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The Balsams, Dixville Notch NH--WHAT HAPPENED

Actually I know what happened--they went from private ownership to corporate (DNC) a couple of years ago. Over Columbus day weekend husband and I went to the Balsams to dine and play golf. For years, we've been driving past other "grand hotels" in NH and practically getting to the Canadian border in getting to the Balsams because of their exceptional food.

In the past, everything was sumptuous. I can remember one snowy January evening when traffic on 93 caused us to miss the dinner seating. One of the dining room captains had cold plates--antipasto, smoked salmon, cold cuts, salad, homemade bread--delivered to our hotel room at ten at night, unasked. Years ago, I would have the best brandy alexanders and hot toddies that you could imagine in the lounge after skiing. The breakfast buffets were decadent, and for dinner, I could ask our waiter's recommendations and never be disappointed.

Flash forward to the present. Much of the old dining room staff is gone (laid off, I think, or have left in disgust). The Balsams always had a young, international waitstaff but the staff in years past were also foodies. Not so now. Our service was woefully bad.

One example: on the Friday of Columbus day weekend, we went to one of the dining room dinner seatings. In years past, there would be two dinner options--5:30 and 8. This year, we were given the option of 5, 6 or 7pm. Can you see the issue already? We opted for the
6 pm seating. We arrived for the 6pm seating at 6:05 pm, having chatted with friends we ran into in the lobby. When we arrived at the dining room, we were surprised to see twenty or so couples standing in the foyer. The young maitre D' was shutting the glass doors to the dining rooms. We approached him to ask about our reservation and he told us that they were "clearing tables" and would seat us in 10 minutes. We were seated at about 6:30.
Normally, the first staff member we'd see was the one who would bring a wine list and take cocktail orders. No one of that sort ever showed up. A young man filled our water glasses and promised to be right back to take the order. 10 minutes later, he was no where to be found, so I asked another server in the area if she might oblige us. We were hungry, having last eaten a quick pre-golf breakfast at 7 that day. We were so looking forward to dinner.

She took our orders. For me, pumpkin bisque, caesar salad, prime rib. For my husband, shrimp cocktail, caesar salad, prime rib. Not complicated orders. To make a long story short, at 9 pm, we still had not received our salads. By that time, I had walked in exasperation to a waiters' station for a pitcher of ice water and refilled our glasses a few times. Our salads arrived and while they were quite good, they were garden salads--actually a frisee vinagrette--and not caesar. We ate them anyway, because we had an early tee time the next morning and had to get up early.

By this point, there was consternation throughout our section of the dining room. My husband had complained to the captain who cited "new kitchen procedures" (inaugurated on a long holiday weekend, a HUGE foliage weekend, and the weekend of a golf tournament?!?!?!). A woman and her mother seated adjacent to us were told that the staff were "overworked". Actually, it seemed more like gross, gross disorganization. The sad thing is---there was nothing to be done. Dinner was paid for as part of the package, and if you know Dixville Notch, you know that nothing is open at 10pm for dinner.

After our empty salad plates had sat for awhile, yet another server wandered over and asked what we had ordered. We repeated the order of prime rib and said "rare is fine"....we had ordered medium rare but time was of the essence. At 9:40, our prime ribs arrived, medium well. At the time they arrived, we ordered two slices of pie to go. We figured we would take them back to the room and eat them in peace there. After waiting until 10:15 for our pie to arrive, we were told by the same waiter who took the pie order that they could not give us the pie "to go"...it had to be eaten in the dining room. Why?
And why didn't he bring the pie to the table, then? We didn't stick around to find the answers. We left. And for the first time in 10 years, I skipped a Balsams breakfast buffet the next morning. We had gas station Dunkin Donuts for breakfast.

To be fair, the shrimp cocktail, the bisque, and the side dishes were excellent. The prime rib was good, but not to our taste. But we will never, ever, ever eat in the Balsams again. At least not for many, many months, or until the DNC stops thinking profit and starts thinking service.

We are so saddened by the decline of the Balsams dining room. Our friends told us later that the service in the lounge was equally abysmal--a half and hour wait for a snack and two martinis. Even if the skiing or golf was awful, we could always count on superb food and service. Not anymore.

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  1. Oh please don't tell me this, I love the Balsams and recommend it all the time. I better be careful until I go again. That's sad, we know the original chef - I will get the inside scoop - he may still be consulting for them.

    3 Replies
    1. re: lexpatti

      Chef Learned....GONE....and his son is now pastry chef and from what I hear, has a minimal role.

      1. re: thegolferbitch

        I also just heard that Chef Leaned's son has left too - what happened to our wonderful place. Our family had several wonderful winter vacation up there. We tried to do again several years ago but they were booked and we did the Van Trapp place up at Stowe - very nice!!

