ver the past two years, the languid farming town of Culpeper, 70 miles southwest of Washington, has been transformed into an exceptional place to walk and shop for great groceries. The boards have come off the windows on East Davis Street. In the center of the historic district, built between 1880 and 1920, decay and neglect have been replaced by fine restaurants as well as food shops selling hot tamales, fresh geese and good wine.
Culpeper, rich in Civil War history and with a population of 15,000, has never looked better. The weathered brick buildings decorated with heavy cornices and detailing are filled with newly renovated shops selling imported and local foods alongside surviving bakers and hardware purveyors.
"Everybody calls it instant success, but there was a lot of groundwork," says Diane Logan, director of Culpeper Renaissance, a nonprofit downtown revitalization program. "With the high crime rate and the drug trafficking, people would stop at the traffic signal and turn around and leave. But in the past two years, you really noticed the difference."
Side by side with the new shops and restaurants are classic survivors such as Calhoun's Ham House, which has produced moist, lower-salt country hams for more than four decades. (The White House has ordered 80 Calhoun hams for the holidays.)
"We've tried over the years to do something with Davis Street. This time it stuck because it was a coordinated effort," says Tom Calhoun, known as the Ham Man, who credits the enormous change to the Renaissance program as well as the Culpeper town and county governments. Initial municipal grants from the Virginia Department of Transportation for the restoration of the railroad depot and facades of East Davis Street led to tax breaks for historic properties and low-interest loans for renovation.
"The stores, the variety, the uniqueness. We've blossomed," says Sharon Pate, a former prosecutor in the New York borough of Queens. With her mother-in-law, Joan Byrnes, Pate operates a Victorian-style tearoom on West Davis Street. At Tea, Lace and Roses, guests don vintage hats and feathery boas in what's called the dress-up room before sipping teas from antique china cups.
Down the street, Julie Simpson opened a European-style market called Food for Thought to support local farmers who produce pastured pork, grass-fed beef and chevon (Department of Agriculture-inspected meat from young goats). The beautiful apple caramel and pecan crunch pies near the front door are made by baker Susan Olinger of Warrenton. Simpson also stocks a variety of cheeses made at Oak Spring Dairy in Upperville, the private dairy of Bunny Mellon, the designer of the White House Rose Garden and widow of art collector and philanthropist Paul Mellon.
The perfect soft yeast biscuit for Calhoun ham is baked fresh daily at Knakal's Bakery, which opened in 1935. Baker Kenneth Whitt will turn out 10,000 dozen biscuits between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Across the street at 100-year-old Clarke Hardware, a special section is set aside for the country cooking necessities such as meat grinders and canning kettles.
For international flavor, Paris native Marc Ast recently expanded his store, Frenchman's Corner, adding imported cheeses, artisanal breads and kitchenware such as small, stylish Jenn-Air appliances and top-of-the-line Kershaw knives. Hot tamales at two markets, El Nopal and Rincon Hispano, draw crowds at lunchtime. And at the Hazel River Inn and Pub, Peter Stogbuchner, former chef of the Chevy Chase Country Club, serves Austrian fare such as blackberry marinated chicken breast with wild mushrooms and spaetzle.
For an all-American breakfast, you can grab a seat at the 30-stool, 1950s-modern Frost Cafe, whose expansive windows overlook the intersection of Main Street and Davis Street. Frost opened in early 2004. For fine food, there is Foti's, a three-star restaurant that opened in June. Chef Frank Maragos, his manager and fiancee Sue Wilson and sommelier Tyler Packwood are all alumni of the four-star Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va.
"When I came here 11 years ago, there was nowhere to go. The buildings were all boarded up. Thank goodness, today people have options," says John Yarnel, owner of It's About Thyme, a restaurant noted for its four-herb, rotisserie-roasted, all natural, pasture-raised chicken. Yarnel works side by side with his daughter Joclyn, a recent graduate of the Paris branch of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.
In the coming year, he plans to expand into an adjoining building where he can cook whole pigs and lambs on a new, larger wood-fired rotisserie. There will be a fresh juice/coffee bar and upstairs, three guest suites.
"They're for the shoppers who choose not to go home," says Yarnel, who covered the walls of It's About Thyme with floor-to-ceiling murals depicting lush gardens in Sicily and Lake Como in northern Italy.
Culpeper has come a long way, he says. "People use to say to me, 'Who do you think is going to come over here and eat?' " Lots, it turns out, judging by all the cars idling for anticipated parking spaces along East Davis Street.
At left, Hazel River Inn and Pub. Far left, some of the wares at Food for Thought. Sharon Pate, standing above, serves tea to guests at Tea, Lace and Roses. Julie Simpson, right, in her European-style market Food for Thought. Below, the 1950s-style Frost Cafe. Above, Neuhaus Belgian chocolates at Frenchman's Corner. Claude Minnich, below, with some of the Lodge cast-iron cookware at his Clarke Hardware, a Culpeper institution. Floor-to-ceiling murals of gardens in Sicily and Lake Como decorate the walls at It's about Thyme. Having lunch there are, clockwise from left, Ginny Clevenger, Judy Brown, Ann Harris (partially obscured) and Joan Richwine.