Winter has come to Virginia, and with it comes a bevy of holidays from Thanksgiving on its cusp through New Years. On Dec. 1, the meteorological start of the season ushers in shorter days and colder nights.
Family and friends gather for special times together, enjoying crisp walks through Colonial Williamsburg and exploring snow-laden slopes in the mountains.
And there is food, lots of food, from hearty seasonal favorites to traditional holiday offerings, served up in warm and inviting restaurants across the Old Dominion.
Many offer not just stunning cuisine, but stunning venues, too.
Now is a great time to get out and explore Virginia, one bite at a time. Here are some ideas to guide you along your path.
— CIRCA ‘31 —
In The Mimslyn Inn | Luray
The Mimslyn Inn is a classic; opened in 1931, it is one of the surviving old Southern hotels that was built with one thing in mind – luxury.
With the winter cold at your back, you enter the grand lobby, resplendent in holiday décor, and enter into the well-appointed main dining room, Circa ’31. In addition to tempting seasonal menus, special holiday offerings sate the soul.
A classic Thanksgiving menu is supplemented with one of Virginia’s culinary calling cards – rockfish, served with braised lentils, oyster stuffing and caramelized beurre blanc. An extensive Christmas Day brunch is also offered.
During the rest of the season, enjoy the Wasmund’s Whisky Dinner, which honors Copper Fox Distillery in nearby Sperryville’s spirited lineup with such menu items as Oysters on the Half Shell with a Single Malt Whisky Fortified Malted Mignonette, Braised Short Rib and Bread Pudding with Whisky Caramel Ice Cream.
— KING’S ARMS TAVERN —
In Colonial Williamsburg | Williamsburg
It’s very easy to suspend reality at Colonial Williamsburg and get caught up in the 18th century goings-on and feel transported back in time; we can’t think of a better time to return to than during the holidays, when the historic area is aglow with flickering candles and the scent of bonfires and freshly-made pine wreaths.
Get lost in a great winter-centric meal at King’s Arms Tavern, based after the original, opened in 1772, described by tavern owner Jane Vobe as a place “where the best people resorted.”
A special dinner is hosted the night of Williamsburg’s Grand Illumination – an event not to be missed.
At the Grand Illumination Dinner, start with the Corn and Crabmeat Chowder and enjoy the Prime Rib of Beef, served with colonial spices and accompanied by pan jus, Yorkshire pudding and thyme-roasted potatoes.
Other nights during the winter, start with Mrs. Vobe’s Peanut Soupe, a hearty first course made with one of Virginia’s culinary calling cards. Always satisfying is the Hunter’s Game Pye, a flaky pastry filled with venison, rabbit and duck braised in port wine sauce with mushrooms, vegetables and bacon lardons.
— JOSHUA WILTON HOUSE INN AND RESTAURANT —
This elegant Victorian house is the perfect retreat during the busy, hectic holiday season, or to come into a warm, inviting place out of the cold.
Located in the historic Old Town district of Harrisonburg, its an easy walk to shops and entertainment venues downtown. Nearby the Harrisonburg Farmers Market is a quaint producer-centric offering of seasonal produce and more, including many items from nearby Mennonite farms, like jams and jellies, cheeses, cakes and cookies, and more.
At the Joshua Wilton House, the smartly decorated restaurant features five dining rooms. Seasonal menus from award-winning Chef Mark Newsome always satisfy.
Rich and etheral, we love to start with the Polyface Farms Chicken Liver Pate, topped with truffle-chive butter and served with cabernet onions and grilled bread; Polyface is Joel Salatin’s nearby farm in Swoope, made famous in the movie Food, Inc.
For dinner, a favorite is the House Made Fettuccine Pasta, served with romanesco broccoli, roasted beets, Brussels sprouts, herb chevre cheese and roasted butternut squash cream sauce – hearty and delicious winter fare.
— LEMAIRE —
In The Jefferson Hotel | Richmond
Built to impress, The Jefferson Hotel opened in 1895. Soaring ceilings, a priceless Tiffany stained glass dome presides over the Palm Court lobby, staircases that are rumored to have inspired the one in the movie Gone With The Wind, and marbled floor are the backdrop for perfect gatherings with family and friends, holidays or not.
Equally elegant and impressive is Lemaire Restaurant, named in honor of Étienne Lemaire, Thomas Jefferson’s mâitre d’hôtel during his presidency from 1794 to 1809.
It’s fitting, as the cuisine from Chef Walter Bundy here is fabulous fine dining – but very approachable. Southern twists on New American dishes utilizing fresh, local, seasonal foods are found here.
The Sorghum-Glazed Pork Loin Chop, served with grilled fennel, sweet potato puree, Brussels sprouts, field peas and a ham hock broth, is an excellent choice.
Also, in the Palm Court lobby just outside Lemaire’s doors, consider an Afternoon Tea – The Jefferson is noted for theirs. Tea is served Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and reservations are required.
