The misty rain can’t dampen the spirits of the dozen giddy people poised to cross the street at Main and Arch. After all, we’re armed with umbrellas and irrepressible good spirits. We are a small group of strangers, preparing to set out on the first ever “Sip & Saunter,” a progressive dinner innovated by Parks and Rec to introduce residents to the unique restaurants in historic downtown Waynesboro. Our party is one of four that will, over the course of the evening, make its way on foot to five different restaurants, each with a sampling of distinctive cuisine.
Our docent, Kathy Johnson, leads us like a group of schoolchildren across the wet street. The vintage streetlights lining Main Street glow with a cheery brightness. A buzz of anticipation steals over us, and we chatter with each other in excited whispers. Already we can hear the music spilling from the first restaurant.
#1—Heritage on Main Street
Heritage has gained a local reputation for consistently delicious food and a spirited atmosphere. A sports bar fills the back portion of the restaurant, while the front dining area contains simple wood tables and classic black-and-white photos of Waynesboro. The menu offers American favorites with a spin—juicy burgers crowned with unusual toppings like pork BBQ and jicama slaw; a club sandwich on Texas toast; a locally sourced veggie burger topped with fried green tomatoes on a pretzel bun. The hand-cut fries are unbeatable, and the Heritage Salad, with feta cheese and fried onion straws, is the best in town. The bar boasts a wide range of local beers.
Tuesday is Taco Night, so the restaurant is hopping when we step inside. Samples of dark ale from Seven Arrows Brewing Company are waiting for us. We sip and visit with the others in our group, and unexpected connections are made. On the heels of the beer, trays of Heritage’s famous tacos appear—a choice of fish, beef, and pork, each wrapped with a soft tortilla and topped with tangy slaw and fresh herbs. The talking turns to mmm’s. Kathy proclaims it time to move to the next restaurant just as I’m polishing off the last bite of my fish taco.
#2—Stella, Bella, and Lucy’s
In a matter of steps, our group passes from a lively sports bar to a refined tea room. Open for breakfast and lunch, SB&L is the go-to for scrumptious, sophisticated lunches. This is where you could take your grandmother as comfortably as your BFF. Antiques, china, cotton tablecloths, and original paintings fill the dining space. Fine touches, such as individual flower arrangements and unique sugar bowls personalize each table. If you can’t get enough of the sweet tea and chicken salad, the restaurant also moonlights as a catering business. Our own food sampling tonight is from the catering menu: a crab cake with roasted red peppers and chive aioli, served alongside a chilled Chardonnay. The crab melts in the mouth; the Charodonnay is crisp and light. Once again, SB&L proves itself a class act, a restaurant that never disappoints. And once again, Kathy is calling us to walk to our next stop.
#3—Blackjack & Company
Tucked in a brick retail space with a bay window, Blackjack & Co. has eclectic décor that could only be described as “retro cool.” A Beetle Bailey lunchbox perches above a crackling electric fireplace. On the wall, a Rat Pack poster, framed rock-n-roll photos, and a life-size Elvis cutout hint that we’re about to get food with personality. And we do. Rich Black, the grizzled owner and chef, emerges from the kitchen with plates of his house-smoked BBQ sliders, miniature maple-bacon cupcakes, and cups of Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager. By now everyone in the group feels like old friends and our tongues have loosened. We laugh as we pass Blackjack’s three signature sauces—Sissy, Dude, and Fire. Fingers are licked, plates are sopped to capture every drop of the pungent sauce. And for a finisher, the mapley sweetness of the cupcake with an unexpected crunch of salty bacon. We applaud the chef and wink at Elvis. Time to move on.
#4—Jake’s Bar and Grill
Around the corner on Wayne Avenue, Jake’s beckons customers with a laid-back atmosphere, charming western interior and locally sourced beef. Owner Rhonda greets us with warmth and familiarity, as though we are part of her family. She shares the story of the restaurant and how it fulfills a dream for her, as well as pays tribute to the son she lost in Iraq. In and around our cozy booth are the knick-knacks of a well-loved home. The full bar glows with colorful glass and mirrors. On the table sits a photo of the steer—one of Rhonda’s own— who gave his life for Steak Night. Presently, the chef, dressed in overalls, presents us with Tumbleweed Sliders—beef burgers, fried jalapeños and crispy onions, topped with a smear of cream cheese and apple jelly. Kathy taps her watch, but everyone is loath to leave. We all want to linger in this cozy, hospitable setting. We vow to come back, wave at Rhonda, and head across the street.
#5—The French Press
The French Press provides artistry for the taste buds as well as the eye. Barista Justin is adorning a latte with an exquisite example foam art. He will make us any coffee drink we request, he says—if we have room left in our stomachs. Beyond him, the café is an art gallery of textures: bricks and old pallets, upholstered sofas and polished wooden floors, tin panels and ceramic tiles. A rough-hewn wooden slab comprises the window bar that affords a view of foot traffic on Wayne Avenue. The mellow music of B.B. King lilts around us. We are wooed by the samples of locally baked treats from vendors like Stevie G’s and A Little Something Sweet. A writer, seated at one end of the room, is preparing to read from his published fiction. But the night is still young. The Shenandoah Art Center and other stores are staying open late tonight just for us, and Waynesboro, we discover, offers more to do than we can choose between.