Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley has long been one of the most agriculturally rich pockets of the eastern United States. At its heart sits the college town of Harrisonburg, whose streets are chockablock with farm-to-table restaurants, sophisticated wine bars and warehouses turned microbreweries. But a real food lover’s tour of the Shenandoah also encompasses out-of-the-way farms and roadside spots highlighting the foods that have defined this region for 200 years. Exploring the winding byways of the Valley—dotted with clapboard barns, silos and white church steeples—reveals a deeply loved food culture that’s more exciting today than at any point in the past two centuries.
Leading the local-food vanguard in Harrisonburg are two restaurant mainstays, the Local Chop & Grill House (56 W. Gay St., Harrisonburg; 540-801-0505; localchops.com; dinner for two, $70*) and the Joshua Wilton House (412 S. Main St., Harrisonburg; 540-434-4464; joshuawilton.com; dinner for two, $80). Though both have been around for several years, they’ve shared an owner since last year. Both establishments celebrate the rich food history of the Shenandoah. At the Local Chop & Grill House, that means sourcing foods from more than 50 producers in the region. Housed in a 1911 city-produce-exchange building, the restaurant is set in a loft where photos of local farms adorn bare brick walls. Farm-fresh vegetables abound on the menu, but the focus is squarely on meat—it’s a chophouse, after all. Diners build a meal by first picking a protein, such as a sirloin from nearby Buffalo Creek Beef or trout from the Rappahannock River, and then a spice rub, a sauce and sides. Chef Jakob Napotnik presents classic cuts and preparations alongside innovative ones, like pork belly in a Thai-style peanut sauce with bok choy, sprinkled with crispy duck cracklings.
Farther south, the more formal Joshua Wilton House serves elegantly composed dishes in a restored Victorian manse. Chef Brian Bogan’s menu changes seasonally and may include baby beets from a farm down the road or tomatoes and peppers from the chef’s own garden, just outside. A plate of local cheeses may feature a nutty Taleggio-style from Meadow Creek Dairy, or the creamy-sharp Merry Goat Round brie from FireFly Farms, in Maryland. One standout: Sewansecott oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, which arrive at the table lightly fried in a Virginia-cornmeal crust brightened by a lemon-and-caper aioli and arugula.
Just a few blocks away, Bella Luna (80 W. Water St., Harrisonburg; 540-433-1366; bellalunawoodfired.com; lunch for two, $30) bills itself as Harrisonburg’s first farm-to-table pizza joint. Out of the restaurant’s huge woodfire oven come piping-hot pies piled high with local ingredients. One summer favorite features roasted peaches and cured Virginia Surryano ham and a bubbly, crackly crust. For a sweet finish, cross the street to sister spot Bella Gelato (49 W. Water St., Harrisonburg; 540-217-5657; gelato for two, $6), opened last year. Flavors such as basil and lavender are made with herbs from Shenandoah growers and milk from the grass-fed cows at nearby Mt. Crawford Creamery. You can pick up more local goods around the corner at the Laughing Dog (82 S. Main St., Harrisonburg; 540-564-0928; laughingdogtshirtsandgifts.com), an art gallery and shop that stocks custom hand-screened T-shirts and other fun finds.
To get even closer to the source, it’s hard to beat Swover Creek Farms (4176 Swover Creek Rd., Edinburg; 540-984-8973; swovercreekfarms.com; lunch for two, $12). Nestled in a cozy hollow some 30 miles north of Harrisonburg, it’s designated a Virginia Century Farm, meaning it’s been in the same family for more than 100 years. Since 2011 the operation has produced and sold a variety of handmade sausages—bratwurst, kielbasa, apple-maple and more—some made from produce and beer from the farm. Each plump link is served on a just-baked pretzel roll topped with a homemade sweet zucchini relish. In 2015 the farm opened a new taproom in a converted barn, where sausages are paired with suds from Swover’s own super-small-scale “nanobrewery.” Hops, of course, are grown right on the grounds.
