Commonwealth Cravings: The Most-Iconic Dishes in Virginia
Try a taste of history with these iconic foods — and the best places to sample each — from the Old Dominion state.
Photo By: Tyler Darden ©Tyler Darden
A Legacy of Good Eats
Once a state of rolling farmlands, Virginia is home to plenty of iconic food and wine, dating back to President Washington’s days. Whether you’re craving peanut soup, oysters or hand pies, here’s where to savor the bounty, from Chesapeake Bay to the Shenandoah Valley.
Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs
Go to a party in the South and you’ll find savory, salty, creamy and yellow pimento cheese. The spicy blend of sharp cheddar, mayo, roasted red pepper, shallot and tarragon is the most-popular starter at Pasture in Richmond. The dip is served with Ritz crackers — because they’re Chef-Owner Jason Alley’s favorite — along with pickles and crudites. Alley knows Virginia classics: He’s a native of Pulaski, outside of Blacksburg.
Photo courtesy of Pasture
Go to: Pasture
Fried pies, also known as fry pies, can be found at bakeries and small town stores across the state. These hand-held pies are a regular item at The Shack in Staunton, deep-fried in canola oil for a sweet and savory bite. The restaurant’s Apple Bourbon Sorghum Caramel Fry Pie, served with a warm thyme custard, doubles down on local favorites with rich sorghum and local apples.
Photo by Sera Petras, courtesy of The Shack
Go to: The Shack
After years of focused conservation and entrepreneurial efforts, Virginia leads the East Coast in oyster production. The Rappahannock Oyster Co. farms oysters across the Chesapeake Bay, including sweet and buttery Rappahannock River oysters. The shellfish is harvested daily on the farm in front of Merroir, a restaurant located on the Rappahannock in Topping, about an hour from Richmond. The kitchen goes through about 12,000 oysters a week in peak season from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Photo courtesy of Merroir
Go to: Merroir
Ham & Biscuits
Owner Tim Laxton and the bakers at Early Bird Biscuit Co. in Richmond pull hundreds of buttermilk biscuits out of their ovens each day to stuff with ham from Crabill’s in the Shenandoah Valley, making the state’s original breakfast sandwich. Early Bird also features a daily specialty biscuit made with Virginia-milled flour and full-fat buttermilk, which comes in savory flavors like Parmesan Peppercorn and Old Bay Cheddar as well as sweet varieties such as Macchiato and Cinnamon-Raisin Pecan.
Photo courtesy of Cameron Charles Lewis
Go to: Early Bird Biscuit Co.
Virginia’s long growing season with warm days and cooler nights has helped solidify its standing as the sixth-largest apple-producing state in the country. PB&J specialty shop Sprelly in Fredericksburg showcases a trio of local products — Virginia Granny Smith apples, apple butter from Fresh Batch Jams in Chesapeake and smoked Virginia ham — in its Applelation Trail sandwich.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Curtis
Go to: Sprelly
Peanuts have been grown commercially in Virginia since the 1840s, and the Virginia peanuts are the largest in the nation. The Virginia Diner — located in the heart of Virginia peanut country, Sussex County — bakes as many as four dozen peanut pies a week. There’s a half-pound of crushed salted peanuts in each sweet, buttery dessert.
Photo courtesy of Virginia Diner
Go to: Virginia Diner
The state is home to more than 2,900 miles of trout streams, and brook, brown and rainbow trout are popular among anglers and diners. The Palisades Restaurant in Eggleston sources its fish from Brackens Fish Hatchery in Wytheville and serves rainbow trout with a toasted oat and almond crust, lavender honey and rhubarb. The western Virginia restaurant hosts live music, and also offers a cooking camp for kids in the summertime.
Photo courtesy of The Palisades Restaurant
Go to: The Palisades Restaurant
Macaroni and Cheese
Thomas Jefferson brought a pasta machine back from Europe in the 1790s, and often served “macaroni” to guests during his time at Monticello in Charlottesville. The president’s legacy lives on at the Virginian Restaurant, where the Stumble Down Mac N' Cheese is a favorite order for students at the nearby University of Virginia — which was established by Jefferson in 1819. Cavatappi pasta is mixed with cream, pepper Jack cheese and salt and pepper, then topped with a fried cheddar potato cake, which the staff recommends guests mix into the creamy dish.
