Living it Up in Virginia’s Blue Ridge
By Allan Richter
TWENTY YEARS AGO, just a dozen people lived in downtown Roanoke, Virginia, recalls Ian Fortier, executive director of the historic Grandin Theatre and a local historian. With the allure of small town and rural living, combined with relatively short drives to coastal beaches and Washington, DC, that meager population has expanded to 2,400 today, says Fortier. This gives downtown Roanoke what he calls a “cool factor,” a growth-fueled boom in charming independent shops, urban-style restaurants with creative menus and small breweries turning out craft beer.
At the same time, growth is helping fill seats at cultural centers such as Fortier’s 85-year-old theater—with red brick walls and gargoyles overhead—which once hosted musicians like Ray Charles and B.B. King and now shows first-run and classic films, and offers free midnight shows.
For all the growth and activity, much about Southwest Virginia remains, thankfully, unchanged. It is as if the region is stuck in a time warp, but in ways that keep the area grounded in its roots and that benefit the growing population. Foremost is its unspoiled beauty, evident by the view from any point along the Blue Ridge Highway, among dozens of other spots, and the allure of the outdoors for hikers, kayakers and cyclists.
Independent farmers have been squeezed out of business by large factory farms in much of the country, but Southwest Virginia’s mountainous terrain is uninviting for such large entities. That has helped the region maintain its tradition of small family farms—and there are scores of them from which local restaurants source many of their ingredients.
As you dine, if you happen to hear the strains of banjo or folk guitar wa¬fting over the mountains, you’re hearing traditional folk and roots music whose notes were first plucked and picked long before musical instruments and electricity met. Many area venues continue to showcase this music and pay homage to the artists who created it.
Finally, area distillers are once again making moonshine—though legally this time—with nods to the way it was made in the early 1900s, when Virginia’s Franklin County was known as “the Moonshine Capital of the World.” Moviegoers saw the 2012 film “Lawless” take its script, about three bootlegging brothers and their run-ins with the law, from this storied history.
Recognizing the growing demand to reach the area, Amtrak late last year launched daily passenger service between the Northeast and downtown Roanoke. As my train pulled into the Roanoke station, I knew I had arrived as the 2,000 feet of neon tubing that make up the iconic, nearly 90-foot-tall Roanoke Star came into view atop Mill Mountain. Here are a few ways to enjoy the area.
Where to Eat
A number of restaurants take advantage of the area’s agrarian history and family farms. Among the dining venues that bene t from Southwest Virginia’s lush farmlands, and that change their menus to reflect what’s freshest, is Local Roots (localrootsrestaurant.com). The restaurant counts more than two dozen local farmers and purveyors as suppliers. As Local Roots owners say so poetically,
these suppliers “help us keep time with the rhythms of the seasons.”
On Local Roots’ Sunday brunch menu, you’ll find Appalachian cheese on its burgers and Virginia asparagus with its fresh sandwich. The restaurant also makes last-minute menu changes to accommodate fresh food that becomes available. The philosophy the restaurant calls S.O.L.E.—Sustainable, Organic, Local, Ethical—also informs its beverage program, as Local Roots works with small wineries that use sustainable practices.
In Roanoke, our home base for our visit to Virginia’s Blue Ridge, restaurants featuring farm-to-table goods are more than local eateries. They reflect the area’s surging growth and other high-end comfort food as well as a lively urban vibe that attracts a sizable millennial crowd. One such venue, Lucky (eatatlucky.com), features dim amber lighting, under which diners savor fresh Rappahannock Oyster
Co. oysters, marrow bone appetizers, fine wine, craft beer and creative hand-cra¬fted cocktails like the Pear Skin Rug, a blend of Evan Williams 1783 bourbon, pieces of pear, byrrh (a wine-based aperitif), star anise, cinnamon, clove and sugar, served in an applewood-smoked glass with a pinch
of Appalachian salt.
Scratch Biscuit Company (scratchbiscuit.com) takes a page from the authentic culinary South with its—what else? —homemade biscuits. The balls of carbs form the basis of every menu item, making a visit to Scratch Biscuit an indulgent outing. Yet you can keep it simple with a bowl of eggs and cheese (no biscuit), a plain biscuit with a homemade topping like blueberry jam, or a Sling Blade (mustard on a biscuit)—or you can go all out with e Cowboy Crippler (brisket, country fried sausage, pulled pork, potato cake and cheese).
Scratch Biscuit leaves nothing to waste. It turns its excess into dog biscuits, blending apples, sweet potato, carrots, ginger, rolled oats and coconut oil—and they’re gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan. “I never thought I’d be saying those words about dog food,” says kitchen manager Sheila Armstrong.