The classic Afternoon Tea, with fabulous finger sandwiches, scones and Devonshire cream, preserves, sweets and teas is a real treat. We like to treat ourselves even more by enjoying a glass of Jefferson Vineyard’s Chardonnay with the meal.
— OLD MILL ROOM —
In The Boar’s Head Inn | Charlottesville
It’s quite an approach to The Boar’s Head Inn; manicured lawns line the asphalt, leading to the imposing resort. It’s origins are as the estate home, Birdwood, built in the early 19th century with architectural features mirroring the pavilions on the lawn at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.
It’s as impressive today, more than 175 years later. Fieldstones from a nearby 1834 gristmill are found in the arched stone entrance, as well as in the fireplace indoors. Heartwood pine beams soar overhead.
You don’t just come to Boar’s Head, you arrive, and the generation’s old elements make this a special place to visit, especially during a special time of year.
The beautiful Old Mill Room, with flooring from the old pine planking of the mill and paneling from lumber from former grain bins, is warm and inviting.
On the menu from Chef Bill Justus, start with the Roasted Pear, Caramelized Onion, Goat Cheese Tart with Virginia ham, frisee and a port-infused reduction.
An amazing, hearty entrée is the Herb-Roasted Venison Loin with truffe-creamed cabbage, butternut squash puree and huckleberry demi-glace.
The Old Mill Room also has a special Thanksgiving menu with traditional offerings; the Butternut Squash Gnocchi with mushrooms, braised Brussels sprouts and celeriac cream caught our eye.
— RESTAURANT EVE —
Virginia’s colonial heritage stretches well past Williamsburg. In the Old Town Alexandria, centuries-old historic buildings are filled with boutiques and galleries lining, in many cases, brick-paved streets.
In one of those buildings – a late 1800’s historic warehouse – you will find Restaurant Eve, an eatery that defines attention-to-detail. After a brisk walk through town, drop in for dinner with family and friends.
The cooking and presentation at Restaurant Eve is what they call “soulfulness.” We agree. The food from Chef Cathal Armstrong is serious, but inviting. The cuisine is Virginia-centric, and we love that. Cocktails from Todd Thrasher are elevated to a level somewhere between the stratosphere and outer space.
An ala carte menu is available with many wonderful dishes, but we recommend the six-course Chef’s Tasting menu.
This is a gorgeous offering of tasting portions that showcase the caliber of cuisine; the restaurant notes that the menu “reflects the Virginia growing season and features the best hand-fed, farm-raised, organically grown bounty that our region has to offer.”
Allow up to 3 hours to enjoy, as the food comes out at a leisurely pace to be thoroughly enjoyed. The menu is highly seasonal, and subject to change.
— THE TAVERN —
The Tavern, one of the town’s oldest historic buildings, was completed in 1779.
The building has served several functions, including post office, bank, general store, and tavern. Guests have included President Andre Jackson, and Louis Phillipe, King of France.
Inside the dimly lit space, it’s easy to think it is the 18th century again. Wooden floors creek, and a fireplace (great to warm the bones) illuminates decorative pewter plates on the wall. It’s deliciously romantic and intimate, and a great place to retire after a play at the Barter Theatre or some great country music at Heartwood.
The Brie Cheese appetizer was unlike any we’ve had before, and months later we are still talking about it. Creamy brie cheese is baked with honey, brown sugar and toasted almonds and served in a toasted bread bowl. Yeah. Oh yeah.
The full Rack of Lamb was amazing. This classic preparation was textbook perfect; a full frenched rack of lamb was slowly grilled then smothered in a shiitake mushroom, lavender and mint sauce. We were sucking the bones clean.
— ZUM RHEINGARTEN —
Charming is Zum Rheingarten, a German restaurant located in a two-story house with a rustic flagstone façade.
The appeal continues inside, where hand-painted murals of Old World characters grace the walls and there is a genuine warmth.
Perhaps it’s the surroundings, or perhaps it’s the food – it may be a combination of both – but during the holidays coming to Zum Rheingarten brings thoughts of the German Christmas market, or Christkinlmarkt, making it a great winter destination restaurant.
Warming and hearty, Goulaschsuppe, a beef soup with onions and peppers, is a great start.
A favorite entrée is Jagerschnitzel vom Schwein – breaded pork schnitzel served with a hunter-style sauce along with bread dumplings and apple red cabbage. A large slice of traditional black forest cake, or Scwarzwalder Kirschtorte, satisfies with layers of chocolate cake with cherry filling spiked with Kirschwaser and topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.
Patrick Evans-Hylton, a Johnson & Wales University trained chef, is a Norfolk, Va.-based food journalist, historian and educator. His work has appeared in print, television, radio and social media since 1995. Evans-Hylton calls his cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia, his love letter to the state’s foods and foodways. He blogs at PatrickEvansHylton.com.