Williamsburg served as the seat of Virginia politics and culture throughout most of the 1700s. Today the town’s meticulously restored historic area is one of the world’s best and largest living-history museums—and in recent years it has evolved into as much a culinary destination as a colonial one.
“There’s a lot of excitement about farm-to-table and organic slow food,” says executive chef Rhys Lewis, who has led recent efforts to emphasize the past and present foodways of the area. “But that’s the way it was always done here. We’re trying to embrace it in a new way.” The city’s fresh focus means a greater emphasis on heirloom ingredients, artisanal cheeses and local wines—and, above all, embracing the culture of a place that’s been home to farmers, fishermen, bakers and brewers for nearly four centuries. In one of the true birthplaces of America, history has never been so delicious.
THE NEW COLONIAL CUISINE
Williamsburg’s four historic taverns have revamped their menus recently, incorporating more vegetables and meats from nearby farms. The finest of them all may be the King’s Arms, which opened in 1772. Today it’s known for its signature peanut soup, succulent roasts and savory pot pies.
You’ll find one of Williamsburg’s most innovative food experiences at Taste Studio, just steps from the colonial center. In the airy, light-filled space, chefs put a contemporary twist on heritage ingredients during interactive demonstrations. The two-hour sessions—highlighting things like apples in autumn, gingerbread in winter, carrots in spring—are held on Friday and Saturday at 10 a.m. and, in season, include a tour of the area’s historically accurate vegetable gardens and fruit orchards.
Meanwhile, as part of the Wine, Wit & Wisdom series, sommeliers and chefs lead classes about wines from around the world. Each class focuses on a specific region or grape varietal. “Tempranillo and Beyond,” for example, explores Spanish wines, while “British Fortifications” highlights sherry and port. For two hours, you’ll indulge in wine paired with local fruit and artisan cheese. Check out Pints & Pairings, a beer-based set of courses that alternate with those offered by Wine, Wit & Wisdom. Focused on U.S. microbreweries, they’re a headfirst dive into ales, porters and lagers—and the best food to eat while you’re imbibing.
GOODS TO GO
Merchants Square, a clutch of shops and eateries just off Williamsburg’s colonial center, is the perfect place to pick up souvenirs—or a tasty nosh. The Peanut Shop opened as a peanut butter stand more than 40 years ago and is now a sprawling space filled with peanuts in almost every preparation you can imagine, from sweet- and savory-spiced mixes to candies and chocolate-covered brittle. All the nuts are locally grown and flash-fried by hand, so they have an extra-crunchy bite. The salted nuts are a classic, but other seasonings—dill pickle, wasabi, Thai chili and lime—are popular.
Around the corner is another Merchants Square mainstay, the Cheese Shop. Family-run since it opened, in 1971, this gourmet store stocks some 200 varieties of artisanal cheese from farms in Virginia and around the world. In the same building, the Fat Canary is an upscale restaurant run by the son of the couple who opened the Cheese Shop. The seasonal menu changes regularly and features dishes like free-range guinea fowl with a ramp grit cake.
MORE SPOTS TO SIP IN
Wine and beer have been produced in this part of Virginia since the first English settlers arrived at nearby Jamestown, in 1607. Only a 10-minute drive from the Colonial village, the 300-acre Williamsburg Winery is Virginia’s largest. It’s home to award-winning vintages, including Acte 12 Chardonnay; other standouts are the Viognier, from a grape that grows especially well here, and Settlers’ Spiced Wine, an 18th-century-style red infused with cinnamon and cloves. The winery offers year-round tours and tastings, including the two-hour Extensive Tour and Reserve Tasting ($36 per person, reservation required), a private session held in the cellar’s wine library.
A few miles down the road, AleWerks Brewing Company is a newcomer that manages to be historic and irreverent at the same time. Working with Colonial Williamsburg food historians, AleWerks brewers developed two beers—the Old Stitch, an English-style brown ale; and Dear Old Mum, a spiced ale with coriander, cardamom and long pepper—according to 18th-century recipes. But the microbrewery also plays with modern flavors, which turn up in its spiced Pumpkin Ale and Coffeehouse Stout, a milk stout brewed with locally roasted Guatemalan coffee. AleWerks has a somewhat renegade feel: The staff numbers just 14, and the whole brewing facility is the size of a two-car garage. But with a newly expanded taproom, AleWerks has established itself as a serious destination for sampling unique local brews. Cheers.
King’s Arms: 416 E. Duke of Gloucester St.; 1.888.965.7254; colonialwilliamsburg.com
Taste Studio: 305 S. England St.; 1.888.965.7254; colonialwilliamsburg.com
Wine, Wit & Wisdom: 310 S. England St.; 1.888.965.7254; colonialwilliamsburg.com
Pints & Pairings: 310 S. England St.; 1.888.965.7254; colonialwilliamsburg.com
The Peanut Shop: 414 Prince George St.; 1.757.229.3908; thepeanutshop.com
Cheese Shop: 410 W. Duke of Gloucester St.; 1.757.220.0298; cheeseshopwilliamsburg.com
Fat Canary: 410 W. Duke of Gloucester St.; 1.757.229.3333; fatcanarywilliamsburg.com
Williamsburg Winery: 5800 Wessex Hundred; 1.757.229.0999; williamsburgwinery.com
AleWerks Brewing Company: 189B Ewell Rd.; 1.757.220.3670; alewerks.com