When you think of Williamsburg, Virginia, a lively culinary scene is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Strolling down Williamsburg’s Duke of Gloucester Street, with its understated colonial houses and interpreters clad in period dress, it’s hard to imagine that walking just ten minutes further will bring you to the doorstep of a restaurant where you can order foie gras and pan-seared scallops. But you can–and should. Beth Lizardo recently returned from a long weekend in Virginia’s Historic Triangle–composed of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown–and is still longing for some of the food she tasted during the trip. From biscuits and grits to broiled Norwegian salmon, the chefs in Virginia’s Historic Triangle know how to cook food that you will not soon forget. Here’s a rundown of some of her favorite eats.
When chef Jim Kennedy opened Dudley’s Farmhouse Grille in 2007, he set out to create a restaurant where locals could come and enjoy the freshest fare possible. “I envisioned going back to how I was trained to cook. You bought everything fresh. You went to local farmers,” Kennedy explains. And this is exactly what he does. Kennedy is a regular at the local farmer’s market and keeps an herb garden right outside the restaurant. The basil in Kennedy’s caprese salad appetizer–oversized, intensely fragrant basil–comes from this garden. And he won’t let you leave without trying his wife’s homemade crème brûlé made with local eggs. Other items, such as the Southern-style grilled alligator entrée special, have traveled a little farther to make it onto the Dudley’s menu, however.
Affectionately named after Kennedy’s dog, Dudley, the restaurant is a small business set in a1905 farmhouse. “Our kitchen is tiny,” admits Kennedy. “We have two cooks and one dishwasher. It’s like working on a train.” The quaintness of the farmhouse setting is accentuated by its out-of-the-way location, which is in the town of Toano, located just off Route 60 about 25 minutes outside of Williamsburg.
We arrive at Dudley’s while it’s still light enough to admire the old wooden farm tables and local art–some for sale and some on loan from Kennedy’s personal collection–hanging on the walls. As the evening progresses and the sun sets, the servers light candles and the dining room assumes a soft yellow glow. Throughout our meal Kennedy makes frequent visits to our table to sit down and chat. He talks about dishes he’s served in the past (lavender-rubbed lamb; scallop and red pepper soup), about the ghost that haunts the upstairs level of the farmhouse, and about his three-year-old daughter who only eats gourmet. By the end of the meal it’s clear that Dudley’s is armed with much more than good food–it’s armed with indisputable character.
Dudley’s Farmhouse Grille, 7816 Richmond Rd, Toana, VA. +1 757 566 1157; www.dudleysfarmhousegrille.com
The place to go to find the best biscuits in town. Situated in a 200-year-old plantation house off Route 5, Old Chickahominy House has been a family-run business since 1955. We went for breakfast, and as soon as we sat down we were greeted by a waitress holding a tray of drinks: mimosas, orange juice, grapefruit juice, and a rebel cocktail, which is a mix of tomato juice, beer, and spices. “A lot of people call it a redeye,” the waitress told us. Never one to pass up a new drink, I ordered a rebel cocktail.
The verdict? It tastes like the cousin to a Bloody Mary. When it came time to order breakfast I opted for eggs with a side of the homemade biscuits, which are square-shaped and dense without being too heavy. I asked owner Maxine Williams if she cared to divulge the secret to the biscuits. “It’s all about rolling out the dough to the appropriate thinness,” she told me.
Williams has been running the Chikahominy House and its attached antiques gift shop for 44 years, and the interior looks like it hasn’t changed much since then. People dine at long antique wooden tables decorated with thick brass candlesticks, colonial-style portraits adorn the walls, and a black and white cat named Miss Melinda roams from room to room. Miss Melinda followed me as I browsed the three-story gift shop after breakfast in an effort to digest my meal and ward off the desire to rest my head on the table and fall into a blissful food coma.
The Old Chickahominy House, 1211 Jamestown Rd, Williamsburg, VA. +1 757 229 4689; www.oldchickahominy.com
If you happen to find yourself by the Yorktown waterfront, do yourself a favor and grab a beer and an appetizer at the notorious Yorktown Pub.
It may look like your average smoky dive bar–indeed it is a popular spot for tattoo-covered bikers sporting bandannas and Harley-Davidson T-shirts–but the Pub prides itself on the quality and freshness of its food. Offerings such as snow-crab legs and Hanover tomato salad with feta, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar decorate the ‘specials’ board. And as I sit at the bar sipping my beer, I hear some of the servers talking about the 4-foot cobia that had been filleted in the kitchen that morning. One of the waitresses pulls out her cell phone and shows me a photo of the cobia. It’s pretty impressive; certainly not what you’d expect to come out of the kitchen in a hole-in-the-wall beer joint.
“People think this is just a typical biker bar,” says waitress Jamie Spangler. “But the truth is that most of the locals who come here are wealthy enough to buy the place!” Jamie, an outspoken buxom brunette, points to a long-haired man with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “That’s one of our locals. He always makes sure to park his Corvette outside the pub where he can see it. He won’t park it if he can’t get a spot right out front.”
Yorktown Pub, 112 Water St, Yorktown, VA. +1 757 886 9964
I ate my final dinner here, which was appropriate because this small family-run restaurant with its upscale fare is the sort of place you want to come on a special occasion. The vibe: modern, intimate, dimly lit. The pistachio-colored walls are accented with original art from a local gallery, and the kitchen is open for all to see. The food: Local produce such as homemade mozzarella and Manakintowne greens dressed up and assembled in an artful, often playful manner (dishes such as the lobster mac ‘n cheese and the mint ice cream sandwiches are nice childhood throwbacks, for instance). Chef Tom Powers–who graduated from the Hyde Park Culinary Institute of America and returned to Williamsburg in 2003 to open the Fat Canary with his mother, father, and two sisters–comes from a family of foodies. In 1971, his parents opened the Cheese Shop (housed in the same building as the Fat Canary), a speciality food store and sandwich shop that is still drawing crowds; and then in 1980 they opened the neighboring restaurant The Trellis, which they ran for 14 years before selling their share in 1994. It’s a rare occasion not to find a member of the Powers family tending to business in the Fat Canary or the Cheese Shop. And Tom has even started employing his two sons in the kitchen of the restaurant. So what happens on those rare days when the family is not working? “We’re all together cooking in someone’s kitchen,” says Tom’s sister, Mary Ellen, Jr. “I think some of the best conversations take place at the dinner table.”
Fat Canary, 410 W Duke of Gloucester St, Williamsburg, VA.+1 757 229 3333; www.fatcanarywilliamsburg.com
Photos: Associate Photo Editor Krista Rossow