My wife and I hit the road for the first time in a while this past weekend. Our destination was Virginia, where we spent a night in Staunton before heading southwest to Richmond, the state capital, for a couple more days and nights. Those of you who have read some of my old travel posts may remember that we like to visit state houses, and the one in Richmond turned out to be a beauty.
Given how many photos I took of what we ate and saw between Friday and Monday, I’m going to break up this trip report into three parts and will go through it chronologically.
While I normally plan a meal stop for the road when we travel, there is a restaurant in Staunton that I had lined up for a late lunch immediately upon arriving in town and before checking into our hotel, which just happens to be across the street from it. We decided that a meal stop on the road wouldn’t work out in terms of timing and ate breakfast at home before leaving.
Wright’s Dairy Rite has been on my radar for over 20 years. I’ve read Michael Stern’s review of it on the roadfood website many times, always figuring I’d get there one day. I had intended to stop at Wright’s for lunch in 2017 while traveling with my friend to Charlotte to see the Eagles play the Panthers. But we felt nature’s call as we were approaching the New Market exit of I-81. The Southern Kitchen is in New Market, so we decided to kill two birds with one stone and have lunch there instead.
There would be no audibles this time. After two decades of wondering how good Wright’s burgers and shakes are, I wasn’t going to allow myself to get sidetracked from finding out Friday.
The drive to Staunton took a little longer than expected at roughly five hours and was largely uneventful. But I did get one cool photo-op when we drove over the Susquehanna River. Much of the bridge was surrounded by fog.
We finally arrived in Staunton close to 2:30 Friday and headed straight to Wright’s Dairy Rite.
It’s a classic 50s-style drive-in that opened in 1952. They didn’t add an indoor dining room until 1990. After spending so much time in the car, we decided to get out of it and eat inside.
Although the dining area doesn’t go back that long, it also looks like it is straight out of the 50s.
Wright’s is known for their burgers and shakes, but they also have an assortment of other menu items. In fact, my wife opted for a chicken fingers platter.
The burgers come in a variety of sizes with a large array of optional toppings. Their “Superburger” comes with two thin beef patties separated by a piece of bread and topped with cheese, lettuce and special sauce. Sound familiar? Would you be surprised to know that Wright’s has been serving them longer than the Big Mac has been in existence?
They have a phone at every booth. To order, simply pick it up and you are connected directly to the kitchen. Place your order and the food will be brought out to your table by a friendly server.
My wife enjoyed her chicken fingers, but wasn’t nuts about the fries that came with them. Luckily for her, I ordered ‘tater tots and was happy to share them.
Michael Stern recommended going with one of the thicker burgers at Wright’s because they tend to stay juicier. I ordered a third-pound cheeseburger topped with onions, pickles, ketchup and mustard. It tasted good, but in spite of the patty being relatively thick, it was still a little on the dry side.
But the burger wasn’t my only reason for wanting to visit Wright’s. They use “all-natural fruits” in their milkshakes, and nobody loves a good fruit-flavored shake more than I do.
The cherry shake that I ordered turned out to be better than good. It was one of the great shakes I’ve had over the years. The consistency was very thick, but not quite so thick that a spoon was required. There were little bits of cherry visible throughout and the flavor they imparted was both natural and somewhat subtle. I’ve had cherry shakes made with artificial syrups where they hit you over the head with the flavoring. That was not the case at Wright’s. Everything in that shake was beautifully proportioned.
As I alluded to, we had a view of our hotel from Wright’s.
While the Blackburn Inn has only existed as a lovely boutique hotel since 2018, the building was previously a longtime medical facility called Western State Hospital, which was founded in the early 19th century. The building and grounds it sits on are spectacular. There are also offices and apartments on the grounds.
As usual, I spent a lot of time researching the restaurants in the areas we’d be traveling to. I had narrowed down Friday’s dinner options to a couple highly rated restaurants in the heart of Staunton. Unfortunately, as we pulled up to our top choice, we spotted a lot of people waiting outside to get in. We weren’t in the mood for a long wait to be seated and kept going until we reached option B. It was closed for some reason.
