Fine and Funky Lynchburg, Va.

By Pamela Redmond Satran
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 15, 2009; 6:03 PM

Finding a great undiscovered town is almost as rare these days as stumbling on an amazing restaurant that hasn't been Yelped or into a junk store whose owner has never heard of "Antiques Roadshow."

That's part of what makes Lynchburg, Va., so wonderful. Few people go there expecting much. It's out of the way, seen as a poor relation to posh Charlottesville, an hour to the north, and genteel Lexington, an hour northwest. Its reputation as home of conservative Christian-oriented Liberty University and the late Jerry Falwell hardly bodes well for style, culture and night life.

And even if you could get past all those mental roadblocks, recent highway projects make it all too easy to zoom along its outskirts, never seeing more than the septic-tank factory.

But you'd be missing a lot. Lynchburg is the perfect place to while away a long weekend. It embodies just the right blend of fine and funky, all within a walkable historic downtown.

I discovered Lynchburg half a dozen years ago, when I began going to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, 20 minutes north, to work on my novels. Lynchburg was the nearest big town, the place to go when you needed art supplies or a cappuccino.

Lynchburg has a vibrant cultural scene and a distinctly bohemian air. More than an acceptable place to stop for a tuna sandwich, it's a destination packed with standout restaurants and shops that combine individual style with world-class quality and taste.

One of my favorite restaurants on Earth is in Lynchburg: Bull Branch. It's a place where I've never failed to have an excellent meal and an excellent time. So dark that the translucent menus are designed to be read backlit by the tin lanterns on the tables, Bull Branch brews up ice-cold martinis and mouth-watering food that ranges from bourbon-marinated pork with sweet potato hash to vegetarian entrees as satisfying as a steak (or so my non-carnivore pals tell me). Like Lynchburg itself, it's that perfect blend of casual and sophisticated, elegant and honky-tonk.

If you want to tip the scales toward elegant, the other great place to eat in town is Dish, which features tapas and a sophisticated wine list. I'm more of a beef and bourbon girl myself, but many of my VCCA friends prefer to pull a stool up to one of the tall tables at Dish when they need a night away from the poetry mines.

First Fridays are a huge event in Lynchburg, when Riverviews Artspace on Ninth Street down by the river throws open its gallery doors to showcase the work of the artists who live and create in the converted factory building. The quality of the work may not compete with what you'd see at a Manhattan gallery, but the artists are a whole lot friendlier and, true to the town's form, there are a significant number of diamonds among the coal.

The Saturday daytime sport in Lynchburg is poking through the antiques, junk and hardware stores that line Main Street. One of my favorites is Estate Specialists, a three-level mix of antiques, treasures and junk. At first glance, it all seems like junk, packed too tightly into the vast space. But take a closer look, and you may divine a down-cushioned sofa beside the plastic chairs, a gorgeous watercolor next to a Pepsi poster. Everything is reasonably priced: On my last visit, I bought eight sturdy yet attractive Duncan Phyfe-style dining room chairs for $500 and lusted after an oval end table with turned legs that was going for $150 and a little Victorian side chair with a gorgeous needlepoint seat in perfect shape for $135.

Another favorite Main Street shop is the Farmers Seed & Supply, an old-fashioned purveyor of goods from earthenware bowls to daisy seeds. Beware, though, because it closes at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, as does the Community Market at 12th and Main, which hosts food and craft stands along with local farmers selling their wares.

Plan on a late lunch at the White Hart Cafe at Inklings Bookshop, where you can get a bona fide soy latte and panini, and consume them while reading a book borrowed from the comfortable and sophisticated little bookstore's shelves. Yes, when you go into the backroom, where they keep the kids' books, you'll discover that it's really a Christian bookstore masquerading as a groovy hangout, but it has way better food and lots more soul than a Starbucks.

The place to stay overnight in Lynchburg these days is the shoe factory that's been converted to the hipster Craddock Terry Hotel, complete with loft-style rooms and a brewery. For just a little more than a room at the Holiday Inn (there's one of those downtown, too), you can sleep in style, albeit to the tune of the Crescent barreling toward New Orleans on the tracks below.

For more activity, there are those who swear by the Old City Cemetery, at 401 Taylor St., and the Academy of Fine Arts, which is at the end of the historic Main Street right across from the Holiday Inn Select. You can also visit the Legacy Museum of African American History or launch your canoe right from Seventh Street for a float down the James River.

Me, I'm content to wander through the town's shops, many of which redefine the words "friendly" and "funky." Drawer pulls shaped like chestnuts? Black beeswax candles or perhaps a kneeler for your own private chapel? Lynchburg has them all . . . .and perfect martinis, too.

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