The Reluctant Panther offers sensational dining and lodging in the heart of Manchester
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY THE RELUCTANT PANTHER
At the corner of West Road and Main Street in Manchester, a luxurious hotel and restaurant beckons discerning travelers in search of an elevated, yet approachable dining and lodging experience. Much like the elusive, wild feline from which it draws its name, the Reluctant Panther is majestic, elegant, and undeniably beautiful. Its tastefully-decorated common areas give way to inviting dining spaces, where gourmet, farm-to-table food is served in an intimate and comfortable atmosphere. Well-appointed suites and gorgeous outdoor grounds provide a haven for cultured travelers who yearn to savor a taste of the good life. Whether you’re looking to escape to the countryside for a divine holiday getaway, celebrate your love with a picture-perfect wedding, or fan the flames of passion with an unforgettable romantic elopement, there’s no better place to enjoy the best of what Southern Vermont has to offer.
The Reluctant Panther’s 20 plush rooms and suites are spread out across three buildings: the Main House, the Mary Porter House, and the Carriage House. Each room is outfitted with gorgeous furnishings, a private ensuite bathroom, a king or queen bed, and a fireplace. Complimentary Frette bathrobes are available within the rooms for all guests, and breakfast baskets are delivered every morning at no additional cost.
The Deluxe Suites are roomy and radiant, with private outdoor decks and marble bathrooms that connect to spacious living rooms and bedrooms. The aptly-named Pond View suite boasts dark-toned, antique wooden furniture and embroidered rugs, which are paired perfectly with the vivid colors of the shelves that surround the fireplace. The Pierre La Motte suite was named after the 17th-century French Captain of the same name, who built the first European settlement in Vermont, Fort Saint Anne, on the Champlain Islands. Its bright red walls and patterned furnishings create an atmosphere of regal resplendence, reflecting the Colonial French aesthetic that was prominent during La Motte’s lifetime. Notable highlights from the Reluctant Panther’s stunning collection of Junior Suites include the bright and inviting Garden Suite, where floral-patterned pillows are perfectly complemented by scenic paintings; and the Three Sisters suite, which features timeless, countrified furniture in the bedroom and a hand-carved wood-framed mirror in the bathroom.
For those who opt to enjoy their stay at the Reluctant Panther in a slightly smaller, but equally beguiling space, The Deluxe Rooms and Superior Rooms offer an extraordinary lodging experience in all seasons. The Ondawa Room is named after the Native American term for the nearby Battenkill River and has a classic Vermont feel to it. The décor is inspired by the world-famous Manchester-based outdoor apparel and fishing goods company, Orvis, which has made an enduring impact on flyfishing culture around the globe. Decorative accents such as wildlife prints and oars line the walls, and a woven basket with antique outdoor accessories stands next to the fireplace. The Dorothy Canfield Fisher room pays tribute to the bestselling American author, educational advocate, and social activist of the same name. Its rustic décor hearkens back to the heyday of Southern Vermont’s mid-20th century artist colony, when luminaries such as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Norman Rockwell, Rockwell Kent, Carl Ruggles, and many others, resided in the verdant hills and valleys surrounding the nearby town of Arlington.
Farm Fresh Cuisine
In addition to housing a wide range of charming rooms and suites, the Relcutant Panther is also home to one of the finest and highest-rated restaurants in Vermont. Diners who pass through the Reluctant Panther’s entrance hall, which is decorated with hand-painted murals by Londonderry-based artist Kimberly Ray, will arrive in a welcoming and stylish dining room. Once seated, guests are treated to delicious, seasonally-shifting farm-to-table cuisine, and courteous, attentive service. The Reluctant Panther’s wine list won “Best Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator in 2021, and their craft cocktails and local Vermont beers are sure to please the palates of the most discriminating bon-vivants.
The Reluctant Panther’s Head Chef, Sigal Rocklin, creates dishes that are both tasty and imaginative. Rocklin is proud to incorporate locally-sourced ingredients from Southern Vermont farms, such as Dutton Farm in Manchester, Yoder Farm in Danby, and Mighty Food Farm in Shaftsbury into her menu. She is also grateful to be able to work and live in the Green Mountain State. Born in Israel, Rocklin first came to Vermont in 2005, where she attended New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Montpelier. After graduating from NECI, Rocklin honed her skills by working at a number of restaurants throughout the country, including several in California, Wyoming, and South Carolina. Rocklin eventually returned to Vermont, where she worked at the Equinox Golf Resort & Spa as a Sous Chef before joining the Reluctant Panther’s kitchen team as Head Chef in 2016.
