Not So Sleepy: 48 Hours in Lexington With two new hotels, a half dozen new eateries, and a thriving music scene, Lexington has awakened from her nap., by Amy Balfour '89, '93L
With two new hotels, a half dozen new eateries, and a thriving music scene, Lexington has awakened from her nap. And now that she’s earned a spot on a brand-new brewery trail, she’s also ready to party.
Haven’t been here in a while? You might be surprised by the convivial vibe. Gone are the empty storefronts and quiet streets. Instead, sidewalks bustle with indie shops, live music jams, farm-to-table eateries and craft beer purveyors. So come on down for a long weekend and use this guide to invade the newest hot spots in the city affectionately dubbed “Lex Vegas.”
For a bird’s-eye view of the downtown scene, climb past the oversized photo of Robert E. Lee to the breezy terrace at Rocca. This Italian restaurant is perched on the second floor of the new Robert E. Lee Hotel. From this lofty perch, you can see who’s wandering Main Street. On sunny days, the terrace is a fine spot downtown for happy hour. On cooler nights, small groups can huddle around the terrace fire pit.
There has been a hotel or group housing on the site since the 1790s. Restaurateur and business owner Ugo Benincasa, a first-generation Italian immigrant, opened the 39-room boutique hotel in the fall of 2014. The six-story building, which dates to 1926, provided subsidized housing before Benincasa purchased it in 2011. North-facing rooms on upper floors share expansive views of the region, sweeping in the campuses of W&L and VMI.
The place to be on Thursday night is the Writer-in-the-Round music sessions at The Palms. The brainchild of musician Graham Spice, an audio engineer and instructor at W&L, the weekly concerts feature three singer-songwriters. The sessions are a collaboration between Spice and Jeff Ramsey, who bought The Palms in 2014.
Ramsey, who also owns restaurants in Staunton and Harrisonburg, was a Palms bartender in the late ’80s. As an owner he has added modern touches, from a point-of-sale computer system to a more expansive menu, but the overall look remains the same.
“It just needed some TLC and attention;’ said Ramsey. “I didn’t want to mess with the integrity of what The Palms stood for [in the past]. Something that has been here 25 years or 40 years … you don’t really want to mess with a whole lot.”
The hot brown sandwich is still on the menu, but the baskets of free popcorn? Gone. A decision made before Ramsey arrived. And to keep crowds polite, The Palms now closes at midnight.
Like a true Italian cafe, Pronto Caffe & Gelateria sells a little bit of everything. In the morning, step up to the counter for fresh croissants and scones, homemade breads and top-notch lattes. Later in the day, grab a gourmet sandwich to go or settle in for a glass of wine or Italian beer. The big draw is the gelato. Owners Meridith and Franky Benincasa (he’s Ugo Benincasa’s son) use a complex hot-process method to create silky gelatos that rival the best in Rome. Free samples are encouraged.
The Benincasas opened Pronto on the ground floor of what is now the Robert E. Lee Hotel in 2012. They imported the minimalist furnishings, as well as the coffee and gelato equipment, from Italy. You’ll likely see a soccer game playing on the big-screen TV.
What’s driving the energy downtown? Franky Benincasa thinks the 2008 market crash pushed a reset button for the city, creating opportunities for young entrepreneurs. The new hotels are also a force. “This is not a big town. So if you have 200 people downtown, who all have to find a place to eat, that might be a drop in the bucket in a big city;’ said Benincasa. “But here that’s a lot of people.”
W&L is also playing a role in downtown’s revitalization through new town-and-gown initiatives. Benincasa is a fan of the Get Downtown project, which started last year. During this first-year orientation event, resident advisors take incoming students to downtown shops (like the Shenandoah Attic) and restaurants (like Blue Sky Bakery), which ply them with food, goodies and coupons.
Get Downtown is a partnership between W&L and Main Street Lexington (www.mainstreetlexington.org), a volunteer-driven organization established in 2013. It is part of the national Main Street program, started 35 years ago to revive fading downtowns. Funding for projects comes from private donations, money-raising ventures, and the city. Today there are more than 2,000 Main Street communities across the United States, and Lexington won designation as a Virginia Main Street Community in March 2016.
Led by Stephanie Wilkinson, executive director; Burr Datz ’75, past board president; dedicated local entrepreneurs; and other volunteers, Main Street Lexington has also spurred downtown’s recent boom. A morning stroll reveals its aesthetic successes: bright flower boxes and an artsy bike rack or two. This June, it spiffed up the alleyway between Main Street and the McCrum’s parking lot with colorful plantings.
Shops and Sidewalks
As you walk the red-brick sidewalks, look for the Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge County sidewalk pavers (www.rrrockbridge.org). Added in 2014, these engraved granite bricks tell the stories of residents and visitors who’ve had an impact on the city, from Meriwether Lewis to Patsy Cline, from
a suspected witch to the country’s first streaker.