        1. re: lexpatti

          Never been to the VT place--good to know, thanks lexpatti. His son left too? Boy, Delaware North is really cleaning house...not in a good way.

    2. This really does sound like bad news. I've called The Balsams "my favorite place" without reservation and I hate to hear that things have changed and that corporate greed has penetrated even this remote northern outpost. Can any other recent visitors there confirm this report, or deny it?

      1. Sad to say, one of the few grand hotels has taken a turn for the worse. The Balsams had set the bar so high that any changes were bound to fall short. That being said, is is unlikely that the new ownership group will regroup as the key to the Balsams long term success was attention to detail, consistency, and guest recognition all developed by a long term and caring staff. Unless they bring some of those staff members back they will become another Hilton (in this case, one that is way off the beaten path.............)

        1. What a darn shame. I never knew it was renown for such great service. Your early positive review sounded very much like the Plaza Hotel in NY. I really think you should let them know in writing how disappointed you were. What you described at dinner is just plain unacceptable.

          1 Reply
          1. re: tunapet

            Hi Tunapet...never had the pleasure of going to the Plaza but I know its reputation and the analogy is dead on. I did write, in terms of a letter and in an "on-line" survey just what I've shared with you hounds...and no reply. In the olden days, when the place was managed by Steve Barba et al, I wrote notes a couple of times lauding staff that had been particularly great...and I'd get a nice reply back! Now...zippo. I'm so sick about this. We used to plan to spend New Years every year there. No more.

          2. My memory of The Balsams was that of a great luxury liner afloat in a sea of green--totally isolated, but totally self-sustaining. We stopped in for lunch a few years back, and were impressed by the lavish buffet, complete with ice sculptures and aspic creations that harkened back to Escoffier. Service was impeccable, and the place also seemed preserved in that same aspic. Unfortunately, a corporate buyout usually focuses on the bottom line, and it sounds like the Balsams has lost its special quality.

            1. SO and I feel the same. We were up mid-sept to dine &look at a couple condos down in Whitefield area. We decided we only had time for a quick nosh in the lounge before bed (we werent on a meal plan)

              Ordered a Tuckermans --awesome local brew-- and a Chivas and water, respectively. I was brought a warmish beer and partner swore the scotch wasnt Chivas. We went foodless and snack less--would it killthem to put peanuts or snack mix on the table for what they charge for drinks? Service was abrupt when it was there. I remember hot and cold hordoeuvres in years past and supernice folks.

              Got some descent wings but it took us 90 min to get them and our glasses sat empty for a long while. Its sad bc the food there used to be far superior imho to Mt Wash and more recent
              Mountainview Grand.

              Girl inthe bar told us that John the maitre D upstairs had left too, forced into early retirement. A sin.

              1. This is very timely input. I was thinking of taking my wife to the Balsams for a couple of nights to celebrate our anniversary. We had always been meaning to stay there but for whatever reason we never have. Regardless of the money being charged, the types of experiences noted in this thread are just outrageous. I will choose elsewhere.

                1 Reply
                1. re: thegolferbitch

                  Off thread top., I can vouch for Eagle Mountain House. Cant beat price and quality, nice game selections on the menu esp. this time of year, great local beers, etc. Very nice staff too

                2. We had a fabulous time at the Von Trapp Lodge and very similar to the Balsams - had nice horse drawn sleigh rides on the grounds, game rooms everywere, dining was excellent. here's the website.

                  http://www.trappfamily.com/

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: lexpatti

                    Thanks, lexpatti. I am going to opt for the Von Trapp Lodge. It sure looks like nice and good feedback from others is key. I thought also about the rebuilt Wentworth by the Sea which I believe is Marriott. It looked very nice and has good reviews - but Vermont and Von Trapp won out. Thanks again.

                  2. You might want to research Wentworth by the Sea in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We used to go there and to the Balsams years ago, but then Wentworth closed down. I understand it has re-opened. Might be wotrth checking out.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Jerry Saywell

                      \The Wentworth has been totally refurbished and is so so pretty and elegant. And, it is so close to Boston. Be sure to spend a night or two there. Close to Portsmouth and its many shops, etc.
                      Never made it to the Balsams and it has been on my travel list for years. Now I will think twice before I trek up so far...

                    2. This post should be sent to the Balsams. Maybe it will help the grand old place recover from the mess it is in.

                      1. Tony O, I'm with you, but do you think it would do any good? I've written, I've emailed. I just feel like as long as Delaware North can fill the rooms, they don't care. If they cared, they wouldn't have fired Learned and son, et al. The problem is they're losing all the "heirloom" families that go year after year after year.

