By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
Used by the couple as a winter "cottage," The Wrigley was the largest private residence in the Valley until the 1960s, when it was re-zoned as part of the neighboring Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa. Following new ownership in 1973 and 1979, the Mansion was used as guest lodge to the hotel, for corporate retreats, and as a private club. In 1992, in an effort to save the one-time anniversary gift now known as The Wrigley Mansion Club from destruction after years of wear and tear, George A. Hormel, one of the heirs to the Hormel meat-packing family, purchased the structure and successfully restored it.
Six years later, the eccentric "Geordie" (with his long hair and counterculture values, he referred to himself as "the world's oldest hippie") attempted to vanquish the HOA membership imposed in the 1970s (specific by-laws require The Wrigley to operate as a private club) and open its restaurant to the public. When the decision came back as "no," Hormel simply made the fees as cheap as possible. (Prices start at $3 for a one-month membership.)
When Geordie Hormel died in 2006, ownership of The Wrigley fell to his widow, Jamie Hormel. And despite the kind gesture, Geordie's reduction of the mansion's membership requirement seemed to, for the most part, have been overlooked by most Valley diners. Save for attending a wedding or toting a few visiting relatives up the hill for a special occasion, The Wrigley, for many years, was strictly known for its restored grandeur, well-manicured grounds, and breathtaking views. Its food, unfortunately, was a far less memorable affair.
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Then, in 2010, perhaps needing a change or recognizing that even a mansion wasn't safe from the economic downturn of the past few years, Jamie Hormel hired Paola Embry, co-owner of Christopher's & Crush, in Biltmore Fashion Park, just blocks away, as its new chief executive officer. (Read an interview with Embry.) Embry's business acumen, high energy, and background as a sommelier made her a shoo-in for the position. And the move also kept the arrangement among friends. Embry's ex-husband and business partner, Valley legend chef Christopher Gross, is also Jamie Hormel's current boyfriend.
Embry got to work right away, hiring a new general manager, food and beverage manager, and catering manager. She retained chef Chad Bolar, Christopher Gross' former chef de cuisine at Christopher's, as The Wrigley's executive chef. With Bolar's help, and that of Gross, entirely new lunch and dinner menus were quick to follow, still featuring the mansion's upscale American bistro fare but with more contemporary dishes and a focus on seasonal ingredients.
The Wrigley Mansion's brunch, once a ho-hum, chafing-dish cornucopia, was transformed into a boutique-like selection of exquisite eats served up in bright, colorful vessels. The wine list went from 50 to more than 300 selections, and Embry, in addition to building a new wine cellar requested by Hormel, launched new house wines, appropriately called Geordie's, utilizing artwork created by the former owner as labels.
Embry also sought a more efficient way of doing business for the restaurant and looked for savings anywhere she could find them. She cut utility and outdoor maintenance costs, utilized such found treasures as stemware, and re-organized key spaces like the kitchen. Finally, she gave the mansion a "mini-facelift" last summer with a top-to-bottom cleaning, new furniture, and a fresh coat of paint.
The Wrigley's history, luxurious surroundings, and astounding views mean that weddings and special occasions fill the mansion regularly. But, Embry says, memberships have increased as more people discover the new life breathed into the old building.
And although the majority of Embry's changes to the mansion have been positive, the revamping of the cuisine can lead to two different experiences for diners.
The Wrigley's updated Sunday brunch is nearly as wonderful as its views. At $45 a person, the colorful and contemporary buffet is flush with fine cheeses, fresh fruits and produce, jumbo shrimp and crab legs, and house specialties like baby lamb chops and pan-roasted salmon. There's also an omelet station, an enticing eggs Benedict, and a dazzling array of desserts. Perfect for indulging or simply a way to impress guests, the brunch is luxurious yet unstuffy, set in large open rooms with ornate ceilings and awash in natural light. Even a non-mansion type could get used to the place.
More of an "old money" experience is at Geordie's Restaurant.
Plush and intimate, a single, intimate room with a fireplace, oil-painted portraits, and cloth-covered chairs invites guests to relax amid the sounds of clinking wine glasses and jazz. But unfortunately, Geordie's food seems to have retained some of The Wrigley's past culinary missteps. A small menu of regularly changing fare is certainly a commendable concept, but many dishes lack the artful presentation and good taste found at brunch.
An attractive roasted baby beet salad, with creamy housemade burrata and zingy arugula pesto, started off the meal on a hopeful note, but it also proved the high point of the evening. A butternut squash risotto arrived next, nearly flowing over its serving dish. And although its topping of crispy duck confit was tasty, the risotto barely hinted at its butternut squash flavor.
Entrees didn't fare much better. The filet mignon was a fine piece of beef, and nicely cooked, but the dish arrived at the table looking as though it had sat under a heat lamp for far too long. The same could be said for the pan-seared red snapper, which tasted and appeared overcooked on a rather unflatteringly huge – and scalding hot — bed of coconut sticky rice. The sticky rice suffered the same fate as the risotto, all heft and little flavor.