And the storefronts? In 2013, downtown had 16 vacant spaces. Today there is just one. Through the windows of old favorites and new ventures, you’ll see stylish women’s apparel, colorful lunch bags, funny tea towels, bright hammocks for hikers, wide-brimmed summer hats, and artisan edibles, from fancy cheeses to gourmet chocolates. The Bookery and Books & Co. are still keeping everyone well-read. Downtown’s newest shops include fashion-forward Gladiola Girls and the Cabell Gallery, a fine arts gallery featuring contemporary regional artists.
Erin Hutchinson is a familiar face to many younger alumni from her stint in the W&L Admissions Office. These days, however, you can find her presiding over the buzzing community center known as the Stitchin’ Post. The longtime quilter had been selling her pieces at local events like the Rockbridge Community Festival; talking to her buyers, she realized Lexington was ripe for a fiber-arts hub.
“I invited anyone who created with fiber to use my shop as a place to sell, as well as a place to teach and a place to gather with like-minded people;’ she said. “Within just a few weeks of opening, I had over 100 local people selling their work in the shop, and I haven’t looked back’.’
Hutchinson, who’s also the better half of Adam Hutchinson, W&L’s basketball coach, offers summer camps and after-school programs for kids, plus “Yarn Tastings” and “Sip & Stitch” (BYOB) for grownups. Dymph Alexander, retired from the Music Department, holds “Office Hours” for those needing a little extra help with knitting and crocheting. Several other W&L employees past and present also are Stitchin’ Post regulars.
“It awes me that I can be open for eight hours and not spend more than 15 minutes alone here in a given day;’ marveled Hutchinson. “I guess I wasn’t the only one looking for a creative community.”
For products created by W&L alumni and students, step into Old Lex Mercantile, on Nelson Street. Opened by Betsy and Lai Lee in 2014, the shop is dotted with shelves and tabletops dedicated to small-batch goods and specialty products. One display spotlights ‘Chups fruit ketchups, created by Matt Wallace ’06 and his wife, Kori. Another features Vern Clothing, a socially conscious apparel company co-created by Matt Kordonow ’16.
The Lees, who moved to Lexington from northern Virginia, purchased the building in2013 and started a small-business incubator called Start Here. Old Lex Mercantile is a Start Here initiative. To help new businesses launch and thrive, Start Here offers several options inside the shop, including month-to-month leases.
The Lees also run their own pop-up inside the store, selling imported olive oil and vinegars, pasta sauces and wine. They sell easy-prep gourmet dinners as well. For visiting alumni and others who need to make a conference call, scan a document, or use Wi-Fi, the Lees rent private work space in the basement.
Before the Lees, the most recent tenant of the space was internationally famed artist Cy Twombly ’53, who used it as one of his local studios before his death in 2011. The building sat vacant until the Lees moved in. “He would do these huge canvasses;’ said Betsy, “and you could see the outline and the splatters. There was splatter all over the floor and splatter all over the utilities sink.”
Curious about what W&L students are eating for lunch these days? Step inside the Blue Phoenix Cafe and Market. With a coffee table, central couches, a few used books, a handful of four-tops, and a communal table, the former home of Healthy Foods Market is looking cozy. And that’s the goal of Amenie and Damon Hopkins, who opened the vegetarian eatery in March.
“The living room in the middle — it’s not very practical, but it’s the idea of community,’ said Amenie, who worked at the Counter Culture Cafe at Healthy Foods before opening Blue Phoenix. (Healthy Foods, the beloved Lexington institution, closed this past winter.) “To just sit and talk to one another, and really connect. It’s so easy to become distant, that whole ultra-connected paradox. Particularly for my generation and the one up-and-coming, we’ve never known life without computers and screens’.’
The cafe brings this collaborative spirit to its business practices, selling easy-prep meals from The Red Hen restaurant and cheeses selected by Cheese to You, both downtown enterprises. And after lunch, you can check out Earth, Fire, and Spirit Pottery, the new business next door.
Hopkins attributes much of downtown’s revitalization to an influx of young citizens with new ideas. “What I see with my peer group is that a lot of us moved away for a while, and then we ended up coming back. And we’re bringing with us all those experiences.”
A one-hour stroll from downtown loops past several construction sites. From the corner of Main and Washington streets, walk north toward VMI. That cavernous building on your right? VMI’s new Indoor Training Facility, expected to open in November 2016. A new pedestrian footbridge across the road links the building to a parking lot beside the post.