Photo courtesy of Virginian Restaurant
Go to: Virginian Restaurant
Shrimp & Grits
Virginia — with hundreds of waterways and a long agrarian history — has been producing top-quality grits for centuries. Coarse-ground white grits from Byrd Mill in Ashland star in the Shrimp ‘n’ Grits dish at José Andrés’ America Eats Tavern in McLean, a restaurant that specializes in iconic American food. The grits in this Southern staple are combined with aged white cheddar and topped with wild Gulf shrimp and North Carolina ham and peppers, then finished with chopped corn nuts.
Photo courtesy of Rey Lopez
Go to: America Eats Tavern
Virginia is one of several Southern states that claim to be the birthplace of regional icon Brunswick Stew. In the colder months, Grey Goose in Hampton sells up to 10 gallons a week of the hearty mix of chicken and vegetables, including crushed tomatoes, corn, carrots, lima beans and potatoes. It’s one of their top sellers and comes with a side of biscuits. Mark your calendar: The fourth Wednesday in January is Brunswick Stew Day at the Virginia statehouse.
Photo courtesy of Bob Harper Photography
Go to: Grey Goose
For an utterly Virginian take on a classic Rockefeller, try the baked oysters at family-owned Molasses Grill in Halifax, close to the North Carolina border. Chef Steven Schopen’s dish features oysters that are often sourced from the James River or Chincoteague Bay. Instead of spinach and bacon, they’re topped first with local collard greens sauteed in shallots and garlic, then sugar-cured country ham from Kite’s in Wolftown. The dish is finished with lemon hollandaise and grated Parmesan.
Photo courtesy of Molasses Grill
Go to: Molasses Grill
Summer is soft-shell crab season in Virginia, when blue crabs molt to make way for new growth. Crabs are harvested just as this stage begins and held until the new shells are ready — and delicious. At Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia crabs are served with wild-foraged chanterelles (a friend of the restaurant procures the golden mushrooms from West Virginia) and fennel blossoms from the restaurant’s garden, which add a touch of anise flavor to the dish.
Photo courtesy of Restaurant Eve
Go to: The Palisades Restaurant
Once among the most-popular varietals in the country, Norton was first cultivated in Virginia in the 1800s. Back then, it helped propel the state to the top of the country for wine production. Vines were ripped out during Prohibition, and after Prohibition’s repeal many wineries shunned Norton in favor of grapes perceived as easier to grow, but in the last 20 years several Virginia vineyards have worked to bring back the state’s native red. Chrysalis in Middleburg has 41 acres under vine — which is thought to be the largest Norton planting in the world — and offers several bottlings that highlight the grape’s soft tannins and fruit-forward flavors of cherries and plums.
Photo courtesy of Chrysalis
Go to: Chrysalis Vineyards
Viognier, Virginia’s signature grape, is grown throughout the state. Glass House Winery, located on the Monticello Wine Trail in central Virginia, won a Silver at the 2016 Governor’s Cup competition for its 2013-14 estate-grown blend, offering notes of honeysuckle, caramel and lush tropical fruit on the nose. Glass House also has a plant-filled conservatory attached to its tasting room, where guests can enjoy wine with chocolates made by the winery’s in-house chocolatier.
Photo courtesy of Glass House Winery
Go to: Glass House Winery
A mix of onion, celery, chicken stock and peanut butter lays the base for this hearty soup that was popular in Colonial Virginia. Its roots are African, but the version served on Fridays at 1776 Log House Restaurant was adapted from one that was once served at the historic Hotel Roanoke, which was constructed in the 1880s. The family-run restaurant is located in tiny downtown Wytheville in the western part of the state, and is set in an actual log cabin built in its namesake year of 1776.
Photo courtesy of 1776 Log House Restaurant
Go to: 1776 Log House Restaurant
Shad, an ocean-dwelling fish that swims into Virginia’s rivers to spawn, is a local delicacy whose flesh and eggs appear on restaurant menus for a limited time in the spring. The so-called Founding Fish — some credit an early shad run in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River for saving George Washington's army at Valley Forge in 1778 — is traditionally marinated and smoked for hours. At River Bend Bistro in Alexandria, across the river from Washington, D.C., and close to Washington’s Mount Vernon, Chef-Owner Caroline Ross sautes local shad roe in lemon butter and serves it with spinach. When Ross can get her hands on a supply, it sells out immediately.
Photo courtesy of River Bend Bistro
Go to: River Bend Bistro