As a wise man once said, “In my opinion, the best way to get to know an area or a community is eating the food that’s there.”
He spoke these words excitedly, seated near a window overlooking the cramped parking lot that surrounds one of Staunton’s finest restaurants. It’s clear that Ian Boden, the James Beard-nominated chef of The Shack, believes that food unites this city. He sources nearly all the produce he uses locally. He champions simplicity not only in culinary technique, but also in Staunton’s way of life. He cooks for the town, for his neighbors, for his family there.
“This is to support my community and be a part of my community,” he tells me. “That’s why I moved to Staunton in the first place, and it’s why I try to do what I do every day.”
Food Getaways: Staunton
Smoked bluefish at The Shack. (Photo by: Stephanie Breijo)
What Boden does makes Staunton one of the state’s most buzzworthy dining meccas, drawing the hungry and curious to taste his prix fixe menu built on high-quality ingredients with as little preparation as possible — just enough to coax out the natural flavor. Step into the unassuming 26-seater and you’ll find playful and elegant riffs on traditional comfort food — like Boden’s creamy grits buried beneath Sea Island Red Peas and country ham, heirloom popcorn and a soft-cooked egg, or his miso-fried quail with Concord grape hot sauce and vinegar slaw. On this visit, his elevated entrées serve as clues to his origins: Smoked bluefish mingles with potato latkes, Meyer lemon, mustard greens and roasted Asian pear; duck confit sits alongside foie gras dirty oats, roasted shallots and celery root; Berkshire pork loin and country ham fried rice find fibrous allies in sautéed spinach, delicata and fava shoots.
“I come from a family of New York Jews, I live in Appalachia and I’m French-trained,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I draw from all of my experience?”
Later this year, Boden’s humble empire will expand with his yet-unnamed à la carte “North-meets-South” diner. It might not find itself far from Newtown Baking, the comfy bakery that supplies buns for The Shack’s beef and lamb burgers, though that’s also home to its own wood-fired pizzas, fresh European pastries, sandwiches, salads and rustic loaves of bread. It’s hard to concentrate on the chipper cashier noting that bakers arrive each day around 3 a.m. while I’m watching one tenderly and methodically weigh fresh olive dough.
Food Getaways: Staunton
A baker at Newtown Baking kneads fresh olive dough. (Photo by: Stephanie Breijo)
Just a few short blocks from the bakery, in a repurposed school, is one of the town’s more eclectic food outposts: George Bowers Grocery. It’s here you’ll find a neatly stacked elephant graveyard of empty craft beer cans; co-owner Brian Wiedemann says he saves a can or bottle from every variety he’s sold — lining a wall with them and making for an impressive collection, considering he rotates roughly 30 domestic craft beers per week. Order up juicy, mountainous burgers, BLTs and hot dogs with local meat from Polyface Farm, heaped with toppings like portobello, avocado, sauerkraut and arugula. Just be sure to dine in so that you can enjoy them next to a stack of vintage Choose Your Own Adventure books and a velvet painting of John Wayne. If you’re hoping to meet your meat makers, Polyface offers tours, agricultural seminars and its own local market, all just a short drive from Staunton’s center.
If you’re craving something sweet, meander down Beverly Street to The Split Banana for fresh gelato and sorbet in flavors like espresso biscotto, matcha, cherry cheesecake and mint stracciatella, which can all be served in waffle cones, as shakes or floats, in banana splits and brownie sundaes or all alone and topped with house-made chocolate syrup. Celebrating? Call ahead and order a gelato cake because you’ve earned it and life is short. And it’s but one block from AVA Restaurant & Wine Bar, the home of an award-winning wine list as well as tasting events, live music and local art shows.
Full of wine, round the corner to Zynodoa Restaurant, sit in one of its modern booths and take in the French-inspired menu. Though it changes daily, you can expect creativity; it’s a place where sea scallops play in curry beurre blanc and chorizo shares the plate with lime risotto.
And if your belly is full and you cannot muster the strength to walk, hop in your car and head to the drive-in Wright’s Dairy Rite, serving authentic classic diner fare since 1952 —think burgers, shakes, malts and patty melts. Enjoy curbside service from the comfort of your own ride or from within the quaint diner at a booth near a vintage jukebox, then find your way back home over the Blue Ridge with the taste of a butterscotch shake still sweet on your tongue.
-Brush up on your Shakespeare at Blackfriars Playhouse at The American Shakespeare Center, where you’ll find productions of the Bard’s most beloved titles, as well as his more obscure plays.
-Get your learning on with a trip to the Frontier Culture Museum and witness full-scale models of various buildings from throughout the world (and centuries). No, you can’t move into that “1850s America” home. We already asked.
-It’s all Southern hospitality paired with modern charm at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel & Conference Center, a downtown Staunton staple since 1924.
-The Inn at Old Virginia might not be located in the city’s center, but that might be just what you need. Relax at this cheery B&B with some R&R and a view of the valley.