It’s not hard to find justification for Harrisonburg’s title as Virginia’s first Culinary District. In the midst of world-renown Shenandoah Valley agriculture, “locally sourced” and “farm to table” have special significance. International influences enhance the region’s gastronomic palette, with 52 languages and all colors and ethnicities present in the melting pot.
The city of just more than 50,000 people supports 60-plus locally owned restaurants, along with an array of national chains. More than 15 food-related businesses, including a year-round farmers market, specialty wine and beer shops, food tours, and cooking classes, add to the mix. Perhaps more important than numbers, the food and beverage industry is an active part of the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, revitalizing the historic city center and transforming it into a destination for culinary tourists.
The Harrisonburg Farmers Market, open Tuesdays and Saturdays year-round, could be the phoenix’s nest — the core of the newly risen Culinary District. In an open-air but permanent pavilion, market offerings range from seasonal farm products and foods to fine art, soaps, beadwork, and other crafts. Traditional Salvadoran pupusas line up with Belgian waffles, next to craft-roasted coffee, fresh baked goods, and local cheeses.
A quick walk from the market, the Ice House stands as another pillar of Harrisonburg’s culinary establishment. Inside the repurposed industrial building, Black Sheep Coffee and Brewing shares space with upscale shops. Black Sheep is the archetypical coffee shop, serving fresh-brewed coffees and teas along with fresh baked goods, made in house. Pale Fire brews some 3,000 barrels each year of up to 10 different flavors, and its newly opened brew pub features local produce on the menu.
Local is even in the name
The Local Chop and Grill House even has “local” in its name. The menu focuses on “fresh, hand-selected, local, and seasonal foods prepared with progressive flair.” Inside Harrisonburg’s old City Produce Exchange building, the restaurant capitalizes on a vintage atmosphere that includes large wooden doors, an ornate, angled staircase, brick interior walls, and rustic beams.
Chef Ryan Zale works with regional producers, selecting by hand many of the foods used in his kitchen. He does his own butchering and makes cheeses and charcuterie. True to the chop house genre, Local serves quality steaks and chops, organically raised poultry, house-made charcuterie and cheeses, organically grown seasonal produce, and fresh baked goods.
Food.Bar.Food, one of Harrisonburg’s more adventurous restaurants, serves “Global Comfort Food … exploring a broad spectrum of styles, traditions, and flavors.” The decor is as creative and attractive as the food and weekly cocktail specials. Taking full advantage of a converted garage, Food.Bar.Food subscribes to the genteel Southern tradition that brunch should be huge, with special dishes and brunch cocktails infused with international flavors. The sparkling cocktails with frozen fruit are a house specialty.
Two common threads tie together many of Harrisonburg’s newer restaurants: an emphasis on using locally produced ingredients whenever possible and repurposing once-thriving downtown commercial space.
But, restaurants are only half of the equation. The region’s legion of specialty producers is the other. Three Brothers Brewing is one of a half dozen breweries, wineries, or cideries that quench the region’s thirst. Visiting the brewery can be an education in craft brewing. The tour is geared to visitors’ interests. And, if you need a nosh to go along with the brew, one of Harrisonburg’s armada of food trucks is conveniently parked just outside.
Ice cream and more
Up the valley from Harrisonburg, Mount Crawford Creamery is an opportunity for true foodies to actually see the cow that produced the milk they are buying. Milk products do not come any fresher than immediately from the source. Mount Crawford’s milk is simply delicious, even for devout lacto-phobes. Along with several kinds of milk, look for traditional buttermilk, ice cream mix, heavy cream, butter, and other products from regional agriculture. And, don’t forget to visit the cows and their calves.
While generally sought for its scent, lavender appears as a flavoring in a number of recipes and foods. The White Oak Lavender Farm stocks a cupboard full of lavender vinegars, jams and jellies, spices, and baking mixes. In the midst of fields of growing lavender, the farm invites visitors to explore the grounds and the petting area, life-size checkerboard, duck pond, labyrinth, distillery, drying barn, and additional gardens.
For more information:
Harrisonburg Tourism: visitharrisonburgva.com