A Foodie Road Trip of Historic Proportions
From George Washington to the Inn at Little Washington (the lone three-star listing in the 2019 Michelin Guide to the DC area), Virginia is home to three centuries’ worth of edible American history—to say nothing of the millennia that predate statehood. Since time immemorial, Virginia's famously fertile soil and abundant waterways have yielded delicious indigenous foods. Pair those abundant raw ingredients with the local penchant for culinary innovation, and you’ll want to make a food-themed pilgrimage here ASAP. Here, eight essential stops.
The Red Fox Inn & Tavern
Established in 1728, this fixture in the historic village of Middleburg is believed to be among the oldest continuously operated inns in Virginia (and for that matter, the nation). Joseph Chinn built the fieldstone tavern in a well-trafficked corner of the then colony to cater to travelers—among them, a certain surveyor named George Washington.
Since then, Chinn's Ordinary (as it was originally known) has been its own little microcosm of American history. The place has served as everything from a Civil War-era military hospital (the pine bar that's still used in the Tap Room was fashioned from an operating table) to an A-List retreat: George Washington's 34th successor—i.e., John F. Kennedy—has been a guest, as has Jackie. So have Liz Taylor and Virginia senator John Warner, Tap Room regulars during their courtship and married life. The A-list goes on—and on—and we suggest you join it, whether you decide to stay here or just stop in for a local feast—ideally, of pistachio-, onion-, and mint-crusted pork chops, or crispy fried chicken with country gravy.
The Jefferson Heritage Trail
George Washington obsessed over the need for good wine in his fledgling homeland—and gave viticulture the old colonist's try at Mount Vernon. But it was his Secretary of State and fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson who really served as our nation’s founding foodie and vinophile—aptly described by Washington as “a man of whom I early imbibed the highest opinion.” And we’re pleased to report that Jefferson’s passion for good food and drink lives on along his eponymous Heritage Trail—the more or less 80-mile stretch between his homes at Monticello and Poplar Forest in central Virginia.
Favorite stops include The Virginia Distillery Co. in Lovingston, where whisky (different from most American whiskeys—thus the missing “e”) is produced with both Old and New World techniques. Don’t miss the award-winning Port Cask Finished Virginia-Highland Whisky.
Another must on the heritage trail is Crown Orchard in Covesville, where four generations of the Chiles family have harvested amazing fruit. Now one of the state’s most prolific producers, the operation includes seven orchards in a 15-mile radius, but most famous is the Carter Mountain Orchard, where you can pick your own bounty come summer.
Of course, you won’t want to miss Monticello—Jefferson’s family plantation home—where his fully-restored vegetable garden is a foodie highlight. (He recorded every last detail of the hundreds of varieties of resident veggies.) Get a fabulous crash course during a Gardens and Grounds Tour, then reinforce what you've learned at the onsite Farm Table Café, where the Jefferson-inspired offerings include rosemary-roasted artisanal mushrooms with braised greens, pickled onions and local cheese on Albemarle Baking Company baguette.
Virginia Wine Trails
Though they didn't live to see it, Washington and Jefferson's dream of world-class wine-making in Virginia has officially borne fruit, with everyone from star chef José Andrés to the editors at Wine Spectator pledging allegiance to the resulting vintages. You could easily make an entire trip of the state's wine trails alone—fair warning, there are lots—but one of our favorites is the Monticello Wine Trail, right in Jefferson's backyard, and the so-called birthplace of American wine.
If you don't have time for all 33 stops on this trail, a few musts: Veritas Vineyard & Winery, which hosts four-course farmhouse dinners with wine pairings and—thanks to its bucolic beauty—hosts countless weddings, too; Blenheim Vineyards, notable for not only its owner (Dave Matthews) but also its sustainability-affirming Virginia Green certification; and Thistle Gate Vineyard, whose award-winning Chardonnay Reserve may well convert even staunchest of ABC (anything but Chardonnay) drinkers.
Another favorite route—and a great complement to Monticello's—is the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail, which hugs Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. Among the many excellent local wineries is Oak Grove's Ingleside Vineyards, whose 2015 petit verdot, 2017 pinot grigio, and 2017 albarino were all gold medalists at the Virginia State Fair Wine Competition last year. Also worth a visit: The Dog and Oyster in Irvington, where the wines are crafted to pair with the area's famous oysters (more on that in a minute), to say nothing of what may actually be the world's largest corkscrew.
Merroir at Rappahannock Oyster Co.
On his first Chesapeake Bay expeditions in 1608, Captain John Smith wrote that the oysters "lay thick as stones." And indeed, the scientific name eventually given to the species he found—Crassostrea virginica—speaks to the oysters' eventual standing in the state. But years of overharvesting and pollution proved disastrous until 2001, when the Chesapeake Bay recorded its lowest harvest in history—and the founders of Rappahannock Oyster Company set out to turn the tides. In the nearly two decades since, the company has helped bring Virginia oysters back from the brink.
