If you’re an American history nut, there’s a good chance you’ve been to Williamsburg, Virginia, which served as a bustling colonial center long before a nascent America would gain its independence.
Those of you who haven’t been there are probably picturing young families and students on field trips watching women dressed in 17th-century garb churn butter while soldiers polish their bayonets.
But as I discovered on a recent visit, Williamsburg is much more well-rounded–and upscale–than its reputation lets on.
At Hogarth’s Bar & Bistro, which quickly became my neighborhood favorite, co-owner Cathy Upton poured me a glass of local wine and gave me the inside scoop on the town she knows so well. “People think that in Williamsburg we dedicate so much time to what was,” she said, “but if you combine that with where we are today, it makes such an amazing community.”
The locals, far from standing still, are opening great restaurants, producing award-winning wines and beers, and creating an environment capable of luring big-city dwellers to this relaxing southern city.
Here are some of the highlights:
> Oenophiles take note: Williamsburg Winery, set on a beautiful corner of countryside just outside town, is churning out award-winning varietals that are beating out wines from more famous regions in blind tastings. Winemaker Matthew Meyer, who moved to Williamsburg from Napa, told me that in 2002, there were less than 80 wineries in Virginia. Today, there are more than three times that many. While the winery has a casually elegant rustic feel, the wine and food served at its eateries, Gabriel Archer Tavern and Cafe Provencal, are truly a cut above what I expected to find in Williamsburg. I bought three bottles to bring back to New York City, including the 2010 Adagio, a bold, fruity red blend which recently won the Governor’s Cup award.
> Opus 9–a well-polished steakhouse located near Hogarth’s in New Town, an urban development ten minutes from the historic district–delights with top-notch beef, a great selection of local seafood, and a superb wine list. Their “Oscar 9” filet mignon offers its own homage to the area, served with “jumbo lump” crabmeat on top. (The Chesapeake Bay is close by, after all.) While their dining area is easy to cozy up in, with lots of comfortable booths and hideaways, the sleek bar is a great choice for drinks if you’re not in the mood for a long dinner.
> The Cheese Shop serves up the best custom sandwiches in town, using house-baked bread and high-quality ingredients. Try to beat the lunch rush, though; the line is known to snake out the door. The gourmet market is loaded with specialty food products and, as you might imagine, an incredible cheese selection with knowledgeable staff. Make sure to pop into the wine shop downstairs–and save room in your luggage to bring home a bottle of their house dressing, a creamy dijon mustard concoction whose exact recipe remains a secret.
> Locally owned hot spot Giuseppe’s occupies an unassuming location near the Williamsburg outlet shopping complex that belies the character and convivial atmosphere you’ll find inside. The staff is funny and warm and they serve fantastic Italian cuisine, from personal pizzas and hearty pastas to specialties like lentil soup with andouille sausage.
> Riverwalk Restaurant: With a beautiful patio overlooking the York River, this is a great spot for an stylish Sunday brunch in historic Yorktown–part of the greater Williamsburg region known as America’s Historic Triangle (Jamestowne–the earliest permanent English settlement in the American colonies, predating Plymouth by more than a decade–rounds out the regional trifecta). How can you not love a place that starts off a meal by serving complimentary doughnut holes? But local seafood is the real star of the restaurant, which boasts a lengthy house specialty menu.
> Williamsburg AleWerks: All beers are brewed on site at this small operation that is winning big awards. In addition to offering an expansive tasting room, the brewery offers daily afternoon tours. They brew two popular historical beers, Old Stitch Mum and Dear Old Mum, that are made from 18th-century recipes, but modern favorites like Bourbon Barrel Porter and Café Royal keep beer aficionados coming back. My husband is one such enthusiast and has been loving the Draketail IPA six-pack I brought home for him.
> Carrot Tree: Inventive baked goods like buttermilk biscuits made with sugar-cured ham and chutney are the main attraction here–along with the decor: a medley of carrot tchotchkes. While sandwiches like chicken salad and strawberry turkey brie are delicious, go with your instincts and try a giant slice of carrot cake; it lives up to expectations. They also run the kitchen at the Dale House Café at Historic Jamestowne, which occupies an ideal spot on the James River.
> Confession: I returned three times to Hogarth’s in the matter of a week. While chowing down on brussels sprouts and fresh ahi tuna, I watched owners Chris Hogarth and Cathy Upton greet their regulars and introduce themselves to new faces around the room. Chris, a charming Brit, moved to Williamsburg after losing his wife, while Cathy, who is warmth personified, has been the executive director of the local Meals on Wheels program for years. After finding romance online, the pair opened Hogarth’s, bringing a bit of Chris’s native England to the menu with fish and chips and bangers and mash, while chef Stephan Luna, a talented transplant from L.A., lends flair to regional favorites like blue crab and grouper.
> Don’t let the name fool you. Forks are necessary at Extraordinary Cupcake! The mammoth sweets can easily be split by two people…but you might not want to. Deliciously dense and moist, these meal replacement cupcakes are among the best I’ve sampled around the world.