The Miller’s House Museum at Jordan’s Point opened in May. It traces the history of transportation at the point, previously a hub for road, river and rail traffic. From the museum, the Woods Creek Trail rises through the woods along the back campuses of VMI and W&L. When the trail reaches the W&L Law School, follow East Denny Circle to Wilson Field. The new third-year student residences, called the Village, overlook the stadium. The adjacent natatorium is scheduled to open in February 2017.
Follow the footbridge to the main campus. Remember duPont Hall? The renovated building now houses the Center for Global Learning.
Don’t tell Jamie Goodin ’10 that Lexington is boring. The “Parks and Recreation” fan doesn’t have time for your lack of imagination. ”A lot of my contemporaries were telling me, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to do in Lexington’. I said, ‘That’s totally false’. In the past two years, there’s been a huge explosion in nightlife and live music.”
Goodin, W&L’s digital engagement manager, returned to Lexington from D.C. four years ago. Disenchanted with the sense of disconnectedness he felt in northern Virginia, he was determined to become involved with the Lexington community.
As a member of Main Street Lexington’s board, Goodin (now the board president) spreads the word about events using social media, websites and more traditional avenues such as newspapers and flyers. The events calendar on the Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County tourism website (www.lexingtonvirginia.com/events), Goodin said, is the best place to find out what’s going on.
Julie Messerich ’91, who moved back to Lexington a year and a half ago, agrees with Goodin’s assessment. “Downtown is happening!” said Messerich. “The food is so much better — as are the beer and wine options. Restaurants are catering to the alumni, college parents and tourist crowds in terms of higher-end dining and lovely places to hang out’.’
One of downtown’s most exciting developments is the return of live music. Goodin, who also serves on the Lime Kiln board, gives a nod to Blue Lab Brewing Co. for spearheading the reappearance of songwriters and acoustic groups. On Friday nights during Live@The Lab, bluegrass, newgrass, old-time and acoustic shows bring locals and university staff to the Blue Lab taproom. Tom Lovell ’91, W&L
associate director of alumni affairs, and Bill Hamilton, W&L biology professor, opened the scrappy but inviting brewery in 2010.
Blue Lab is a stop on the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail (www.beerwerkstrail.com), which launched in May. This sudsy path flows past a dozen microbreweries stretching from Harrisonburg south to Lexington. For an overview of some of the best craft breweries in Virginia, step up to the Virginia map painted on the wall at Brew Ridge Taps, a new craft beer bar on Nelson Street. Featured breweries are marked on the map with a bottle cap.
Vicki and Stacy Stevens opened Brew Ridge Taps in the fall of 2015, after moving here from North Carolina. “We had to drive all the way to Roanoke or Charlottesville to get the beer that we’d been drinking;’ said Vicki. The couple thought that was crazy. “Why are we making this drive? Let’s open something in Lexington;’ said Vicki.
With Trivia Tuesdays, Cards Against Humanity competitions, open mic nights, and live music every other Saturday evening, Brew Ridge Taps is a boon for downtown. And that’s without mentioning its 18 craft beers on tap. From the bar’s wall of craft beer, brought in from breweries across the U.S., you can build a six-pack to go. As for noshing, sandwiches here are served on homemade waffles and called wafllewiches.
Other Friday night options downtown? For a free wine tasting, stroll into the back room at Washington Street Purveyors between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. During First Fridays Lexington, held the first Friday of the month, galleries share artwork, wine, snacks and good cheer between 5 and 7 p.m. Afterwards, catch live music at Sweet Treats restaurant or Blue Lab. If you’re in the mood for scares, join a Haunting Tales ghost tour, a 90-minute walking tour of downtown’s spookiest sites.
Overnight guests at The Georges can indulge in yogurt, fresh fruit, made-from-scratch pastries and juices at the inn’s European-style continental breakfast, or request a full-service hot meal.
The swank boutique inn fills two buildings on Main Street: the Alexander-Withrow House and the former McCampbell Inn. The five-room Alexander-Withrow house, on the corner of Main and Washington streets, is called the Washington Building. The 39-room Marshall Building overlooks Main Street.
Richmonders Ted and Ann Parker Gottwald opened The Georges in 2014. The inn is named for generals George Washington and George Marshall. As a senior in high school, Ann Parker stayed at the Alexander Withrow house with her future in-laws during VMI football weekends. Ted, a cadet in the VMI Class of 1983, was a team member.
After two of their sons enrolled at VMI, the Gottwalds purchased the inn. “Lexington is just such a neat town that we decided when it came on the market to look at it;’ said Ann Parker. During renovations, she spearheaded the inclusion of modern amenities like heated towel racks and heated floors in the bathrooms.
Make reservations well in advance. “It really books up quickly if it’s a big weekend for W&L.” said Gottwald.