I had no option C and had left my restaurant list back in our room. The fact that it was dark out was complicating matters. I can’t see well enough to drive at night, while my wife’s situation is only marginally better. So just driving around looking for places without addresses to punch into the GPS wasn’t really an option. Frustration set in and we decided to go back to the hotel and eat something there. We were told while checking in that dinner was served until 9 p.m.
We had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be more like dining at an old-school boarding house than a restaurant. There were only a few menu options and I had the feeling that what we ordered had been prepared earlier and re-heated.
So dinner that first night essentially fell through, although what we ate wasn’t really that bad and we were happy to have something without having to go back out in the dark. Fortunately, there were no other such calamities during this trip.
Our late breakfast Saturday at Kathy’s, a popular diner-luncheonette type restaurant on the outskirts of Staunton, went much better. Kathy’s had served all three meals until recently, when staff problems forced them to limit service to breakfast and lunch.
The interior has a classic look, right down to the pattern on their tables.
We both opted for breakfast over lunch. My wife kept it simple with a pair of fried eggs and wonderfully light biscuits.
I knew well in advance that I’d be ordering country ham at Kathy’s. They didn’t offer red-eye gravy, so I decided to get something sweet to go with it to offset the intense saltiness of the ham and opted for banana-nut roll-ups. They were described on the menu as thin pancakes, but were thick enough to pass for regular flapjacks.
Country ham is a southern “delicacy” that was highly romanticized by Jane and Michael Stern in their reviews of eateries that served it. It also tends to look enticing to me in photos. But on the few occasions that I’ve tried it over the years, I’ve generally been put off by its rugged texture and extremely salty flavor. After a number of years without having it, I was ready to give it another shot.
After having it again, I still don’t understand the appeal of country ham. The first word that comes to mind when describing its texture has got to be leathery. Our server used the same word when discussing it at the end of our meal. And the saltiness is intense – a bit more so than I find enjoyable. But I’m glad I tried it again. Doing so will keep me from ordering it for about another decade, when the memory of Saturday’s breakfast will no longer be fresh and I’ll once again fall captive to the Sterns’ romantic descriptions of country ham.
On the bright side, I enjoyed the banana-nut roll-ups very much.
As we were leaving Kathy’s, I noticed they had a small list of pies on their board. I’d normally want to take advantage of that, but I was too stuffed to be disappointed over not having any. And I wasn’t really in the mood for any of their flavor options anyway.
After breakfast, we had a couple tourist stops to make before leaving town for Richmond.
First, there was Sunspots glass blowing studio. We were hoping to see a demonstration, but the guy who does that didn’t arrive until we were on our way out. My wife did manage to pick up a couple small items while we were there.
Our final stop in Staunton was the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, which is next door to the home in which he was born.
Wilson didn’t make the cut when I put out my list of the Top 10 American presidents late last year. In fact, the truth is, I am not crazy about the guy. For starters, he regressed the civil rights situation for blacks in Washington while President and was a major racist even by the standards of his day. He also came up with a crazy set of policies for remaking the world order after World War I. They were partially to blame for giving us World War II. On top of that, he laid the foundation that has resulted in all subsequent presidents having to justify American foreign policy or military initiatives in terms of democracy promotion, rather than just doing what’s in the nation’s interest from a realpolitik stand-point.
Nonetheless, while much of Wilson’s impact was negative in my view, he was unquestionably one of the more influential presidents and an extremely important historical figure. So I wasn’t going to let my personal views of the man get in the way of visiting a major facility dedicated to his memory.
One of the museum’s high profile exhibits was the presidential limousine used by Wilson. It was a beauty.
The museum was extremely informative and had plenty of good viewing material. I’m just giving a small sample of it here.
Another of the museum’s exhibits, down in the basement, was a model of a World War I trench.
After making our way through the museum, we took a guided tour of the home in which Wilson was born. He only lived there until age three, at which point his family moved to Augusta, Georgia. But the home offers visitors a look at what life was like for a fairly comfortable family, as well as the three slaves who lived there. While the slaves weren’t owned by the Wilson’s, the family did benefit from their labor. The tour guide speculated that their presence could have influenced young Woodrow’s views on race.
That’s all for the Staunton leg of our trip. I’ll post Part 2 of my report on our long weekend in Virginia in a day or two.