The Shenandoah Valley may have a growing foodie profile, but plenty of folks still cook classic Southern dishes just as their families have for generations. In the historic town of New Market, the menu at Southern Kitchen (9576 S. Congress St., New Market; 540-740-3514; newmarketvirginia.com; lunch for two, $22) hasn’t changed much since the diner opened 60 years ago. The mint-green leather booths and Formica-topped tables are original too. “We try to keep things old-school,” says owner Randy Newland, who took over the restaurant from his father. Locals come for the fried chicken, the velvety-rich Virginia-peanut soup, the stewed tomatoes and the coconut cream pie topped with a mile-high cloud of meringue. But the highlight may be the country ham—salty, savory and streaked with just enough fat to render it tender and juicy.
Country ham is also the draw at Fulks Run Grocery (11441 Brocks Gap Rd., Fulks Run; 540-896-7487; turnerhams.com; lunch for two, $7), a tiny general store where the Turner family has sold its cured hams since 1949. What’s made this place a real mecca, though, is its fried-ham sandwiches, which have slices of salty ham hand-dredged in flour and skillet-fried until golden brown. The sandwiches are served only on Friday, and folks line up to make sure they get one. (The store tends to run out by 1 p.m.)
Virginia may not be known for its barbecue in the way that, say, Texas and Tennessee and the Carolinas are. But that means the state can bring in all the best flavors and techniques from those Southern bastions of BBQ, says Justin Davis of Bean’s Barbecue (117 S. Main St., Edinburg; 540-325-3738; lunch for two, $15): “Virginia is a great melting pot when it comes to barbecue.” Davis’s restaurant, housed in a former fire station with vintage movie posters on the wall, is open only a few days a week, and the stripped-down menu features a handful of well-executed items. There’s a sandwich overflowing with delectable slow-roasted pulled pork, and there’s fall-off-the-bone ribs with a smoky crust—and not a whole lot else. Homemade condiments include a South Carolina mustard, a North Carolina vinegar and the “original,” a tangy-sweet tomato-based sauce inspired by Davis’s grandmother’s ketchup recipe.
You’ll find comfort food of a different sort at downtown Harrisonburg’s Cuban Burger (70 W. Water St., Harrisonburg; 540-434-1769; lunch for two, $20), where Havana street food gets an American spin. The frita, a traditional slider topped with matchstick potatoes, shows up here as a one-third-pound beef-and-pork patty on a toasted bun. In a somewhat Southern twist, the Cubano sandwich swaps in pulled pork for sliced and is pressed flat on bread flown in from a Cuban bakery in Florida.
Drinking Down the Valley
The Shenandoah is also an ideal region for winemaking. “The mountains protect us from late-season rains, so we’re one of the driest parts of the state,” says winemaker Lee Hartman, of Bluestone Vineyard (4828 Spring Creek Rd., Bridgewater; 540-828-0099; bluestonevineyard.com), in the heart of the Valley. “But we also have big temperature swings, which helps develop flavors and acidity in the wines we grow.” Hartman and a few friends planted grapes for personal use in 2003, and officially planted vineyards for production in 2008; now they sell bottles from a recently opened tasting room. Their Steep Face red, a big-tasting Rhône Valley hybrid, is named for Bluestone’s steep hillside vineyard. Another standout is the Chardonnay: It’s smooth but not too buttery, allowing crisp citrus flavors to come through.
Nearby is CrossKeys Vineyards (6011 E. Timber Ridge Rd., Mount Crawford; 540-234-0505; crosskeysvineyards.com), the Shenandoah’s largest winery, with 30 acres of vines and another seven acres added just this year. Every wine at CrossKeys is estate grown, meaning it’s made exclusively from grapes grown on-site. In the tasting room, set in a Mediterranean-style manor house, popular pours include the Joy white, a stainless-steel-aged vidal blanc named for a friend who suggested they start a vineyard. On warm summer evenings, CrossKeys’ outdoor patio is thronged with wine lovers listening to live music and having a bite to eat. (An on-site bistro offers duck nachos and other fare.)
