Making a Meal of It in Front Royal, Va.

By Carol McCabe
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Shenandoah National Park has 6,000 white-tailed deer, several hundred black bears, 200 bird species, 47 kinds of ferns and mosses and 100 sorts of trees whose film-friendly October colors lure thousands to Skyline Drive. But once again this fall, travelers will find that the park's glorious mountaintop highway offers little diversity when it comes to food. If you want seared duck breast or peanut butter pie, you'll have to linger in Front Royal, Va., at the entrance to the drive.

Front Royal's tourism department lists about 50 eateries including all the usual fast-food faves but also white-tablecloth restaurants with contemporary menus, old-timey local favorites and ethnic spots serving Italian, Mexican, Asian, Caribbean and occasional flashes of fusion: At Samurai Steakhouse, whose signs advertise barbecue, I saw a long-bearded mountain man assessing a plate of sushi.

This historic Southern county seat (population about 17,000) is itself an appealing destination, a reminder of 20th-century small-town America. Neighboring buildings rose in different generations, not part of anyone's master plan. A pretty downtown park has a classic white bandstand and flower baskets overflowing with petunias. Work is getting done, but a pickup truck's bumper sticker declares, "I'd Rather Be Turkey Hunting."

Many food choices are clustered along Main and Royal streets. Wynn's (219 E. Main St., 540-635-5956) is a local landmark where "everybody knows everybody," Carolyn Willingham, co-owner with her sister Dolores Williams, told me. Breakfast is available anytime during the day; the restaurant is open from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. There are plates of homemade biscuits and locally made sausage in gravy for $3.75 and a $4.75 special of country ham and really fresh eggs with yolks as orange as black gum leaves in autumn. The decor: booths and bare tables, shelves of trophies, a rack of tractor caps, a case displaying Willingham's homemade pies, and hand-lettered admonitions ("Please keep your shoes, boots and feet off the seats"). The food: substantial, inexpensive and good.

Breakfast also starts early at the Knotty Pine (801 N. Royal Ave., 540-635-3064). Locals have been coming here since the 1940s, when the soda fountain, still in use as a service counter, was new. Go for lunch: perhaps crunchy fried chicken, four pieces for $7, and choose two sides. Prices are low, plates are full and folks are friendly. You could keep to yourself, but it would be hard.

The Main Street Mill (500 E. Main St., 540-636-3123) shares a parking lot with Front Royal's tourist information center. Alice Barnhart opened her restaurant in 1997 in a former grain mill: bare beams and wood floors, ceiling fans and tongue-and-groove wainscoting reflect the rooms' origin. Hearty shrimp-and-crab chowder served in bread bowls was $6.95. Customer favorites include the ribs, slow simmered and finished on the grill.

Nearby, at the six-year-old Apartment 2G restaurant, chef David Gedney and pastry chef Staci Gedney, a couple who met when both worked at the Inn at Little Washington, were early believers in Front Royal's culinary promise. "At the time we opened, we were the only higher-end restaurant out this way," David Gedney recalls. After launching Apartment 2G (upstairs at 206 S. Royal Ave., 540-636-7306; $50 prix-fixe weekend dinners) and J's Gourmet (540-636-9293), the street-level wine and food shop (great sandwiches and picnic makings), they added a casual lunch place, Element Bar & Bistro (540-636-9293), adjacent to the shop. Catering a bit to a beyond-the-Beltway clientele with pan-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes at $12, the menu also introduces new flavors: fennel slaw and red pepper coulis to accompany a $9 crab cake, black beans and mango salsa for a $16 salmon dish.

Picnic fare also can be found at Vino e Formaggio (124 E. Main St., 540-635-2812), which offers an international stock of 150 wines plus beers and specialty foods. The inventory is smaller than at J's, but what's there is good.

In addition to recommending Apartment 2G, Front Royal B&Bs also suggest Main Street's newest arrival, the Wine and Duck (117 E. Main St., 540-636-1000), which opened for lunch and dinner just months ago. The menu, an all-day listing that includes burgers and other sandwiches for $8.50 along with elaborate entrees, was appealing. And the food? Terrific. One of two duck choices, juicy seared ovals of duck breast with vermouth-infused tamarind butter, served with chilled spinach and daikon radish salad ($23), was rich and ample enough to share. Praise, too, for Thai-inspired sea scallops with a spicy peanut sauce and roasted garlic ($19). Had this been dinner, we might have added any of four appetizers or three desserts, all of which sounded interesting.

Or we could have popped across the street to another Front Royal newcomer, D&B Chocolates and Confections (120 E. Main St., 540-622-2455) for a handmade piece of chocolate to complete the feast. Actually, we did.

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