I’d already told about 10 people in Baltimore that my husband and I were planning a visit to Staunton, Va., when a friend of mine who is from Virginia whispered in my ear, “You don’t say the ‘u.’”
The fact that no one had corrected me until then is evidence that STAN-ton is a hidden jewel to most of us north of D.C.—even though it’s just three hours from Baltimore. I only knew about it because a few years back we pulled off I-81, drove into Staunton’s beautiful downtown and had lunch at The Beverley Restaurant, a down-home cafe that serves scrapple and slices of lemon meringue pie two
stories high. I vowed then and there to come back.
So this winter my husband and I returned to Staunton for a full weekend. And because it’s a town for strolling, the first thing we did was park our car at our hotel, The Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center, a 1924 Colonial Revival that was renovated in 2005, and hit the historic streets.
From the Stonewall, it’s a two-minute hop down to Staunton’s main street, Beverley, where we while away the next few hours browsing in a range of antique shops—everything from the Staunton
Antiques Center, with 30 booths displaying vintage furniture, clothing and jewelry, to Worthington Hardware Co., stuffed with the oddest of odds and ends.
Beautifully restored 19th-century buildings line Beverley—it was recently named one of “America’s Greatest Main Streets” by Travel + Leisure magazine, and Staunton itself (pop. 23,000) was dubbed one of the “20 Best Small Towns in America” by Smithsonian magazine. There are no chain stores, which certainly makes things interesting (with the exception of a store called The Golden Tub, whose tantalizing name belies its mundane offerings of bath towels and robes).
After lunch at Darjeeling Cafe, a combination wine bar and tea room where the waitress tries to tempt us with deep fried Oreos for dessert by saying, “They’re vegan,” I look at my watch and realize we have to hurry if we want to tour the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum.
But we don’t want to hurry. So, with apologies to our 28th president, we get our history on the street. We stop to gaze at several shiny aluminum stand-up basses in the window of music store Fretwell Bass, and learn that ALCOA produced 500 of them in the 1930s—and the store owns four. Down the block, we discover the Camera Heritage Museum, which tells the history of photography through its collection of more than 2,000 cameras.
But our best discovery is the 1911 auto barn owned by antique and classic car broker Bruce Elder. It’s not a museum per se, but Elder opens his showroom to the public on Fridays and Saturdays, which means you can feast your eyes upon the 60 vehicles—all swoops and curves—and learn interesting tidbits, like the fact that the 1940 Buick Limited Touring Sedan was the largest and most expensive Buick offered that year. (It’s on sale for $40,000 currently.)
On that side of town, we venture into the tasting room for Ox-Eye Vineyards, which is located in a former scale house where horse-drawn wagons were weighed. We buy a bottle of Lemberger made in Ox-Eye’s winery eight miles outside of Staunton and head back to the Stonewall Jackson to rest up.
Later that night we settle into a booth at Zynodoa, a farm-to-table restaurant where we love the gumbo and the homemade biscuits—and the prodigious use of pork belly, a favorite of Zynodoa’s chef James Harris, who formerly worked at the Inn at Little Washington.
We linger at dinner until the very last minute then scurry over to the 12-year-old American Shakespeare Center to see “The Duchess of Malfi” at Blackfriars Playhouse, the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s famed indoor theater. As we enter, a crew of actors is onstage playing guitars and singing a Sting song. When the song ends, they put down their instruments and start talking. Since there is no stage lighting—in keeping with the tradition of Shakespeare’s time, the house lights stay on through the performance—it’s a second or two before I realize the play has begun. Quickly I get involved in the intrigue, double-crossing and multiple murders in Webster’s famed tale, which has more bloodshed than a Tarantino movie. (I know this because “Django Unchained” is playing in one of Staunton’s two historic downtown movie theaters, where we see it the next day.)
Watching a play in this new light (literally) is a unique experience, worth the trip to Staunton just on its own. Three different shows run at the Blackfriars each weekend, so you could plan a great theater getaway (and, in fact, the Stonewall Jackson offers a Shakespeare package).
That’s what I think we’ll do the next time we return to Staunton. That, and visit the new microbrewery that’s opening this spring. And, yes, pay a visit to Mr. Wilson’s home and library.