spoke with this father-and-son team about the establishment’s evolution and the family’s ability to capture and keep a following that is hungry and loyal, no matter the state of the economy.
Back in the Day
In addition to underscoring the rate of inflation over the past 47 years, the clipping begins to tell the story of how much has changed at this landmark on Chestnut Plain Road.
Popular from the 1860s to the 1940s, burlesque featured bawdy comedy and female striptease in cabarets and clubs, as well as theatres, and the Whately Inn was one of the few in the region to present the spicy form of amusement.
Chip was 6 in the mid-1960s and can remember the crowds.
“I used to sell the girls towels for 25 cents as they were coming off the stage,” he said with a laugh, noting that this stage still stands in the main dining room, next to the historic fireplace. “It sure was a destination back then.”
To explain how it became one, the Klocs went back further in time, to the years just after World War II ended, when Steve Sr. made his foray into the hospitality industry with two restaurants — the Williams House in Williamsburg and the Rainbow Club in Haydenville. The latter, which was destroyed by fire in the mid-’50s, was in many ways an inspiration for the Whately Inn, which the elder Kloc acquired later that decade.
“People used to come in here [to the Whately Inn] and say how much they loved the Rainbow Club,” said Chip, adding that this affection was spawned by the food and the entertainment, both of which were brought to the Whately by his grandfather and father.
Steve Jr. cut his teeth in the business at a popular restaurant and dance hall on the Connecticut River in South Hadley called the River Lodge, later renamed the Riverboat. He would essentially recreate that establishment’s menu at the Whately, which was sold by his father in 1969, beginning more than a decade of sharp decline for the landmark in terms of both its physical state and popularity.
Steve Jr. watched this downward spiral from afar, as co-owner (with his father and others) of other restaurants, including the Captain’s Table in Northampton. “The roof over the stage had collapsed because of snow,” he recalled, adding that, by the mid-’70s, the inn was in terrible condition.
“It was awful,” added Chip, “but the second owners after my grandfather sold it fixed it up a bit and restored it. The bar, the chandelier, and the front door are all handmade from trees in Whately.”
These owners were not able to turn the eatery’s financial fortunes around, however. And when they put the landmark on the market in 1980, Steve Kloc Jr. saw an opportunity to turn back the clock while also focusing on the future.
While the fire in September 1984 was in most ways a setback, Chip and Steve both described it as a blessing in disguise because it pushed them to make updates to decades-old electrical wiring, put in four larger hotel rooms where there had originally been six, and add a second-floor banquet room.
When it reopened in 1985, the inn was a more flexible and responsive player in the hospitality sector, with fine dining, a banquet facility, and a hotel. And it has taken full advantage of this attractive mix of services.
With most customers coming from within a 50-mile radius, the inn has thrived through its regulars, those who have heard about it though word-of-mouth referrals and want to experience it, and a growing banquet business. The main key to its success is repeat business.
“Many people come at least once a month, and one couple has been coming every Sunday since the fire,” said Chip, noting that, during the recession, when other hospitality-related businesses were suffering or closing, the Whately Inn held steady.
“There was a decline, but nothing that seriously affected us,” Chip explained. “We’ve built this business consistently over the years, and we’ve been growing little by little every year. After the fire, there was maybe a little bit of a rush, but overall it’s been consistent growth.”
Since the recession, however, Steve has seen customers give more attention to the value they are getting with everything they buy.
“Some people look at our menu and say we’re expensive,” he said, “but if you look at what you get, we’re very reasonably priced.”
Specifically, what the Whately Inn is known for, besides its popular French-American traditional-style cuisine, is a five-course, prix fixe dinner, including appetizer or soup of the day, salad, potato, vegetable of the day (usually in season, fresh, and local), gourmet entrée, choice of dessert, and coffee.
Historically, the two most popular dishes have been the 12-ounce filet mignon and the 18- to 24-ounce prime rib for $30.95. Meanwhile, there is one item generally not found anywhere else — frog legs from Bangladesh and Thailand.
“We sell 30 pounds per month,” said Chip. “No one sells them anymore so we have them for the customers that want them.”
“We’ve had the same menu since day one,” Steve added. “We add daily and weekend specials every week, but the old menu has been good for us; it’s what brings the people back.”
The dining room holds 120, and on an average Saturday night, Chip and his staff will serve between 250 to 300 patrons. On holidays, reservations are made months in advance, and a typical Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, or Easter will attract 600 to 700 diners.
In addition to consistent, quality cuisine, Chip said the Whately Inn’s employees are another key to success. One staffer has been with the Klocs since he was in high school, dating back to the Captain’s Table days in the 1970s. Chip’s mother, Fran, manages the bar, while his wife, Lisa, manages the dining room and schedules the waitstaff and any reservations. Chip’s brother Gary helps out as a waiter, and various other family members have pitched in over the years.
While Steve ‘officially’ retired this past January, when not in Florida, he still can be found helping out in the kitchen.
In his new role as the president of the family business, Chip said the goal is to keep the last three decades of fine dining and value steady, so loyal customers can continue to ‘eat greatly at the Whately.’
Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]