Adventuring in Rockbridge County
Downtown Lexington isn’t just a hub for dining and shopping. It’s also a convenient base camp for outdoor adventures. Hike House Mountain. Cycle the Blue Ridge Parkway. Kayak the Maury and James rivers. Backpack the Appalachian Trail. Or simply flyfish the mountain creeks.
One problem for visitors? Knowing all of their outdoor options. To help, the Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge tourism office shares details about local adventures, along with expert recommendations and outfitter listings, on a brand new website: www.rockbridgeoutdoors.com.
One new adventure with W&L connections is the Little House Mountain Trail. James Dick, W&L’s director of student activities and outdoor adventures, designed the trail. It was subsequently built by then Woodberry Forest students Perry Hammond (now a member of the W&L Class of 2018) and Billy Osterman pursuant to a community service grant. The trail switchbacks up the southern slope of Little House Mountain, which means you no longer have to bushwhack to the summit.
Before heading out, pick up a daypack at Walkabout Outfitters, cheese and crackers at Cheese To You, wine and nibbles at Old Lex Mercantile and Washington Street Purveyors, and fancy sandwiches at Pronto and Blue Sky.
With the Blue Ridge Mountains shimmering in the distance, the patio at Devils Backbone Brewery on Route 11 is a pretty place to sip a post-hike beer. A stop on the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail, it houses a popular taproom and an ever-growing production facility. Anheuser-Busch is acquiring the business.
A word of warning if you return downtown for a snack: You might be so impressed by the artisan edibles for sale that you end up buying the store. Just ask W&L Athletic Director Jan Hathorn, now the proud co-owner of Cocoa Mill Chocolatier. ”I’ll never forget the first time I ever put that chocolate in my mouth,” remembers Hathorn of the dark chocolate raspberry truffle. “I was like, ‘This is stellar’.”
Recognizing a great business opportunity, Hathorn and Laura de Maria bought Cocoa Mill in 2006. What does she enjoy most about owning the shop? “Hearing people exclaim how much they enjoy the products we produce.”
Chris and Patty Williams bought Sweet Things Ice Cream Shoppe in 2003. The ice cream is still homemade, and Oreo is still on the menu. You’ll also find their products at The Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, and at the Red Fox restaurant at the Natural Bridge Hotel. (In a recent development, Natural Bridge itself is in transition from a private property to a state park.)
Tucked beside the lobby inside the Marshall Building at The Georges, TAPS doubles as a Lexington living room. Couches, armchairs and a fireplace flank the bar in the intimate space, which fills quickly most nights with chatty groups of locals. Visiting alumni swell its ranks on weekends.
“A parent at W&L told me, ‘There’s nowhere to just go meet another couple and have drinks and sit down, without waiting in line for a reservation; ” recalled Ann Parker Gottwald. “So that’s why we made the lobby bar area more of a living room.”
The name TAPS gives a nod to the bugle ceremony that follows military ceremonies. (It’s also a combination of Ted and Ann Parker Gottwald’s first names.) An eclectic mix of sandwiches, burgers and snacks are washed down easily with draft craft beers, which rotate regularly. Specialty cocktails are also a highlight.
TAPS is the more casual of the two restaurants inside The Georges. Across the street, Haywood’s draws crowds with nightly live music and chef-driven menu specialties. Haywood’s is named for Ann Parker’s father, a lover of live piano music and Dixieland jazz. Floor-to-ceiling windows, coffered ceilings, and prominent moldings provide a stylish backdrop.
And the vibe? “I don’t think we’re going to do what Bob Dylan did in 1965: plug in and go electric,” said general manager David Groce. “We want people to enjoy the environment, but we also want people to enjoy each other and be able to have a great conversation.”
So Yeah, Lexington Rocks!
From the intersection of Main and Washington streets, Lexington looks much as it did in the late 1800s. Power lines are buried, brick buildings flank the sidewalks, and VMI looms on the north edge of town. W&L peeks into view to the west.
Reasons for the recent reboot are many. The Georges and the Robert E. Lee Hotel have spurred more foot traffic. Bar owners and forward-thinking musicians have energized the nightlife scene with game nights and live music. Dedicated citizens are keeping downtown looking sharp, while passionate artisans are introducing new products. W&L is connecting with new programs and initiatives as well as downtown offices.
But the most noticeable driving force is the collaborative spirit. The Red Hen, co-owned by Stephanie Wilkinson and chef Matt Adams, is a prime example. The restaurant supports nearby farms as well as local craftspersons and food artisans. “It’s really about bringing a whole community together to showcase and embrace and enhance what we have locally,’ said Wilkinson. “So it’s not just what’s on the plate, but the plate itself.”
How sold on Lexington is downtown resident Jamie Goodin? Very. ”A couple of months ago I sold my car. I just use my bike. It rocks.”