The food in any restaurant tells a distinct story, echoing the chef or owner’s roots, culture, and origins. Eating that meal in a historic building with its own unique story adds a new layer of interest to a culinary experience. While it may not always be top of mind, ambiance significantly enhances every meal. Think about it…you probably enjoy a steak dinner anywhere, but add a little candlelight and the dining atmosphere improves exponentially. Virginia has no shortage of fine dining establishments, but the real stand-out stories are these excellent restaurants in renovated old buildings, where you can get a delicious meal with a side of history.
THE PALISADES RESTAURANT—EGGLESTON
What It Used to Be: Pyne’s General Store
Built In: 1926
In the 1920’s, Pyne’s General Store was a vital part of the community, also housing a doctor’s office and an attached Chevrolet dealership on the property. Today, the Palisades Restaurant has once again made the space a place for residents to gather and grab some locally sourced food from a menu referred to as “Appalachian Chic.” The restaurant recollects the charm of the previous general store with exposed brick walls, rustic hardwood floors, and pressed tin ceilings.
THE MANOR HOUSE AT LOCUST THICKET—LYNCHBURG
What It Used to Be: Private Residence
Built In: 1790
Constructed in 1790, the Manor House at Locust Thicket was built by Major Samuel Beverly Scott after he retired from George Washington’s Revolutionary Army. This plantation manor house, built in the Federal style, now holds a restaurant with a nod to the Old South, with the décor and menu heavily influenced by the 18th century lifestyle. Order from their seasonal menu items like the Unpulled Pork Shoulder with Creamy Fresh Grits & Shrimp, or the Slow Cooked Chicken Thighs with Prosciutto, Mushrooms, Potato, and Honey Roasted Apples. With many of the ingredients sourced locally, the dishes are always fresh and inventive. Pair your dinner with one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, inspired by and named after the original owners.
THE WATERWHEEL RESTAURANT—WARM SPRINGS
What It Used to Be: Grain Mill
Built In: 1900
The Waterwheel Restaurant, part of the Inn at Gristmill Square, operated as a mill until 1970, when the owners restored the building into the current restaurant. While the standing structure was built in 1900, there has been a mill operating on the present site since 1771. When renovating the old mill into a restaurant, the inn kept many of the interior and exterior features the same, creating a virtual museum of milling machinery. The namesake water wheel still stands outside, providing a peek at the historic roots of the restaurant.
What It Used to Be: Ladies Parlor in the Jefferson Hotel
Built In: 1895
Housed inside the renowned Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Lemaire Restaurant alludes to the splendor of the past with luxurious furnishings and an upscale Southern-style menu. The restaurant opened in 1986, but the space that Lemaire now occupies was formerly the ladies parlor of the hotel. The Jefferson was the passion project of one of Richmond’s wealthiest residents, Lewis Ginter. Although much of the original 1895 hotel structure was destroyed in an electrical fire in 1901, renovations and additions allowed the Jefferson to surpass its former glory and reopen grander than ever in 1907.
During the following years, the hotel had some rather unusual guests that often caused some anxiety. Alligators called the marble pools in the Palm Court home until 1948, when the last one finally passed away, but they can still be spotted today in the restaurant if you look closely; alligator motifs are cleverly hidden inside Lemaire’s decor to reference the previous reptilian inhabitants.
THE SUMMIT RESTAURANT—CHRISTIANSBURG
What It Used to Be: Victorian Mansion
Built In: 1888
In 1993, Executive Chef Abdul Sharaki transformed this old Victorian home into the highest rated restaurant in the New River Valley, and for the nearly 25 years since, he has been impressing customers with his noteworthy culinary skills. The menu at the Summit is a unique blend of flavors, from Middle Eastern to Southern. Very few places in Virginia cook up falafels and polenta in the same establishment, and even fewer do it well. The Summit Restaurant beats the odds, creating eclectic but consistently top-notch dishes
What It Used to Be: Addition to the Historic Hotel
Built In: 1927
The Speakeasy Restaurant serves up a mixture of upscale pub food and classic Southern dishes inside the General Francis Marion Hotel. The establishment pays homage to its origins in the Roaring 20s with favorites like the Rockeller Po-Boy, Speakeasy Poutine, and the Bootlegger Burger. Wood panels and crystal chandeliers provide an opulent atmosphere in the historic hotel restaurant.
