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.
UNION STREET PUBLIC HOUSE—ALEXANDRIA
What It Used to Be: Warehouse on the seaport
Built In: 1790
City records date the Union Street Public House structure to around 1790, when it was home to a warehouse for goods to be moved along the thriving seaport. It is claimed that George Washington frequently met with associates at this warehouse to conduct business. Although the building has been damaged several times by fires since its founding, the original structure still stands today, housing a restaurant that specializes in preparing fresh seafood, steaks, and handcrafted sandwiches.
AL’S ON FIRST—PULASKI
What It Used to Be: Pulaski Grocery Company/Christiansburg Can Company
Built In: Early 1900s
Inside the Jackson Park Inn, the structure now known as Al’s on First originally opened in the early 1900s as a grocery store, then transformed to a canning company in 1937. The building’s proximity to the railroad tracks made it ideal for shipping food quickly and efficiently. The menu found at Al’s on First emphasizes Homestyle cooking, focusing on crafting approachable Southern dishes at affordable prices.
What It Used to Be: Miller & Rhoads department store
Built In: 1888
Miller, Rhoads, & Gerhart opened in 1885, moving to their Broad Street location three years later due to their quick success and growth. With Gerhart relocating to Lynchburg in 1890, the dry goods and department store changed its name to the well-known Miller & Rhoads. By 1924, the store had expanded to cover the entire block, and at its peak in the 1950s, the owners added the Tea Room, a restaurant that served favorites like Brunswick Stew and chocolate silk pie while entertaining guests with fashion shows. The department store closed its doors for good in 1990, and in 2006, the space was converted into the Hilton Hotel, with La Grotta moving from its downtown location to join the Hilton in late 2016. The restaurant has been a popular stable with Richmond natives since 1994, crafting Northern Italian dishes packed with fresh flavor and inspired creativity.
FISHER & COMPANY—TAZEWELL
What It Used to Be: The Pisgah General Store
Built In: 1907
The Fisher & Company building began as a general store on the old railroad line, but after years of sitting empty, the building was donated to the Crab Orchard Museum in hopes of preservation and welcomed the restaurant as tenants in 2013. The restaurant contains the shelves, counter, and cash register found in the general store, lending an air of historic authenticity to the establishment, and the menu is infused with the Appalachian culture inherent to the Southwest Virginia region.
What It Used to Be: Feed house storing grain, hay, flour, and feed
Built In: 1880s
Virtue Feed & Grain began as a feed house in the 1800s, holding goods like hay, grain, and flour. Remnants of the original whitewashed sign can still be seen above the patio, and the interior of the historic building was carefully preserved by local artisans and craftsmen when it was converted into the restaurant. Every piece of the restaurant’s décor has been carefully selected, including the wood flooring and wall paneling, which were constructed from reclaimed wood from the same era as the building. When it comes to the menu, every effort is made to source local and sustainable ingredients, and the chefs transform these items into impressive dishes that do the beautiful historic building justice.
HALF WAY HOUSE RESTAURANT—NORTH CHESTERFIELD
What It Used to Be: Stagecoach inn
Built In: 1760
The Half Way House Restaurant was built in 1760 as a stagecoach inn, providing travelers heading to and from Richmond a place to rest the horses and take a break. Among the stagecoach inn’s visitors were notable historic figures like George Washington, the Marquid de LaFayette, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant. During the Civil War, Union forces conscripted the structure for their own use, setting up camp for several weeks during local battles. Today, the restaurant is furnished with authentic period antiques, providing an immersive experience for guests. The menu offers upscale dishes like Lobster Tail, Rack of Lamb, Filet Mignon, and Chesapeake Crab Cakes.
What It Used to Be: An old-fashioned movie theater
Built In: 1911
This popular Mediterranean restaurant is situated in one of Hampton Roads’ first movie theaters, the Olympic Theater, which was built in 1911 and screened newsreels and silent films featuring stars like Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplain. The theater closed in 1922 and new owners converted it into a clothing store. However, in 1992, the building changed yet again, becoming the current community mainstay of Café Europa, serving Northern Italian fare in charming, classic surroundings.
What It Used to Be: The boyhood home of author Dr. Havilah Babcock
Built In: 1884
Now an Inn and restaurant, The Babcock House Restaurant began as the home of author Dr. Havilah Babcock and was built in 1884. The inn offers five bedrooms and one suite furnished with period antiques for guests wishing to stay overnight in the historic establishment, and the restaurant cooks up southern style meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as a special Sunday Brunch. The lunch provisions are more casual, with an array of sandwiches and entrees, but at dinner, the restaurant shifts to a more upscale tone, with dishes like Berkshire Pork Chops, Shrimp ‘n Grits, and Braised Lamb Shank rounding out the menu.
What It Used to Be: Dry goods and department store
Built In: 1912
Named for nearby Gosport Shipyard built down the road in 1767 (now known as the Norfolk Naval Shipyard), the Gosport Tavern building was constructed in 1912 as a dry goods store. The structure has gone through several renditions over more than 100 years, transforming into a department store, an auto parts store, a furniture store, and finally reopening as the Gosport Tavern, beloved by locals for the reasonably priced, American-style meals.
Virginia is full of historic sites that have been renovated as restaurants, including dozens of taverns all around the Commonwealth. Where do you like to go for a great meal with a side of history?