In the years immediately following her arrival at The Reluctant Panther, Rocklin brought their kitchen program to new heights. Her talents soon made an impression on Vermont’s culinary scene, which led to her winning the award for Best Tasting Dish at the “Taste of Vermont” event in 2017. A year later, she was awarded “Vermont Chef of the Year” by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, who commended her for her continued efforts to build deep, lasting, symbiotic connections with Vermont’s farmers, cheesemakers, and food producers. The Reluctant Panther’s commitment to supporting Vermont’s agricultural economy through their culinary program was later recognized by Vermont Fresh Network, who awarded them a “Gold Barn Honor” in 2020 for their continuing efforts. “Working within this community and building sustainable relationships is very important to me,” says Rocklin. “Instead of having produce shipped from far away, I try to support Vermont’s farmers whenever possible. It’s not just better from an environmental point of view—it also helps our community grow together.”
While Rocklin’s hearty, omnivorous dishes are adored by many gourmands who come to dine at The Reluctant Panther, she also finds a great deal of fulfillment in creating flavorful plant-based dishes, as well. “I’m very proud of the vegan dishes that we make here. We are not a vegan restaurant by any means, but we are very creative with our vegan offerings. I think it’s a great way to introduce different types of food that people wouldn’t normally eat, but are still so good that non-vegan people can order them and enjoy them. Last spring, I made ramp pasta tossed with red pesto and locally-sourced fiddlehead ferns and mushrooms. For the fall menu, I made a Japanese-style eggplant dish with tahini sauce and roasted vegetables. I still have my signature lobster and cheese fondue that everybody likes, but it’s nice to have more healthy options. It keeps things interesting, too.”
Working closely with The Reluctant Panther’s dedicated kitchen and hospitality staff, which includes their Sous Chef, Michiko Inoue; their Restaurant Manager, Matt Mandino; and their Innkeeper, Morgan Ams, Rocklin goes above and beyond to craft a dining experience that is both approachable and refined. “We want people to feel relaxed and enjoy their time here,” says Rocklin. “We offer subdued and tasteful luxury here, and we have moved well-past the era of stuffy service with servers in suits and ties. We’ve found that our guests are more receptive to considerate and authentic service. Our aim is to showcase what Vermont is all about, including the lifestyle here, the food here, and the people here. That’s what makes it really special.”
During the warmer months, guests who wish to dine while taking in the sublime and awesome beauty of Southern Vermont’s natural scenery can enjoy their meals on The Reluctant Panther’s outdoor patio. Private functions for up to 60 standing guests or 30 seated guests are hosted in the Panther Pub, which is located downstairs from the main dining room and has its own separate bar. Guests who stay overnight at The Reluctant Panther are able to sample their scrumptious breakfast offerings, which include fresh fruit, homemade pastries, and breakfast entrees such as classic egg dishes and breakfast sandwiches. “We try to make as much as we can on-site,” notes Rocklin. “All of our dinner rolls and pastries are made in our kitchen. Our muffins are a favorite of many returning guests, and the people who work here love my savory scones made with bacon, cheddar, and chives. I got the recipe from a woman who used to work in our kitchen, and the scones have been a staff favorite ever since.” The Reluctant Panther’s Innkeeper, Morgan Ams, adds that The Reluctant Panther’s breakfast delivery service makes a crucial difference in the overall experience of their guests during the colder months. “In the Holiday season and the Winter, it’s nice to have breakfast brought to your room. You can enjoy a nice cup of coffee and a tasty meal without having to put on your coat and walk outside.”
Weddings and Special Offerings
The Reluctant Panther’s outdoor gardens and grounds are an ideal location for a fantastic Vermont wedding. Wedding groups of up to 70 seated guests are able to reserve the entire hotel for the occasion, creating an exclusive and relaxed environment where guests can congregate and mingle freely throughout The Reluctant Panther’s picturesque estate. The Reluctant Panther is well-equipped to handle rehearsal dinners, bridesmaids’ luncheons, and standing receptions for up to 150 people. Their culinary and hospitality teams work tirelessly to create the menu, select beverages, and plan event logistics that meet the specific needs of each wedding couple.
Throughout the year, The Reluctant Panther also offers several special hospitality packages, which are designed to help guests take full advantage of their glorious amenities. The Reluctant Panther’s most popular hospitality package, “The Vermont Epicurean Experience,” includes two nights in a luxurious room or suite, one three-course dinner for two at the on-site restaurant, a complimentary bottle of wine, and a Vermont artisan cheese platter. Guests who wish to explore some of Manchester’s most beloved local cultural institutions would be wise to book The Reluctant Panther’s “Best of Vermont” package, which includes two nights in a room or suite, a complimentary bottle of wine, two admissions to Hildene: the Lincoln Family home, and a $50 gift voucher to the Orvis Company Store.