LOG HOUSE 1776 RESTAURANT—WYTHEVILLE
What It Used to Be: Residence, Tailor, and General Goods Store
Built In: 1776
Like the name suggests, the Log House 1776 Restaurant started as a small, two-room structure in 1776, with another addition built onto the property between 1817 and 1830. The building has served many functions for the community since it began as a modest home, beginning in 1840 when a local tailor bought the property. A Mrs. Rosenheim purchased it in the 1870s and converted the space into a merchant shop selling goods, and that practice continued in 1876 when it again changed hands and became a general store operated by Mr. Samuel Walter. About 40 years ago, the current owners decided to convert the historic building into the Log House 1776 Restaurant, where the community now gathers to enjoy the excellent food and old-fashioned ambiance.
THE RED HEN—LEXINGTON
What It Used to Be: Unknown
Built In: 1898
The historic nature of The Red Hen in Lexington is a bit of a mystery. Although the building dates back to approximately 1898, the initial intent for the structure is uncertain, with some believing it was a grocery store and others saying it functioned as a law office. But there is absolutely no question that today, the building holds one of the finest restaurants in the Shenandoah Valley. The Red Hen, Lexington’s first farm-to-table restaurant, resides in a rustic building that resembles a small, antique-style barn. Red bricks and gingerbread trim cover the exterior, and inside, the restaurant has preserved the historic character of the structure by incorporating reclaimed woods into the remodel. For food, you’ll find a menu that is innovate yet approachable, welcoming all who are simply looking for a wholesome, delectable dining experience.
JIMMY MADISON’S SOUTHERN KITCHEN AND WHISKEY BAR—HARRISONBURG
What It Used to Be: Farm Supply Retailer and Telephone Company
Built In: 1870’s
The current home of Jimmy Madison’s in Harrisonburg was built right after the Civil War as a farm supply retailer that helped local residents put their farm back in working order after years of neglect due to the war. Later, the building would house the first telephone company in Harrisonburg, but it was eventually converted to several consecutive restaurant businesses, and as the latest, Jimmy Madison’s has been a popular spot for Harrisonburg residents. The menu features classic Southern dishes and behind the bar the restaurant offers an impressive selection of whiskeys from around the world.
THE MILL ROOM—CHARLOTTESVILLE
What It Used to Be: Gristmill
Built In: 1834
The Old Mill Room at Boar’s Head Inn has deep historic roots to the property, which itself dates back to 1734 when the 3,000 acre tract became part of Virginia’s first land grant, but the restaurant was added to the property in the 1960s. To ensure the restaurant stayed true to the over 180-year history of the property, an abandoned gristmill that dated back to 1834 was dismantled and salvaged timber was used to construct the Old Mill Room, the impressive dining location on the resort’s grounds. The Boar’s Head Inn is now one of the most critically acclaimed resorts in the state, and the on-site restaurant follows suit with a bevy of awards, including AAA’s Four-Diamond distinction.
UNION JACK PUB—WINCHESTER
What It Used to Be: The Union Bank Building
Built In: 1878
A true historic landmark in Winchester, the Victorian Cast Iron Union Bank building has been renovated and restored to become the Union Jack Pub, a popular spot for those looking for a casual bite to eat while cheering on their favorite sports teams. The menu features burgers and sandwiches, as well as classic Britain menu selections, like fish and chips or bangers and mash. They even serve Fentimans Botanically Brewed Sodas, a popular soft drink produced in England.
Looking for more Virginia restaurants with significant historic ties? Stay tuned for Part 2, and get even more amazing history at the tavern restaurants in Virginia, including beloved destinations like Michie Tavern in Charlottesville and the King’s Arms Tavern at Colonial Williamsburg.