Our Long Weekend in Virginia: Part 1

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.

Wright’s Dairy Rite of Staunton, Virginia

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.

The boomerang pattern on Wright’s tables was one of many classic touches in their dining room.
Wright’s founders

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.

My wife’s chicken fingers basket

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. 

My third-pound cheeseburger

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. 

This was a spectacularly good cherry milkshake. Notice the little bits of cherry in it.

As I alluded to, we had a view of our hotel from Wright’s. 

A view of our hotel from the parking lot of Wright’s Dairy Rite

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. 

The Blackburn Inn, where we stayed in Staunton.
A distant view of Wright’s Dairy Rite from the grounds of the Blackburn Inn.

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. 

Kathy’s of Staunton, VA, where we ate a late breakfast Saturday.
Kathy’s has an additional, larger dining room in addition to this one.

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.

My wife’s eggs and biscuits. Taste the Biscuit.
My banana-nut roll-ups. That’s a big slab of butter mixed in with the whipped cream.
Rugged and intensely salty country ham

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.

Sunspots glass-blowing studio and shop in Staunton, VA
We didn’t get to check out a demonstration in this glass-blowing studio.

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. 

The home in which Wilson was born and lived his first three years.

One of the museum’s high profile exhibits was the presidential limousine used by Wilson. It was a beauty.

Woodrow Wilson’s presidential limousine

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.

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. 

The oven-stove in the Wilson household
This was the table Wilson’s father ate at by himself. Mrs. Wilson ate separately.
Wilson’s crib
Those are Wilson’s parents. Mr. Wilson was a reverend.
A framed portrait of Jefferson in the Wilson household. Jefferson was a hero of Wilson’s.

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. 

Published by BZ Maestro

I live outside of Philadelphia and have been food-obsessed for as long as I can remember. After toying with the idea of starting a blog for a fairly long time, the extinction of a food-themed message board that I frequented for years prompted me to finally take action. Thank you for taking the time to check out what I've been up to - and eating. If you've enjoyed what you have read and seen, please consider clicking the "like" button and signing up as a follower.

3 thoughts on “Our Long Weekend in Virginia: Part 1

  1. Another excellent post. You’ve given me 2 reasons to spend some time in Staunton. e always just whiz by because it’s a few extra minutes off the interstate.
    The country ham looks great to me, although it is sliced too thick. For me, the salt is a feature rather than a bug.
    Wilson also was truly horrible on First Amendment issues, with the Debs prosecution and letting Palmer remain as AG. But he was good on labor issues.


  2. You visit Staunton and fail to acknowledge Harold, Don, Lew and Phil. I’m disappointed.

    Outside of that, you brought your A game! I really appreciate that you went heavy on the history.


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