The Winery at Kindred Pointe (3575 Conicville Rd., Mount Jackson; 540-477-3570; kindredpointe.com) sits on a former horse farm, and its past is evident: Statues of the noble animals greet visitors as they approach the tasting room, which is in a former stable. And the Picasso, a Bordeaux blend, is named for one of the horses that are still boarded on the farm. Kindred Pointe has a knack for the unique: In summer, it offers sangria made from the winery’s own merlot and sweetened with peaches and berries.
Virginia may have a burgeoning vineyard scene, but the Shenandoah has a much longer history of producing hard cider. (When Thomas Jefferson found that wine grapes wouldn’t grow at his Monticello home, he switched to apples—and cider became his table drink of choice.) But when Old Hill Hard Cider (17768 Honeyville Rd., Timberville; 540-896-7582; oldhillcider.com) started selling bottles, in 2012, it was the first commercial cider house in the Valley. Situated on a century-old 40-acre orchard, Old Hill uses vintage apple varieties to produce heritage-style ciders. “We think of ourselves as growers first,” says Sarah Showalter, who runs the farm with her husband, Shannon. “It’s not about adding sweeteners and adding flavors. It’s about knowing apples and celebrating their different attributes.” Forget sickly-sweet sippers: These are drier, food-friendly and more wine-like ciders. In the orchard’s tasting room, blends include the Cidermaker’s Barrel, a Colonial-style throwback that’s slightly fermented for a fun finish.
The region’s craft-beer scene, centered on Harrisonburg, has exploded in recent years. Pale Fire Brewing Co. (217 S. Liberty St., Harrisonburg; 540-217-5452; palefirebrewing.com), which opened last year in a nearly century-old icehouse downtown, focuses on traditional styles made with precision. The dry, tart Salad Days saison recently won a medal at the Great American Beer Festival. There’s also an emphasis on lower-alcohol brews, like the Saving Grace, a Belgian-farmhouse-style table beer. For a caffeine jolt, there’s the newly opened Black Sheep Coffee (217 S. Liberty St., Harrisonburg; 540-217-5560; blacksheepcoffeehburg.com), just around the corner, which features blends from Virginia roasters.
At nearby Three Notch’d Brewing Company (241 E. Market St., Harrisonburg; 540-217-5939; threenotchdbrewing.com/hburg), traditional beers share the menu with wilder brews. Since this Harrisonburg outpost of a popular Charlottesville microbrewery opened, in 2014, head brewer Mary Morgan has played with ingredients for some out-there ales. The Roggenberry German Rye is finished with a strawberry-and-herb infusion. Morgan takes seasonal inspiration from area growers—the summer Bee Peaceful is made with chamomile from Morgan’s own garden and sweetened with honey from an apiary just outside town. And inspiration here is not hard to come by.
RCI® affiliated resorts in and near the Shenandoah Valley include:
Member Review: “Many historic landmarks nearby.”
Member Review: “We plan on returning next year!”
Member Review: “Mountain views everywhere you look.”
Member Review: “Vacationing here is very relaxing.”
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Non-RCI affiliated resorts:
By the Side of the Road Inn & CottagesFour ample suites in a circa 1790 manor house, with another five modern stand-alone cottages. 491 Garbers Church Rd., Harrisonburg, VA; 540-801-0430; bythesideoftheroad.com; doubles from $149 a night
Joshua Wilton HouseAbove the well-regarded restaurant is an inn with five plush guest rooms. 412 S. Main St., Harrisonburg, VA; 540-434-4464; joshuawilton.com; doubles from $145 a night
Stonewall Jackson InnThis 19th-century Queen Anne cottage has 10 rooms and is an easy stroll from downtown. 547 E. Market St., Harrisonburg, VA; 540-433-8233; stonewalljacksoninn.com; doubles from $139 a night
- *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Summer 2016