Communities around the world have seen a shift in attitudes towards food and drink from creative new chefs producing innovative cuisine to breweries popping up seemingly everywhere. This trend has even touched Virginia’s Blue Ridge as I learned on a recent trip, and the region I thought I knew so well has changed demonstrably since my last visit and entirely for the better. There’s a lot to love about the food scene in and around Roanoke, including these not to be missed experiences.
Roanoke Food Tour
At first I was surprised to hear that Roanoke has a food tour, but that’s just my perspective as a former local peeking through. As it turns out there’s a rich food scene in the city, as best experienced on a Roanoke Food Tour. Inspired by food tours in other cities, owner Larry Landolt started his company Tour Roanoke as a way to share the colorful history and impressive food culture of the Roanoke Valley and, in the process, has created a fun and engaging experience. I’ve been on many food tours around the world, but a few aspects of the Roanoke tour truly impressed me. First, most of the participants were locals all there to learn more about their city. I love that and it speaks to the quality of the tour I think. Second, there was a heavy emphasis on the history of Roanoke most of which, even though I used to live there, was new to me. On our walk of Downtown Roanoke we sampled foods that are both at the heart of the Roanoke experience, as well as new and imaginative bites that speak to the city’s future. It was a wonderful way to get reacquainted with the city and I can’t recommend it enough.
Beer, Wine and More
Craft breweries seem to be popping up around the country, and Virginia’s Blue Ridge is no exception. It had been several years since my last visit and I was shocked by how many had opened in the intervening years, including Parkway Brewing Company. Started by two couples in 2013, the goal was simple – to take part in the exploding craft beer culture and to produce brews that are both creative and of course tasty. Since then they’ve created a sort of community in their tasting room, an expansive space that regularly features musicians, food trucks and more. The space itself is fun and inviting, but so are the beers that run the gamut, but have a heavy emphasis on hoppy IPAs. Parkway isn’t the only brewery in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, in fact there’s a Cheers Trail that features stops at some of the region’s most popular breweries, wineries and distilleries, offering discounts and a fun way to experience the drinks aspect to Roanoke and beyond.
I love experiencing restaurants that are the clear product of passionate and creative chefs, and that was certainly the case as I sat down to eat at Roanoke’s Local Roots in the Grandin neighborhood. The term farm-to-table may now be a bit overused, but at Local Roots it’s been their guiding principle since the very beginning. The chefs and owners have long established relationships with a variety of farmers throughout Southwest Virginia, helping them create food that they term S.O.L.E. – Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical. It influences not only their meats and vegetables, but also their wines using smaller wineries who care not only about flavor, but their impact on the earth. Not only is Local Roots an ethical restaurant to enjoy, but the food is spectacular. With a changing menu that reflects their locally sourced ingredients, you can be sure that your meal won’t only be fresh, but delicious as well.
Peanut soup is an ancient dish, at least by American standards. It was extremely popular in colonial times, especially in Virginia but its roots go back even further to Africa. At the Hotel Roanoke, it was introduced in 1940 by the hotel’s head chef on a challenge by the general manager. The now classic accompaniment spoonbread followed about a decade later and a match made in heaven was born. The bread is creamy and rich and a perfect side to the hearty peanut soup. It has been one of my favorite dishes for years, but to enjoy it at the Hotel Roanoke is to experience the “real” version. That’s just the start though of the food scene at the Hotel Roanoke and its storied Regency Room. Originally opened in 1939, the Regency Room dining experience has been at the heart of Roanoke’s social and cultural scene ever since. Like the hotel though, it also went through a time when it lost its way, but thanks to creative chefs it is once again not only one of the best restaurants in Roanoke, but the state. It’s been awarded the AAA Four Diamond Designation, one of only three restaurants in Virginia to earn the rating, thanks to its unique blend of French and Southern cuisine. It’s simply one of those must-visit spots in Roanoke no visitor should miss.
The River and Rail
If Roanoke has a celebrity chef, it’s Aaron Deal – proprietor of the now legendary River and Rail restaurant in Roanoke. The look and feel is very much bistro-style, but with a Southern twist and the menu features locally sourced, seasonal ingredients that show off the best that Virginia has to offer. Chef Deal and his team have done an incredible job creating rustic, regional cuisine including many items made in-house, like their cured meats and pickled vegetables. The menu changes daily, but you can be assured that you’ll enjoy fun dishes that are intensely creative but which are also firmly rooted in Southwest Virginia. It’s not only a delicious experience, it’s a fun one too and I now understand why The River and Rail has risen to such prominence.
These are just some of the many incredible bites I enjoyed during my time in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, but I have no doubt whatever you decide to enjoy you’ll have an experience that you’ll never forget.