Culpeper is a treat for the eyes — and the belly that craves variety.
by Matthew Korfhage
Davis Street in the tiny Northern Virginia burg of Culpeper – the town that gave George Washington his first job as a surveyor – is a hodgepodge of brick-faced Americana, with old-time theaters and families strolling beneath awnings.
Once dubbed the prettiest little town in Virginia by Architectural Digest, Culpeper has a devotion to beauty that extends to food and drink. It is a place where old and new collide, where one of the last true old-time Virginia country ham shops is just around the corner from a third-wave coffee lab, where European cheeses and old-world chocolates share time with some of the most singular wine, liquor and beer in the state.
Here’s what to eat and drink in and around Culpeper.
Eat Mediterranean food with a serious pedigree
The opening of Foti’s Restaurant in 2005 is often credited with kicking off a food and shopping renaissance on downtown’s Davis Street. Frank Maragos, chef and co-owner, came to town fresh from the Inn at Little Washington – which last year became the only three-star Michelin restaurant in Virginia. The national press soon followed Maragos, with well-deserved praise.
Fourteen years later, Foti’s remains a fine but unfussy restaurant, with one wall devoted to a charmingly DIY, pâpier-maché mural of a woman slipping into a glass of Berni aperitif.
The Mediterranean fare is equally irreverent. A delicate, chocolate-filled s’more empanada arrives in a bell jar of smoke. A tower of tuna poke abuts a watermelon cut to the shape of a crescent moon. And North African-spiced chicken comes wrapped in phyllo pastry of almost unbearable lightness.
Pay your respects at a shrine of true Virginia ham
Tom Calhoun is one of the last true makers of the prosciutto of the South: a dry-cured, real-deal Virginia country ham made at Calhoun’s Country Hams much the same way his grandfather did it, only with a little less salt.
In a narrow hallway of a meat shop, which also sells local jam and pork barbecue, you can buy a whole ham if you’d like. But a mere $1.35 will procure you a tiny American masterpiece, a profusion of ham barely contained in a raised, browned biscuit made by 80-year-old Knakal’s Bakery up the street. Locals swear Knakal’s also makes the best doughnuts on Earth, but on a Saturday you might have to wake up early to get them.
Take sides on local barbecue
“Some people like Shawn’s,” one local might say when you ask who’s got the best barbecue, “but I prefer Uncle Elder’s.” The next might tell you the opposite. The
location of Uncle Elder’s BBQ has the most charm, in a cozy former stable just off Culpeper’s main drag. Pitmaster Elder Fuentes also makes terrific smoked sausage and unconventional sauces: a lovely western Carolina vinegar, and a sweet and tangy mustard sauce laden with dill. On Sperryville Pike, Shawn’s Smokehouse BBQ is a more modern and well-oiled machine, out-fitted with a painter’s palette of sauces and some seriously juicy pulled chicken.
Find local-made everything
Alongside a country road leading northeast of downtown toward Sperryville, Karen Mosebrook’s excellent Cocoa Manna is among only a handful of true bean-to-bar chocolate makers in Virginia. And each one tastes different, depending the cacao beans’ country of origin. Guatemala tastes like caramel. Bolivia tastes like deep cherry. And Belize is tart and fruity. But call ahead before you visit: Business hours are a thing of whim and fancy.
On downtown Davis Street you can find local wildflower honey at La Bee da Loca. The Colorado-raised owner, Felecia Chavez, keeps 14 hives scattered around Culpeper, each producing its own flavor from nearby flowers frequented by her bees. If you are lucky, you might talk her into selling a few of the extra-special bottles, redolent of lavender and jasmine. She keeps those tucked away for herself. Climb upstairs to visit a small observation beehive she keeps safe behind glass.
Next door, Moving Meadows Farm sells house-baked Swedish bread, sundaes made with homemade ice cream, and meat from pasture-fed goats and cows that owners Wally and Amy Hudson raised themselves. Using house-ground organic flour, Moving Meadows bakes quite possibly the best cinnamon bun you’ll ever eat, iced with maple cream and booming with impossible richness.
Pick your poison
Grape lovers will find a plenitude in the Shenandoah Valley, but take your faithful designated driver down I-29 to Leon, where the Prince Michel vineyard helped kick off the Virginia wine boom in the 1990s. In Madison, taste the new-school – which is old-school. Early Mountain Vineyards is on the forefront of natural wines in Virginia – wines made according to old methods, with as little intervention as possible. Try its rosé pét-nat, a pink bubbly allowed to carbonate itself gently in the bottle, made with a method more ancient than Champagne.
At 31 years old, Belmont Farm Distillery is the state’s oldest home to legal moonshine. Belmont is southeast of town, on an idyllic farmstead that used to be a church, and there Chuck Miller makes excellent white lightning in a massive copper-pot still, carrying on a tradition started by his bootlegger grandfather. Belmont also provides legal refuge for one of the most famous bootleggers in America, Tim Smith of Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners. Smith’s Climax brand is distilled and sold here.
Meanwhile, at 4-year-old Far Gohn Brewing in downtown Culpeper, the best beer on tap turns out to be the oldest by decades. The “historical pale ale,” adapted from a recipe first made by the grandfather of owner Steve Gohn, pours sweet and clean and the color of honey. On special occasions they make the beer the way Grandpappy really did it: At a whopping 10 percent alcohol by volume, it’ll make you forget the recent past.
And in Sperryville, 20 minutes northeast of Culpeper, Pen Druid Brewing makes beers according to a different ancient tradition: Beers are brewed from wild yeasts and boiled over a wood fire, then kept in barrels for up to three years before you get to taste them in a bottle. The results are never predictable: earthy, sour, deep, complex, and always interesting.
From there, the tree-lined road back to Culpeper meanders through farm and valley, and when you finally arrive back on Main Street it will seem like home.
Visit Virginia is a six-part series about towns and cities that are particularly worthy of a visit. The next installment will feature Roanoke.