                        BTW...lexpatti I have to now try the Von Trapp place. And Tony, my dream is to scrape up the money to rent the Flume Cottage at the Samoset for a number of nights. Hit the lottery, maybe...

                        1. Probably not, but it seems a shame to cross the Balsams off the list. There are so few places left that compare (the analogy about it being a landlocked cruise ship was right on). In a world full of cookie cutter resorts and restaurants it is a shame to see a management group take something special away from the consumer because they were able to write a check to purchase it.

                          Good luck on the lottery ! Money isn't everything but it sure makes life more interesting !

                          1. I sent this link to a friend who emailed tt to the Balsam's staff and received a personal call from them about the article.

                            They were all appalled as so much in that article is incorrect. They reported that Chef Learned is still there and the Balsam's is still FAMILY owned not corporate owned as the article stated.

                            My friend has been there many times and never had any problems.

                            In November they were voted 34th in the country as the best resorts.

                            Any other updates?

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: wsluring

                              They are indeed owned by Delaware North Corporation, not a family. It says so right at the bottom of the home page of The Balsams web site:

                              http://www.thebalsams.com/

                              They're also listed on the DNC web site:
                              http://www.delawarenorth.com/Destinat...

                              1. re: wsluring

                                Unfortunately, they are most definitely corporate owned. The Jacobs family also has interests, I believe, in the Boston Bruins, who play in the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston (as the world knows).

                                wsluring, as of my visit, if Chef Learned was there, he was not there in the capacity of a Chef. In fact, I just found this online article describing the departure of the Chef and Steve Barba from March 2005.

                                http://www.hotel-online.com/News/PR20...

                                Your friend, if s/he called the Balsams, was lied to. I wonder with whom s/he spoke?

                              2. Appalled ?? How about embarrassed and disgraced. Corporate or family run is not the point. Maybe the details were wrong but the experiences of their clientele is where the focus should be.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: TonyO

                                  Well--- interesting. I have just read much of the information on the Balsalms and DNC websites. I must say that I am now quite impressed by Deleware North. this is a privately held $1.6 billion operation that started by the Jacobs family in Buffalo in 1915 and is headed by a Jacobs. The Balsalms is only one of the many rather impressive places they manage inclucing the Awahnee in Yosemite and Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California, both place I find quite good.
                                  So, readers, let's consider the jury is out as far as I am concerned and I will visit the Balsalms to see for myself.

                                  1. re: wsluring

                                    Hmmm, they lie to your friend, and "the jury is out"?

                                    1. re: cap

                                      WS I appreciate that youre impressed by the Delaware North website but face it, theyve gone from privately owned to being a "chain" hotel. Granted, a very expensive chain. This in itself is not damning hey stuff changes but why did they lie to your friend esp about something thats been public knowledge for 2 yrs. Lets hope they get it right for the hundreds of families spending big up there over the holidays like our family used to.

                                    2. re: wsluring

                                      Speaking from a Chowhound perspective, which is what this board is all about, it is the architecture and natural setting that make both Asilomar and the Awahnee impressive, but most definitely *NOT* the food....

                                  2. BTW, if anybody is interested, they are offering the "Ultimate Balsams Experience" for $75,000: "Each night the Chef will select a five course menu which will be paired with the perfect wines and served in the private dining room of the Beaver Lodge, home to the BALSAMS Culinary School."
                                    http://www.shopdelawarenorth.com/bafa...

                                    Wonder if they use the same vendor that they use at TD Banknorth arena in Boston, which they also provide food services for?

                                    1. We all know that marketing and advertising (reading a website and or menu) can be a world of difference between what the chef is doing and the level of customer service provided. I've been disappointed be an "impressive" website or menu too. None of us will be satisfied til we go again and see for ourselves that one of favorites has fallen. Hmmmm, wonder if Chef Learned is cooking somewhere else?

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: lexpatti

                                        Lexpatti, I trust your advice so I'm trying the Von Trapp lodge for the next outing (and with any luck, Samoset during golf season). If you do go, let me know if they've righted their course. Until I hear from a Chowhound that they have, I'm not going back. Also, let me know if Chef L. is cooking anywhere driveable!

                                      2. june 2005 was our last visit of many visits to The Balsams.we have been going there for more than 30 years.it was our first experience with delaware north.our room was great but the dining room was a disaster.the dining room went from 5 star to minus 10 stars!john white "left" at this time.many long time staff we knew were planning to leave before they were let go.it seemed if you were a good worker,they didn't want them any more.my meeting with the general manager was less than satisfying.i found him condescending and not at all concerned with my concerns.he stated"if we don't straighten this place out,we won't stay open.iguess dnc ONLY cares about the bottom line,not QUALITY.we also heard that Bill Hamblen,long time golf pro,left i the middle of the summer season because of dnc.Mr Tilltoson's spirit must be looking down from Round Top,where he is buried,wondering what happened to his beautiful resort and his Balsams family of workers and guests.

