The road to Staunton is paved with great attractions

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The road to Staunton is paved with great attractions
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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Jordan Wright)

My plan to spend a weekend in Staunton was hatched last year when I heard about a young chef who was gathering a national reputation for imaginative food served up in a tiny brick building he calls The Shack. Chef and restaurateur Ian Boden has lit up the food world, garnering awards and tons of ink with his use of Virginia farm products in imaginative and delicious ways.

But as with all trips, the more you research your destination, the more you lose track of your itinerary. The plan was to head out mid-morning on a Friday and drive straight to Staunton, but that idea went out the window when I realized all the fun places we would pass along the way.

From Interstate 66, take U.S. Route 17 to Delaplane and Three Fox Vineyards, where owners Holli and John Todhunter express their love of all things Italian. In the barn-style tasting room you’ll find mostly Italian varietals from estate-grown grapes. Relax in a hammock or toss a game of bocce.

A few miles away sits the 200-year-old mansion and gardens of Long Branch Plantation. Described by Washington Irving in 1853 as a “noble mansion crowning a rising ground,” it is worth a tour for its period architecture and antique furnishings, as well as a chance to learn about its horse retirement facility.

Just across U.S. Route 50 and a short drive along Millwood Road is the Locke Store in Millwood. The original general store, founded in 1836, is now a food emporium chock-a-block with craft beer, wine, locally raised meats and cheeses and tempting baked goods by pastry chef Katie Kopsick Shapiro. Sandwiches there feature bread made from flour ground across the street at the Burwell-Morgan Mill.

Getting on Interstate 81 from there was a cinch and we soon arrived in Staunton, where we checked into the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center, a centrally located Colonial revival hotel built in 1924 and recently remodeled. From our room we could see the Mill Street Grill below — a handy spot for a quick dinner before the curtain rose at the Blackfriars Playhouse around the corner.  If you’re looking for fancier fare, try Zynodoa, a local favorite that features a modern setting with upscale dining.

The playhouse is part of the American Shakespeare Theatre, a year-round performance venue fashioned after the theaters of 17th-century England. Shakespeare’s plays are offered with on-stage seats for chosen audience members, and the theater’s productions are always rousingly entertaining. Be sure to get there early for the mini-concerts before the play.

On Saturday, we began our day at Joel Salatin’s 550-acre Polyface Farm in nearby Swoope. The author, speaker and farming guru is renowned for his sustainable farming practices and was featured in the documentary “Food, Inc.”  Chefs and eco-friendly farmers hang on his every word, and the farm itself is a testament to Salatin’s humane animal husbandry practices. You can see the pigs, cows, chicken and sheep in their grassy habitats or shop for meat and cider in the farm store.

Before lunch, we meandered over to a massive building with plate glass windows and filled with classic cars that we had noticed the previous evening. A cavernous 27,000 square-foot former Ford dealership on South New Street, Elder Antique Auto is owned by Bruce Elder, an avid collector who sells and restores antique vehicles. Roaming through the three-story building, we came across dozens of beautifully restored cars including a 1924 Model T, a 1925 Rolls Royce Twenty and some notable racers like a 1953 single seat vehicle called ‘The Lincoln Special” — a Dreyer Champ car that ran on a dirt track.

Lunch at the Pampered Palate Cafe was a lovely respite. The quaint spot on East Beverley Street specializes in homemade soups and sandwiches and is surrounded by tons of interesting stores, art galleries, breweries, a wine tasting room, glass-blowing studio and shops featuring local handicrafts.

From there, we walked to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. On display are hundreds of Wilson’s personal effects, including his roll-top desk and 1919 Pierce-Arrow presidential limousine. A recent addition is a walk-through trench that trembles with the sounds of a World War I battlefield. Next door to the museum sits the Presbyterian Manse, Wilson’s birthplace. The three-story brick home is filled with Wilson family heirlooms and antiques, and a guide is there to describe daily life in the mid-19th century.

Afterwards, take a relaxing 45-minute guided tour around the city by trolley. Departing from the local visitors center, it’s a terrific opportunity to see the historic homes and churches that abound, as well as Mary Baldwin College, whose campus is smack dab in the middle of town. The town’s splendid and varied architecture was one of its most surprising aspects.

At last it was time for our long-anticipated dinner and the spark of this pilgrimage: The Shack. After a short stroll from the hotel, we shed any preconceived notions of what a restaurant should look like and trusted in the chef, even though the place looks more like a pop-up or a way station for a collection of mismatched chairs and tables that have lost their homes. Still, it’s cozy, unpretentious and quite serious about its mission — a 180-degree turn from the greasy, calorically weighty cooking of most Southern style restaurants. Here sauces are lightened and cooking methods respect the fresh ingredients. Expect to taste dishes you thought you knew, but here are elevated to an appreciative art form.

In a short time, Boden has ascended the ranks through the emerging cooking style of New Southern Cuisine, taking familiar Southern dishes and reinventing them to be more interesting and more alluring.

A paper menu with the date on top lets you know that the menu is at the whim of the chef, the season and the farmers he trusts. Though I can assure you our meal likely won’t be on the menu when you visit, the overall quality will remain constant. You get to have your own experience with whichever ingredients Boden plays around with that day.

We tried nearly everything on the menu, and found some favorites — winter vegetable salad with farro, bitter greens and chickweed, dressed in a barrel aged maple vinaigrette; escolar lettuce wrap, a raw fish paired with cracklings, house-made kimchi, miso and key limes. Entrees that sang to us were the Berkshire pork loin with country ham-fried rice, spinach puree and delicata squash topped with fava bean shoots; and king salmon with roasted crosnes, Brussels sprouts and lady apples in a red wine butter sauce. Desserts that made us swoon were sorghum cake with brown butter apples, buttermilk whey and bay leaf; and a madcap fling with a sweet treat called “Junk Food” which turned out to be a slice of oatmeal cream pie plus a cruller and a blondie.

After a good night’s sleep we returned for brunch. When you have reveled in the best there is, why not revel again? I state my case for the biscuits and rabbit gravy, the Wagyu oyster steak with rosemary pistou, and the creamy heirloom grits served in a cast-iron pan. There is no shame, just glory and a sharp sense of wanting to return.

Before heading home one last stop beckoned — the Frontier Culture Museum, a place passed countless times while driving down I-81 towards the Blue Ridge Mountains. This open-air living history museum reflects the early German, West African, Irish and British pioneers who bravely brought their trades, farming methods and building styles to rural America. Authentic costumed docents roam the farm sites and wooded acres, instructing guests on how settlers lived and thrived in the Shenandoah Valley before and after the Revolutionary War. You will learn that a number of these historic homes were brought over piece-by-piece from the Old World and reassembled. Plan on spending at least three hours at the museum: You wouldn’t want to miss seeing the heritage-breed horses or holding a baby lamb. In good weather a picnic purchased in town would make for the perfect day.

To plan your trip around upcoming cultural events in Staunton go to www.visitstaunton.com.

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