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The glamping gourmet

Glen Iris Inn serves Letchworth campers fine cuisine even when they’re roughing it

Letchworth State Park, Castile


You love the sound of birdsong in the morning, the crackling campfire, and the hiss of propane as you boil water for coffee. Since childhood, you have loved the weekend ritual of pitching a tent and making a shady patch of ground into your home for a few days. However, your boyfriend is more of a prima donna. He wants a soft mattress and a hot shower. Regardless of how much you promise to make your Coleman tent more hospitable, he talks you into upgrades. More than once, that has meant a nearby hotel with a breakfast buffet.

This weekend, to his credit, he’s helping you choose a getaway at one of a dozen or so state parks within an easy drive of Rochester. Will the lake be a Finger or a Great? How about waterfalls instead? Will the trails be flat for the bikes or hilly for the boots? Is it near a cool town or out in the middle of nowhere? Predictably, the discussion veers toward accommodations. Letchworth State Park has the best variety, and he wants to blow his recent work bonus on a Pinewood luxury loft. “That’s not the point of camping!” you say with as much loving humor as you can muster.

In the end, you agree to leave the tent at home, and he agrees to rough it in an unheated cabin near the Lower Falls. It’s actually one of your favorite places in the park, with a stone staircase leading down to a roaring waterfall, all the rock hewn and laid by laborers in the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps work program. He warms up to the idea of a raft trip leaving from a Genesee River bank near the cabin.

The ride through Letchworth from the Mount Morris entrance is a joy. Dappled green sunlight shines through the trees along the paths of hikers and bicyclists making their way along the winding park road. From time to time, you see cars parked at seemingly random trailheads all leading to secret waterfalls and vistas that the state could have built an entire other state park around. Through the center of it all is the deep gorge, New York’s own Grand Canyon. It seems to absorb all sound and leave you in awed silence.

After the Adventure Calls Outfitters rafting bus returns you wet and happy to your campsite, you’re ready to eat. You have cold cuts and veggies for sandwiches, but your boyfriend is already Yelping menus. When he mentions the Glen Iris Inn, you remember a fussy Mother’s Day brunch you had there once. Still, the prospect of a hot meal and a nice glass of wine sounds lovely. You slide close to him on the bunk so you can see the wine list.

The Glen Iris is a mustard-colored mansion once owned by William Letchworth himself. A stone patio overlooks the Middle Falls, the most dramatic of the three and one of the major wedding photography backdrops of Western New York. The foyer features rich, hand-carved wooden wainscoting and an ornate staircase that leads, as your boyfriend longingly points out, to the guest rooms upstairs. The dining room is brighter than you remember, with picture windows framing a dramatic gravity-fed fountain.

As a rule of thumb, when you’re traveling you choose wine from the closest vineyard, and today that would be Imagine Moore, a boutique vintner in Naples. You order a glass of tart Rhythm Gruner Veltliner ($8) to go with your applewood smoked trout appetizer ($12). The fillet is cool and firm, easy to slice and deposit onto a cracker with cream cheese. It’s an elevated form of what you would be doing with saltines and a can of smoked oysters back at your campsite. He orders San Pedro Malbec from Chile ($8) and baked brie with a lovely berry compote.

Fish following fish seems like overkill, but you liked the looks of the bacon-wrapped shrimp Genesee ($24) set on a bed of wilted spinach with a savory cream sauce. The squash and potatoes balance the guilty pleasure of salt pork. Your boyfriend opts for a medium-rare disc of filet mignon ($30) cooked fork-tender with a nice sear and finished with compound butter. You pass bites back and forth as you plan the next day of hiking along the stone-lined canyon ledge.

You share a lemon basil crème brulée ($7) with cups of Glen Iris coffee, a two-way buzz of Colombian brew spiked with Bailey’s Irish Cream, Grand Marnier, and Kahlua. You will need a walk afterward between the High and Middle Falls to let the meal settle.

As you finish up, you hear the guests next to you having an animated conversation in German. It reminds you that Letchworth Park is not a well-kept secret just for Rochesterians. It’s a world destination that draws almost a million visitors a year. The stately mansion that anchored the original Letchworth estate still draws guests to the south end of the park for a civilized meal after a sweaty day outdoors. The menu is traditional but executed with care in an unforgettable natural setting—a hallmark of upstate New York tourism.

Back at the cabin, your boyfriend offers to build the fire as you rummage through the Action Packer for a wine opener. There is a soft breeze in the leaves and, in the distance, the hoot of an owl. Your boyfriend seems relaxed, his eyes smiling. He asks how big you can buy a sleeping bag. He wants to know if your tent is big enough for a good quality pad to keep the morning chill away.


Mark Gillespie is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.

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