“From the salinity levels to the different minerals in the water, to the various strains of algae the oysters feed on, each bend of each river has a unique flavor,” explains owner Travis Croxton. “We often call Virginia the Napa Valley of oysters, as there is nowhere else in the world with such variation of oyster profiles.”
To see for yourself, head to the company's riverside tasting room in Topping, where everything is served raw or hot off the grill and paired with craft brews or wines. Though the menu is seasonal, look out for oysters swathed in garlic butter—or briny Olde Salt oysters on the half shell. Of course, this is just one stop along an entire Virginia Oyster Trail. So if you want to, well...dig deeper, tack on some additional stops. Good options include Little Wicomico Oyster Co., which has been oystering since 1930; and Ward Oyster Co., whose oyster population near the mouth of the Ware river falls somewhere between 10 and 12 million at any given moment.
Colonial Garden and Nursery
The New York Times had a perfectly compelling reason to include Colonial Williamsburg on the reasons 52 Places to go in 2019 list—namely, the 400th anniversary of some of the nation's most formative events here—but we'd suggest an additional reason to foodies: the Colonial Garden and Nursery, where you'll find some of America’s most fascinating forgotten vegetables. Tour the site, and you'll meet the likes of the turkey cucumber, which is actually a melon—and works beautifully as a pickled or chopped salad add-on. Or perhaps the cardoon—a cousin of the globe artichoke with electric purple flowers and edible stems. In deciding what to grow, historic gardeners such as Eve Otmar consult several resources, including the transatlantic correspondence of early Williamsburg colonists, whose letters might read, “‘Oh, send me more of this, because I've lost it’—or, ‘Here, I'm sending this to you to try.’”
For a great taste of local produce, head to the lauded Café Provençal at the Williamsburg Winery, where you can dig into the likes of Beetroot Wellington with fermented celeriac, crispy fennel chips, truffled duxelles and kale romesco or smoked lamb tartare with pickled garden vegetables, sour cherry mostarda and rosemary lavash. And leave room for dessert—especially if you see the spiced fruit brioche with spiced wine gel, among other deliciousness.
Home to four of Virginia's five top-producing agricultural counties, the Shenandoah Valley has long been a culinary capital. For some of the most delicious and surprising modern takes on that heritage, stop into this little spot in Staunton, where the James Beard Award-nominated chef and Virginia native Ian Boden blends the cuisine of his wife’s Appalachian upbringing with his own Eastern European ancestry. The combination results in an entirely new cuisine that’s still Virginian (peirogi and pecans, anyone?), but not just because the ingredients are local. One of the chef's major influences was another Virginia icon: the late, great Edna Lewis, the granddaughter of a former slave—and the woman widely credited with elevating Southern cooking to the world's stage.
Despite having grown up in Virginia, Boden had never heard of Lewis until he began working in New York, where a fellow chef mentioned her. “He's like, 'You're from Virginia, and you don't know who Edna Lewis is? What's your problem?'” Boden immediately picked up a copy of her pioneering book on Southern cooking, In Pursuit of Flavor and was hooked—which is why you can now get a taste of Lewis’s legacy at The Shack. Try the blancmange, his take on one of her classic desserts: It's basically a milk custard, he explains, and though the original recipe calls for Jordan almonds (ground and steeped in cream for extra richness) Boden's twist manages to make this very-Virginia dish, well, a little more Virginian: He replaces the Jordan almonds with Virginia peanuts and tops the whole thing with wild local wineberries.
Taste of Smithfield
Ask a local to name an iconic Virginian food, and Smithfield ham is one of the likeliest responses. In fact, this dry salt-cured, smoked and aged ham is so iconic, the appellation is fiercely guarded: In 1926, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s General Assembly passed a statute that regulates usage of the term.
To try the genuine article, walk past the Porcine Parade (eight life-size statues of market hogs painted by local artists) in downtown Smithfield, to the restaurant-and-retail hybrid Taste of Smithfield. There you'll be in the heart of the Salty Southern Route, a trail you should explore further if you have an abiding love of pork and peanuts.
If nothing else, make the 20-mile drive to Suffolk for a selfie with the iconic local Mr. Peanut statue—your one-nut greeting committee to Planters' spiritual homeland (the company technically began in Pennsylvania circa 1906, but co-founder Amadeo Obici decamped for Virginia just a few years later, when Suffolk became his—and the company's—beloved adopted home).
The Inn at Little Washington
The ultimate grande finale, The Inn at Little Washington has just become the first restaurant in the D.C. area to earn the coveted three-star ranking from Michelin. And while this tasting menu-only regional American hot spot is an unquestionable splurge, you'll be rewarded with the likes of the "Marriage of Virginia Bison" (pepper-crusted tenderloin and braised short rib with seared foie gras and black truffle reduction), or "A Date with Squash" (a medallion of rum-roasted butternut squash "courting" date-mascarpone ravioli). Yes, chef Patrick O'Connell's menu is almost as fun to read as to taste your way through, but his handiwork in the kitchen wins the day—especially once you've tried the chocolate-hazelnut mousse napoleon.