Well before John Smith’s Jamestown colonists discovered the Chesapeake’s bounty, Virginia’s First People were thriving on a rich and varied bill of fare. Today’s Virginia still relies on its geography, fertility, and favorable climate to offer foods that can intrigue everyone from casual noshers to the most demanding epicures.
A dining tour of the Old Dominion could begin most anywhere, but going to Orange County takes you far enough south to be in the heartland and may offer some surprises.
“We’ve gotten a focus on high-end restaurants,” explained the county’s Leigh Mawyer. “They augment our wonderful B&Bs and historical Civil War sites.”
Mawyer pointed to Palladio Restaurant at Barboursville Vineyards where executive chef Spencer Crawford, born and raised in Central Virginia, takes full advantage of Palladio’s horticulturist and flourishing private nurseries of herbs, culinary flowers, and vegetables.
In downtown Gordonsville, Restaurant Pomme uses Virginia’s bounty to create an authentic classic French dining experience using local ingredients. Also influenced by French culinary tradition, executive chef Randy Cooper at Elmwood at Sparks blends quality Virginia products with innovative dishes and has become a pioneer of Virginia country cuisine.
For a complete change of pace, The Barbeque Exchange, also in Gordonsville, features hickory-smoked, slow-roasted pork shoulders and spareribs, cooked in a specialized wood-burning cooker. The Light Well, in the center of Orange, offers high-quality food and beverages at moderate prices in a casual atmosphere. Located in a historic and restored 1908 building, it attracts locals and visitors alike.
Shenandoah Valley farm-to-table
Across the Blue Ridge and out into the agriculture-rich Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg has earned its title as Virginia’s first Culinary District.
With just over 50,000 people, the town supports more than 60 locally owned restaurants along with an array of national chains. More than 15 food-related businesses, including a year-round farmers market, specialty shops, food tours, and cooking classes, add to the mix. Adding to the numbers, the local food and beverage community takes an active role in the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, revitalizing the historic city center and transforming it into a destination for culinary tourists.
In the midst of world-renown Shenandoah Valley agriculture, “locally-sourced” and “farm-to table” have special significance in Harrisonburg and surrounding Rockingham County. Traditional farming and dairy operations aid and abet modernist cuisine. International influences enhance the region’s gastronomic palette, with 52 languages and all colors and ethnicities present in the melting pot.
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.
Farther south, Lynchburg’s downtown is also alive with culinary options, many of them international or ethnic. “We’ve got Germany, Switzerland, India, Italian, and England,” said Sergei Troubetzkoy, director of tourism. “Also, an Irish pub and Mexican tequila … and, we’ve also got the third oldest community market in the nation. It’s open year-round, and since 1783 it has never closed.”
Diners at Lynchburg’s restaurants can find everything from made-to-order gourmet salads to such culinary gems as scallops casino and crab-stuffed trout or southern-fried quail and duck spring rolls. Downtown shoppers can also find Cao Artisan Chocolates, making fine chocolates on premises; the White Hart Café, a locally owned coffee roaster selling its Black Water Creek blends; and a growing number of food trucks that join together in a local park for Food Truck Thursdays from March to October.
Smithfield means ham and more
Connoisseurs recognize the Smithfield Ham as one of the world’s great delicacies. On par with Spain’s serannos and Italy’s parmas and prosciuttos, a genuine Smithfield has a distinctive dark pink color and pungent flavor — robust, salty, and rich with hardwood smoke.
A Smithfield Ham is very much a product of American history and environment. By Virginia state law, a genuine Smithfield Ham must be made from a peanut-fed razorback hog and cured within the town limits of Smithfield, following the traditional process. The Taste of Smithfield sells Smithfield Hams and other products and is “a delightful experience for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, with both indoor and outdoor seating,” said Judy Winslow, who promotes the area. “They even have a giant smoker outside to enhance their meats.”
Hams are not the only delight to be found on the banks of the Pagan River. Smithfield has made a conscious effort to retain its small-town serenity and charm. The town boasts a 9-square-block registered historic district and numerous shops and specialty stores. Don’t miss the sweet potato biscuits at The Smithfield Inn, which offers sumptuous meals and lodging in one of the town’s older structures, built in 1752, the year of the town’s founding. Smithfield Station, on the banks of the river, offers rooms and a restaurant accessible by boat or car.
For more information:
Orange Co. Tourism: visitorangevirginia.com
Harrisonburg Tourism: visitharrisonburgva.com
Lynchburg Tourism: discoverlynchburg.org
Smithfield & Isle of Wight Tourism: genuinesmithfieldva.com