Where to Stay
Virginia’s Blue Ridge is one of the country’s most scenic regions, making the idea of outdoor stays enticing. e region has ample camping—in remote settings where it’s just you and nature, in campsites equipped with basic necessities like restrooms, as well as in cabins. Check out visitroanokeva.com for listings.
If you’re looking for more comfort but still want to immerse yourself in the history of the place, the 330- room Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center (hotelroanoke.com) was built in 1882 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite a history of renovation, expansion and re-openings, the Tudor-style Hotel Roanoke—today part of Hilton’s Curio portfolio—has managed to preserve the past with an antique-filled lobby, original Czech-made chandeliers, Pine Room (formerly an officers’ club in World War II), and the Palm Court, whose original ceiling is painted with the constellations as they appeared in the skies the day the first train came to Roanoke in 1852.
The Hotel Roanoke’s Regency Room, where you can sip on peanut soup and enjoy a healthful breakfast buffet, is one of three Virginia restaurants awarded the AAA Four Diamond restaurant rating. The restaurant, under the direction of executive chef Stephen DeMarco, features French-inspired, yet Southern, cuisine.
Where to Hike
Virginia’s Blue Ridge and Appalachian regions are teeming with hiking trails, making it tough to choose when you have limited time as we did. We decided to make McAfee Knob, a trademark of the Appalachian Trail and one of the Trail’s most photographed sites, our Holy Grail of hiking. It wasn’t the popularity of the knob, located atop Catawba Mountain with a 3,197-foot elevation, that attracted us—it was the challenge of an eight-mile hike (four miles each way) to reach it and the allure of the remarkable beauty surrounding it.
Our guide, Marlee Wertz, was conscious of both the health of her hikers and the environment we traversed. Because it had rained for several days before our excursion, Wertz guided us for the first couple miles along a fire trail (so called because it is wide enough for emergency vehicles needed to deal with fires and stranded hikers) instead of a muddied section of the Appalachian Trail that we might disturb if hiked. “We have to consider other hikers coming through later,” Wertz explained.
Once past the fire trail, we navigated a narrow path up the mountain, through streams and over rocky terrain. McAfee Knob was an exquisite place to celebrate our victory. Standing upon an overhang of rock seemingly created for thrill seekers, we had a 270-degree panoramic view that presented a mountain range stretched out like a sleeping giant below us and green patches of clustered treetops as far as the eye could see. The view and achievement of reaching the knob provided sustenance, fueling the remainder of the grueling hike with a strong sense of satisfaction.
Where to Shop for Used Goods & Meet Reality TV Stars
Established in 1999 with the goal of preserving Southwest Virginia’s architectural past and salvaging some of Roanoke’s noteworthy historic elements, Black Dog Salvage (black dogsalvage.com) and its principals, Mike Whiteside and Robert Kulp, are known to fans of reality TV and reclaimed furniture from their TV show, launched in 2012 and beginning their ninth season, on the DIY Network, HGTV and GAC.
To walk through Black Dog Salvage’s massive showrooms and warehouses is to journey through history as you gaze at art tiles from historic homes and enormous stained-glass windows from churches to more mundane items like bins of bowling pins, carved wooden blocks to make print designs and vintage plumbing.
“We’re more than just a junk shop,” Whiteside says. “We’re a preservation repurposing company.” Whiteside stood over a coffee table whose top was made from an old window, noting that the item became so popular it is now produced en masse. Black Dog Salvage offers workshops and has begun producing its own brand of furniture paint, formulated to work with materials to be repurposed. “A door is a door,” Whiteside says, “but it could be so much more.
Where to Listen to Real Roots Music
Occasionally time stands still—and in some cases that’s a good thing. The Crooked Road (thecrookedroad.org) region of Southwest Virginia, also known as the state’s Heritage Music Trail, is one of those places. Its residents continue to keep alive musical traditions like old-time string bands, a cappella gospel, blues, 300-year-old ballads and bluegrass, among others. They are the traditions that have given music lovers the Stanley Brothers (think “O’ Brother Where Art Thou”) and the Carter Family.
In June, The Crooked Road holds the annual Mountains of Music Homecoming (mtnsofmusic. com), celebrating the area’s musical styles in more than 20 communities over nine days.
But you don’t have to wait for June to roll around. You can find jam sessions, museum exhibits, concerts, festivals and dances year-round. We promised ourselves we would return for a visit to one of the nine major venues on The Crooked Trail, The Floyd Country Store (floydcountrystore.com), where weekends bring lively hootenannies of traditional Appalachian music and spirited dancing. You can replenish the calories burned on the dance floor by dipping into the store’s barrels of old-fashioned candies.