Couples who long to escape to Southern Vermont for a small, intimate elopement can celebrate their amorous connection in style with The Reluctant Panther’s “Just Say ‘I Do’ Elopement Package,” which includes an intimate garden ceremony overseen by a licensed Vermont Justice of the Peace, complimentary decorative flower bouquets, boutonnieres, sparkling wine, chocolate truffles, and a three-course dinner for two at the restaurant. Prices for all packages vary seasonally, and bookings are recommended well in advance. “We host a large number of elopements here at The Reluctant Panther,” says Morgan Ams. “There’s nothing better than seeing people get married here and then come back to commemorate their anniversary with a celebratory toast at our restaurant.”
A Name to Remember
The story behind the name of this beloved, award-winning hotel and restaurant is equally as intriguing as its exquisitely-decorated spaces and marvelous menu. In the early 1960s, The Reluctant Panther’s original owners, Wood and Joan Cornell, came to Vermont from New York State to pursue their dream of opening a bed-and-breakfast. When the Cornells arrived in Southern Vermont, they became fascinated with the rich history of the region and its native wildlife. While exploring the towns surrounding Manchester, they came across a bronze statue of a fierce, snarling panther (actually, a “catamount”), which stood directly across from the David Robinson House in Bennington.
The statue faces west towards the New York state border. According to local lore, this was an intentional artistic decision that represented Vermont’s struggle for freedom in the late-18th century. At the time, the states of New York and New Hampshire were engaged in a heated dispute over land ownership and tax authority in Vermont, and Vermonters were paying the price—both literally and metaphorically. Coincidentally, the panther statue stands at the former site of the renowned Green Mountain Tavern, a well-documented meeting place where Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys once gathered to organize their resistance and hatch plans to protect their territory from surrounding powers. Much like the Green Mountain Boys, panthers paced through the woods and mountains of Southern Vermont, evading capture from encroaching forces. In a symbolic gesture of reverent remembrance, the panther statue was placed on Monument Avenue in close proximity to the Bennington Monument. It serves as an emblematic symbol of the free and defiant spirit that shaped much of Vermont’s early history.
After visiting the statue and learning about the remaining wild panthers in the surrounding forests, Joan asked her husband, Wood, about why the panthers were rarely seen. Wood replied, “With all of the people around, they are reluctant to come down out of the mountains.” Upon learning of the reluctant nature of Vermont’s panthers, a powerful seed was planted in Joan’s mind. She later suggested that “The Reluctant Panther” would be a perfect name for the inn that they had recently acquired, and the rest is history.
Bold Decision, Brilliant Result
After purchasing a stately 19th-century building in the center of Manchester, the Cornells completed a series of cosmetic renovations, and they opened the inn up for business as The Reluctant Panther. Soon after, they made a bold and brilliant marketing decision, which ruffled the feathers of Manchester’s town government while bringing new levels of success to their nascent hospitality business.
Upon realizing that relatively few people who drove by their bed-and-breakfast were noticing it, Wood knew that the only way to generate more revenue and ensure the continuing success of The Reluctant Panther was to make it stand out. Inspired, he repainted the exterior walls of the hotel a brilliant shade of purple, which starkly contrasted the traditional aesthetic of many of the surrounding buildings. This brave, colorful change attracted the attention of curious visitors and townspeople, providing a surge of commercial momentum that solidified The Reluctant Panther’s place in Southern Vermont’s hospitality scene. Although Manchester’s Town Elders were initially unsupportive of The Reluctant Panther’s new look—and even passed new architectural review ordinances requiring approval of all external design changes—The Reluctant Panther was grandfathered in regardless of the new regulation. As time passed, it gradually became a cherished and well-known Manchester landmark.
Over the next several decades, The Reluctant Panther underwent several ownership changes, but thrived under the leadership of Robert and Maya Bachofen. The Inn’s signature exterior color remained the same until the main building was consumed by a tragic fire in the early 2000s. When the town government was presented with a plan for the building’s reconstruction in 2005, they expressed great interest in preserving its unique exterior color, signaling that their perspective had completely changed. Taking their sentimental attachment into account, the new owners opted to preserve a piece of the hotel’s history by implementing the same color in several key design features. Today, the shutters and doors of the main building are painted a striking shade of purple, and several of the interior spaces are lovingly-embellished with purple-colored décor pieces that infuse the rooms with distinctive flair.
Although the look of the Reluctant Panther has evolved to meet the ever-changing tastes of their discerning guests; the chefs, hospitality staff, and servers remain dedicated to providing exemplary service to all guests who come to visit. “We deeply value the personal connections that we have with our guests,” says Morgan Ams. “We have a lot of returning guests here, and it makes us so happy to see people coming back and telling their friends about us. Many of our staff members have been here for a long time, and our guests have developed strong relationships with them. We always want people to feel comfortable and feel like they’re at home when they’re here.”
ALL THE DETAILS