                                        1. Larry--we suspected the worst when John (who made the dining room such a pleasure and was SUCH an effortlessly gracious and classy man to every guest) "left". We were saddened not only to lose a friend, but because making a career change for a family man in one's 50's (which I guessed him to be) is not easy, especially living in the Great North Woods. I did not know about Bill Hamblen's departure. I'm horrified. I fear for my beloved Panorama--what next, condos?

                                          1. Foolishly S.O. & I went back to the Balsams to try give them one last chance for dinner last week. On a skiing day trip to the Wildnerness (Balsams ski area, we won free passes on a radio show and skiied til they shut down), after we asked at the front desk if they had any open dining times for non-guests we went. They did at the first seating. We had turtlenecks/cords, paired with a jacket & cardigan for dinner & we we dressed formally enough. We also noticed several men dining w/o jackets. This disappointed me.

                                            We were seated & fifteen minutes later, a very young man (looked 14 /15) came to pour water. S.O. wanted to ask about wine, but he rushed away. Ten minutes later, a young blonde girl came by with the bread basket. I asked her for a menu she said shed be right back. Ten minutes later, still no menu, so we borrowed our neighbors. The blonde girl then returned to take our order, I quickly asked for a bottle of The Balsams private label chardonnay. The fennel salad I ordered to start was ice cold to the point of being almost frozen.Great if this was sorbet but not for fennel. When dinner finally arrived 1 & 1/2 hours later, prime rib was dry, & haddock entree consisted of less than Id say 3oz fish. The wine arrived after repeated requests to young man/woman 15 min into dinner. A third party brought us a cabernet of a totally diff. vintage. We declined & ordered two dry Tanqueray martinis straight up with olives. They arrived with twists instead but any port in a storm. Things havent gotten better. At least the skiing was free.

                                            1. Incredibly, the Balsams received the highest rating of any American hotel for food (100) in Conde Nast Traveler's latest issue featuring the World's Best Hotels!!!

                                              1. WHS, I wonder how Conde Nast compiles the ratings? The strength of their reputation was great and five years ago, the 100 would have been merited but sheesh, if anyone stepped foot in the place in the past couple of years. Unless....do they announce to chefs/servers that Conde Nast is at the corner table, everyone hustle?

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: thegolferbitch

                                                  Probably never set foot in the place figuring nothing had changed making for lazy reporting. We have a weeknd planned at the Mount Washington Inn. Any info on that location ???

                                                2. Tony, it's been a good two years since I stayed at the Mt Wa's inn but I remember they had their own restaurant for breakfast/dinner which was quite good. Of course, you have to do the grand dining room too. If you feel like taking a half hour drive one night/day (don't know if time will allow, or if you're on a package which includes meals), I am a huge fan of the Eagle Mountain House's dining room (Jackson NH). They have a really nicely diverse dinner menu (wild game, great risottos, great chowder) and a brunch on Sunday that serves everything but the kitchen sink. The atmosphere is a little more informal than Mt. Wa (no jacket required).

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: thegolferbitch

                                                    Sounds great. Hopefully time will allow. It is a "work" function (if work means eating, drinking, playing golf, and attending a meeting for 45 minutes). Thanks for the tip.

                                                  2. I worked at The Balsams for several years and was there when Delaware North took over in the spring of 2005. Although DNC manages the hotel, Tillotson Corporation still owns it.

                                                    The problems mentioned in the dining room spread throughout the hotel and the root of these problems are caused by one thing: DNC wanting to put their stamp on the hotel. The old management team there had a formula that worked and when DNC took over they changed it (if it's not broke don't fix it).

                                                    I would like to say that The Balsams is a beautiful resort hotel with a great tradition of hospitality. I hope that the problems their are fixed because it is a special place.

                                                    1. Yes, it's true - the Tillotson Corporation still owns The BALSAMS and it is now managed by DNC. Chef Steve is still at the Hotel along with several other long time employees.

                                                      I also agree The BALSAMS is a beautiful and unique resort hotel and is worth the trip.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: princess12

                                                        Chef Steve is no longer at The Balsams although, there are still some longtime employees.

