Returning to Williamsburg, VA as we investigate the renovated and re-opened Green Leafe tavern

Winter break is over for many a college student across America. We'll mark the occasion by returning to the alma mater of two Wine:Thirty Flight writers, The College of William and Mary, to share thoughts on the renovated and re-opened-in-2016 Green Leafe Cafe and Pub.

Everyone has an opinion about the direction their favorite college bar has taken since it was "ours", right? The Green Leafe, though, is rather unique in that it is a headliner pub in Williamsburg, Virginia... home not only to a college, but to a history tourism industry that attracts many thousands of visitors and families each year. It's entirely possible you'll end up here if you're passing through town to visit Colonial Williamsburg -- capital of the Colony of Virginia until 1776 -- or the historic Jamestown Settlement, Yorktown Battlefield, or any other piece of history from there to the rather un-historic Bush Gardens amusement park.

I'll take a moment here to confess that we're a bit confused as to what this place is actually called. Green Leafe we get, but various signage and promotional material pegs it as the Green Leafe Cafe and Pub, Pub and Tavern, and simply "Cafe". No matter, the venerable old tavern (we're sticking with that one) was purchased last year by the guys behind Paul's Deli, the equally venerable sports bar next door. Massive renovation followed leading up to re-opening last fall. They got much of it "right".

The biggest challenge in renovating a place like this is preserving the character that made it special to so many.  We give them high marks on the whole, keeping it dark and rustic while adding a modern pop with the polished granite bar -- twice as long as it ever was, extending nearly the whole length of the space -- set in front of bottom-lit shelves that hold a much-upgraded whisky collection resting against nicely done brickwork. The lighting is immensely tasteful, having avoided the trap of becoming so bright as to drown out the rustic sense of coziness that makes this place special. We do think they may have overdone it on televisions, not that there are too many, but that in eliminating some of the nooks and crannies that made the Leafe of old rather eccentric, they've exposed how many screens are actually here. We've fond memories of wrapping our necks around walls and high back booths so as not to miss a home run.

Beer was always a Green Leafe hallmark, with raucous mug nights every Sunday followed by great specials on Virginia brews every Tuesday. The new-and-improved version gets this right once again, delivering a nice tap list that will suit nearly every taste. Big improvements have been made to the whisky selection, and while I'd stop short of characterizing the Green Leafe as a "whisky bar", that they've devoted a full half of their Wine and Spirits list to the cause is a good sign. Wine… not so much. We were actually quite disappointed that the place whose half-off wine bottle Wednesdays once helped us get started in wine has cut its list to a paltry seven bottles. We skipped it completely and returned to the beer.

The food is tasty and pub-like to be sure. My grilled chicken sandwich was heaped with quality-feeling greens, peppers, and guacamole on a tasty brioche roll. It was… too much, as if in planning the menu they had gone to such great lengths to give us quality pub food that they piled the thing too high, made it too difficult to eat, distracted too much from the point of the meal. They've a great thing going here, but we'd urge the chef to dial it back a bit and give us a sandwich we don't need a knife and fork to eat. We also dearly miss the pretzel bread. Bring back the pretzel bread.

Our verdict remains immensely positive, though. The folks from Paul's Deli have renovated the Green Leafe yet stayed (mostly) true to the vibe that caused most of us to fall in love with it once upon a time. Yes, it's newer, and yes, that takes some of the truly original spirit away. Yes, we miss the strange seating configurations and the long tables that we used to slide pitchers on from one end to the other, but today's students, locals, and visitors have gained a modern take on a classic tavern… and a rather attractive whisky collection. Most importantly, an institution that has meant so much to so many seems firmly in the hands of people who understand what a special thing they're now responsible for. That, my friends, is worth a lot of wine bottles. Go visit!