The success behind Claire’s is…Claire

By Posted on Feb 29 2020 | By

Warrenton restaurant maven celebrates 15th anniversary at the Depot

One of Claire Lamborne’s first culinary achievements occurred at the age of 16. Her father had passed away, and her mother was a career woman. Someone had to handle the kitchen duties and feed the large family of 10.

“The first fancy meal I made was baked Spam. I scored the meat like you would a ham, placed cloves in the cuts and made a mustard and vinegar sauce,” says Lamborne. Given the size of a can of Spam, it must have disappeared in a blink.

Lamborne, the owner of Claire’s at the Depot, moved from that humble beginning to an eventual restaurant career spanning decades, both in years and the legion of restaurants she helped make successful. A rolling chef gathers no moss.

From her modest experience with home cooking, she went onto college, marriage, and the birth of two children. For 14 years, she taught school and gave little thought to cooking professionally. But a unique opportunity arose in her early 30s when she was offered a job to cook at a restaurant in Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

During the stint, she purchased and lived on a sailboat and cooked at a well-known restaurant on the Caribbean island. “That was the beginning of my culinary career. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do for a living,” explains Lamborne. “I later moved back to Fairfax and attended culinary school and began working for several restaurants in the region.”

Not only had her desire for kitchen creativity been ignited, but an emerging entrepreneurial streak blossomed. She soon moved to Charlottesville and purchased a restaurant. “I made all the classic mistakes of someone getting into the restaurant business for the first time.” Lessons she pocketed for future use.

Next, she moved to San Francisco. “It was the food capital of the United States at the time. It’s where food was happening, and I helped open a restaurant there too.” Each year she was learning more each about running commercial eateries.

As her restaurant knowledge grew, she returned to Northern Virginia and began working at various upscale restaurants in Fairfax and Alexandria.

Then, a business acquaintance asked her to return to Charlottesville and bring her skills to bear in establishing The Ivy Inn, once part of a more significant estate known as the “Faulkner House”, named after William Faulkner, a southern aristocrat and distinguished writer in residence at the nearby University of Virginia. Today, the Inn is still a vibrant part of the city’s hospitality scene.

By now, a pattern was established. If a chef positioned offered a challenge and opportunity, Lamborne sprung. The next career catalyst was an ad seeking a chef in Warrenton. “I responded and ended up helping Angela Smith open the Legends restaurant.”

Soon after that, she was off to Marshall working at Marshall Manor, a high-end retirement facility. The owners agreed to let her cater on the side, which eventually led to a new business.

“My first big event was a benefit for the American Cancer Society held at the large estate known at North Wales, west of Warrenton. As a result, my catering career took off. I moved back to Warrenton and built a place with a commercial kitchen called Claire’s Too devoted to catering,” remembers Lamborne.

She labored for 11 years and became known as the region’s quality caterer, including a stint as the exclusive caterer for the Virginia Gold Cup races. Today, there are many similar firms in the area whose growth was driven by her early success.

After over a decade, it became apparent to grow to the next level she needed to significantly ramp up the business and purchase more extensive and pricy catering equipment. “I did not want to go in that direction,” says Lamborne.

Incredibly, about that time, another offer to return to the Virgin Islands surfaced, and the lady and her spatula found herself at a restaurant in Tortola, the largest and most popular island in the Virgin Islands.

After a brief two months near sand and sea, she returned to Warrenton at the age of 62, reflecting, “I think I have another venture left in me.” Gathering some local investors, she purchased the depot train station. She undertook a significant renovation of the aging building selling her catering business to help fund the purchase and its $400,000 update.

Claire’s at The Depot opened on February 3, 2005, and met with success until the recession of 2008 hit. With the restaurant faltering, Lamborne’s “guardian angel” Paul Rice, a successful tech entrepreneur, agreed to purchase the building for $1.2 million and pursue further renovations, if she continued to operate the business.

“After Paul bought the building in 2009 and completed the second renovation, it turned the business around,” says Lamborne. “We put in beautiful wood floors and created the tavern section with a bar while keeping the white tablecloth section in the back. The white table cloth scene is fading today, but we have the best of both worlds with formal and casual dining.”

The restaurant seats 80 with 40 additional seats on the patio for seasonal dining.

Then in March 2018, another financial curveball came hurling toward Lamborne’s home plate. Paul Rice had retired to Florida and wanted to sell the building. Not having the money to purchase the structure, it looked like Claire’s was again on the butcher’s block.

But a second “guardian angel” appeared in the person of Bobbie Crafts who operated a horse rescue sanctuary in Marshall. Knowing the value of the town icon to the community, Crafts purchased the building from Rice and lifted the pressure off Lamborne, who doubled down on continuing to operate the popular restaurant.

Today the restaurant is busier than ever. Drop by any evening without reservations, and you’re taking a risk on seat availability. From the She Crab soup, fried oysters, daily fresh fish, the tenderest of steaks, and more, the menu never fails to satisfy.

What does the future hold for Warrenton’s premier restaurateur? “I’m 77 years old, and I’m certainly not going to be at the restaurant when I’m 80,” says Lamborne smiling.” But I’m going to make sure when I retire that Claire’s will continue as a quality restaurant.”

So, rest easy northern Piedmont. Both casual and elegant dining will continue at 65 South 3rd Street into the foreseeable future. Thank you, Claire.

Published in the January 29, 2020 edition of the Fauquier Times.