                                                      2. I'm sorry - I should've been clearer - Chef Steve Learned is still at The BALSAMS he is still working in the Kitchen and is also working with the apprentices

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: princess12

                                                          Chef Phil Learned, who was the Master chef and the creator of the Balsams dining tradition under Steve Barba, retired in 2005.

                                                          The Chef Learned you're speaking of is the son of the original chef. I'm not sure what capacity Learned the younger (Steve)serves at the Balsams, but there's been a noticeable decline since Phil (and Maitre D' John, etc, etc) left. I do hope, HSC_88, that DNC gets it right and stops trying to make The Balsams into anything but the Balsams. If they want to modernize, let them put tv's into a few more rooms. Don't mess with food. But I'm probably preaching to the choir.

                                                        2. Lets face it everything was better in the past Now being a Corporation will hurt the Balsams they have lost touch with how a family business is run and takes pride in sad to say. Old time charm is gone its just give me your money for over priced food with sub par wait staff. Remember just because your plate was expencive does not mean the food was good.

                                                          1. Hmmmm, thought I had heard from my folks who know Phil that his son also left. My folks had the pleasure of fly fishing on the Mirimachi (sp?) with Phil. Had some great conversations about the wonderful memories at the Balsams. Your right, things just can't stay the same.

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: lexpatti

                                                              Steve Learned is still at the hotel, and is currently working as the Chef de Cuisine. Larry Johnson (I think that's his last name) is now the Executive Chef. The other Chef Steve that did leave is Chef Steve James (formerly the Executive Pastry Chef), who now has has own shop down in Portsmouth called Popovers on the Square. There are at least two other former Balsam's staff working there wtih him.

                                                            2. Can someone who is more intelligent about such things than I am (i.e., everyone) explain this to me?
                                                              http://www.thebalsams.com/newsletter4...

                                                              I LOVED the Balsams but can't ever dine there again until I hear that several 'hounds have gone and can vouch for a turn around. How did that award happen? I am not nuts...my experience was bad and even minus the horrendous service, and the food uneven (some highs, some lows). Argh.

                                                              2 Replies
                                                              1. re: thegolferbitch

                                                                This is what the cntraveler web site says

                                                                "Truth in Travel is the guiding principle for all content published in Condé Nast Traveler. Other travel publications often accept free travel and accommodations. Condé Nast Traveler does not. It is independent of the travel industry. The magazine always pays its own way"

                                                                This exchange was on the board in Jan...this is probably the same rating theyre reporting on. I still wont make the 3+ hour drive up. Notanymore.

                                                                1. re: thegolferbitch

                                                                  Hi there! We should talk sometime. I worked there for 23 years and I have my opinions of what's going on.

                                                                2. Well, I'm happy to report that whatever happened has been resolved. Just returned from a glorious weekend at The Balsams and couldnt have felt more pampered and well fed. Service was warm and efficient, food was excellent. Everyone around us seemed gloriously happy as well. We will return and highly recommend it to others.

                                                                  5 Replies
                                                                  1. re: elle

                                                                    That's good news, elle. I hope it's a return to the days of old. If you don't mind sharing, what meals did you eat there and what did you order?

                                                                    1. re: thegolferbitch

                                                                      The Era of New England's Grande Dame Resorts is fading fast. In the last three years The Balsams, Mt. Washington, and The Mountain View Grand have all been sold to large out of area corporations. All three have seem to be struggling.
                                                                      The Wentworth by the Sea has recent new ownership as well, Marriott Hotels.

                                                                      1. re: thegolferbitch

                                                                        2 buffet breakfasts, 2 five course prix fixe dinners. I must say it was the gestalt that was so pleasing-and what seemed to be lacking in the dissapointed comments above. The breakfasts were overwhelming in the array of choices; the croissants were outstanding-I can still taste them-and there was really good homemade granola with fresh fruit; also good homefries and maple butter. Coffee was so-so, but my husband roasts his own so we're pretty particular. Husband loved his Black Angus steak with bleu cheese one night and duck the next; my gnocchi one night was good but very rich and salmon with an Asian glaze the other night was above average. We had very good salads that shouldn't have been called Caesar, a wonderful, creamy tomato cheddar soup, a smokey seafood chowder. Only made it to a shared dessert one night, a fabulous chocolatey creation with Bailey's Irish Cream. NIce, moderately priced wine list, lovely live music at dinner and Sunday breakfast. And the service, as I said, was gracious and lovely.

                                                                        1. re: elle

                                                                          Has anyone been to the Balsams recently? I am wondering if it's worth the trip.

                                                                          1. re: greenstate

                                                                            Hello Greenstate..did you ever make up to the Balsams? my husband and I are headed up in a few weeks...need an update Please, how was it? Anyone? Thank you (past visitor 20 years ago)