Prince Edward County is a special and evolving island. On one hand, you'll find beautiful farms, beaches, trails and fishing; on the other, beautiful boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, charming wineries and world-class entertainment.
Greg Sorbara, former Ontario MPP and Chancellor of York University, purchased the 140-year-old hotel in 2013, and after an extensive, nine-year renovation, The Royal had its grand opening in the spring of 2022.
Sorbara’s son-in-law, Sol Korngold has been one of the most influential people behind the reinvention of The Royal Hotel and its highly acclaimed, award-winning restaurant. Recently, I sat down with Korngold to find out how he ended up moving to The County and undertaking such a massive project.
"Greg [Sorbara] came home one night, while we were all having dinner at the family farm to suggest he should buy The Royal Hotel and restore it,” says Korngold. Now known as Edwin County Farms, their Solmesville farm is about 20 minutes north of the hotel and a major supplier of farm-to-table food to The Royal. “‘Someone has to save this building,’ he continued. Unanimously, everyone at the table said, 'You’re nuts. No bloody way. That’s a crazy idea.' Luckily, he didn’t listen to us,” says Korngold.
“I was kind of excited about it, but I had my business. I would join the family meetings that would happen every couple of months. At one point I said, 'If you are going to do this, let me introduce you to Giannone Petricone Associates,'” he says. The architecture firm is behind the Terroni group of restaurants and Stock T.C.
“Fast forward about three years. Nothing was really moving forward — too many differing opinions from different family members. Greg asked if I wanted to take it on and I said, ‘No thank you. I have a life, I have a business,’ and still had one child at home at the time,” Korngold says.
“Then, one day I noticed that Zita Cobb, one of the visionaries of the Fogo Island Inn, was speaking on their story at the Design Exchange, right down the street from my [Toronto] office. I had heard and was intrigued to know more about this architectural marvel on the coast of Newfoundland.”
Korngold continues: “As I walk into the session, I drop my business card into the bowl at the front, as requested. Zita starts to talk about her process for building the hotel. The setbacks that they had. How they considered the community in some incredible ways. And I am gobsmacked. My head is spinning about ideas for The Royal while I’m listening to her. At the end of it, she pulls my card out of the bowl. And I never win anything. I won a little table that they designed for the hotel in the woodshop. I walked back to the office with this piece of furniture under my arm, thinking,” he says.
“My people have a Yiddish saying and it’s called 'b’shert.' In Yiddish, if it’s b’shert, it’s meant to be. And I’m wondering as I have this table under my arm, 'Is the universe trying to tell me something?’ Greg’s asked me to do this thing, but I don’t have any hospitality experience,” says Korngold. “But the table sits in the corner and talks to me — eggs me on. After a while, I realize why I’m not doing this. It’s because I’m scared. It’s easier to do what you know, what you are comfortable with. I went to Greg and told him I’d do it, but it needs to just be me, we can’t try and keep doing it by committee. That was 2016,” he says.
“I’ve been in The County full time since 2017.” Korngold had been living at Wexford House, a family property just down the street from the hotel in Picton. With his three daughters away at university, he recently purchased a beautiful 16-acre, 200-year-old farmhouse, about 10 minutes north of the hotel. He has been renovating it and regenerating the gardens and secondary buildings.
In the midst of our exchange, Korngold asks if I want to see his new place. “You’re coming with me, let’s go. Let’s drive and talk,” he says. “I’m excited to show you. It’s a bit of a milestone moment for me to be moving into my new place. The kids are coming for Thanksgiving,” he says with a big smile on his face.
We drive and talk, and I continue to fall under the spell of the man that is Sol Korngold. As we walk the beautiful pathways of his property, he shares his vision. He explains that the property is already bringing him some much-needed balance from work. Walking the pathways brings him calm and happiness.
He tells me about his life in The County, and restaurants that he visits when he’s not at The Royal or cooking for himself. “Theia is a magical little place. I’m so glad they did it,” he says of the opening of Myles Harrison and Margot Kenny’s new restaurant. “I’ve heard so many beautiful things, even beyond my experience. The other night I was sitting there with some friends. The music was perfect, the lighting was perfect and then, kind of spontaneously, the disco ball starts playing and the entire room erupts in joy. I think there was even clapping as these white dots spun around us. There is so much passion and pride in that place, and it’s so lovely to see. His is but one story in The County of people coming here and doing beautiful things."
We finally get to talking about the food at The Royal, and the inspiration behind the Italian and farm-to-table influences of acclaimed executive chef Albert Ponzo.
“Albert was the executive chef at Select Bistro, and our architects Ralph and Pina renovated Select. One day in passing, Albert mentions that him and his wife have fallen in love with The County, and he wishes he could somehow transition there. And Ralph says, ‘You have to meet Sol.’” Fast forward to Korngold inviting Albert to meet the family and cook dinner and discuss the possibilities of working together. “Albert shows up with his coolers, had done all this preparation and we were blown away. And I kind of fall in love with Albert. We are kindred.”
What I find so remarkable is that this was in early 2017. Albert Ponzo was hired in 2018, years ahead of The Royal’s opening, as it turns out, due to construction and subsequently COVID delays. During this period, Ponzo also worked for other families’ and friends’ restaurants, and taught at Loyalist College in Belleville to help make the transition work.
It was well worth the wait. Ponzo has created a world-class restaurant, right here in little old Picton. It was recently recognized as one of the Top 10 Best New Restaurants in the country by Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants. The farm-to-table menu with Italian influences has a strong breakfast and brunch showing, an extensive cocktail list including non-alcoholic options, and a fabulous bakery backing the take-home options.
“The County provides a wonderful opportunity for rebirth,” Korngold says. And I can attest, it does. The Royal Hotel has been given an exceptional rebirth for visitors and locals alike. This regeneration is so very b’shert.