A Shenandoah Valley Town Famed for Shakespeare
Amazing architecture * Shakespeare * Wine-tasting
I saw Ophelia walking the streets of Staunton. Maybe she was on her way to get coffee, or peruse one of the many used bookstores. Though most likely she was en route to the Blackfriars Playhouse, where she’s performing every evening in Hamlet. Such is the life in this little Shenandoah Valley town, famed for its Shakespeare theater. That said, Staunton’s (pronounced STAN-ton) gorgeous Victorian-era buildings have been revitalized, and the town could stand alone without the theater (though we’re glad it’s there!).
In the late 1800s, Staunton offered the last taste of culture for anyone heading into the frontier. It became a roaring bounty of hotels, night clubs, and eateries. It also attracted T. J. Collins, an architect who designed more than 200 buildings in town between 1890 and 1911. And not just designed, but played around with all kinds of different architectural styles, from Gothic to Richardsonian Romanesque to Beaux Arts to Arte Moderne to Moorish Revival. This is a town to look up as you stroll down its main street—otherwise, you’ll miss the showcase of architectural styles.
You’ll also find high-rated restaurants, Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace and library, and a fascinating frontier museum. And the trails of Shenandoah National Park are an easy drive away.
[stay] Stonewall Jackson Hotel
The historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel has stood near the heart of town since 1924. Built in elegant Georgian style, it’s the sort of place that makes you want to lift up your petticoats and take a twirl around the chandelier-lit, wedding-cake-decorated public rooms. According to the history books, it boasted every technical innovation of the day. It’s recently been beautifully restored, making for a truly special getaway.
David and I stayed in a corner king room, with windows looking out on the historic town. It was spacious and airy and bright, and the bed extremely comfortable. Breakfast is served at the Magnolia South restaurant at a charge; we opted for scones and coffee around the corner at By&By Café and Beer Garden (housed in another historic building).
[eat] Byers Street Bistro
When David and I arrived in Staunton and asked our hotel for a restaurant recommendation, everyone pointed us in the direction of Byers Street Bistro. Located in the Wharf neighborhood, this casual bistro presents Southern-style American fare—or, as some call it, high-end pub grub. It’s especially beloved for its list of creative pizzas (the Godfather, for example, has marinara, pepperoni, sausage, chicken, bacon, mushrooms, and tomatoes). The grilled chicken tostada salad is yummy. Live bluegrass, blues, and folk bands serenade on Friday and Saturday evenings. It’s the perfect après-theater spot.
One more option. Everyone is talking about The Shack. Seating only 16, this small, sparse space is drawing foodies from far and wide for its brilliant fare (the chef, Ian Boden, is said to have described his restaurant as giving “a middle finger to the food industry”). There are burgers on the menu, but go for the tasting menu. You’ll have three or four courses, which might range from butter lettuce soup to buttermilk pudding with thyme to Mento-thin sweetbreads served with gnocchi. They don’t take reservations.
[fun] Catching a very Shakespeare-type play
I profess one of the best Shakespeare shows I’ve ever attended was at this theater re-creating Shakespeare’s original 16th-century Blackfriars Playhouse. I think it’s because the theater does not only re-create Shakespeare’s plays, but it re-creates the experience. It’s an intimate space, with a simple backdrop and all the lights left on so there’s no line drawn between actors and audience (in fact, if you want a true Shakespearean experience, you can sit on one of the on-stage stools where actors interact with you). We saw Hamlet, and I surprised myself by especially being caught up in Ophelia’s monologue, as she slips into craziness. Just as in Shakespeare’s day, some actors play several roles and cross genders. But what truly adds to the festive experience is the music presented pre-show and during intermission (also presented by the truly talented actors). Their repertoire are all show related, so we heard, for example, Willie Nelson’s “Gravedigger” and The Bands’ “Ophelia.”
The next day, we took a backstage tour of the theater. Our amazing guide provided us with a Clif Notes’ version of Shakespeare’s story, including the lowdown on his collaborators (and the fact he was an actor himself). We got to climb behind the stage, see how the heaven and hell trap doors worked, and do a twirl where the actors practice before the shows. Though for me, the most interesting room was the prop room, where swords and armor and pirate eye patches and long boas are meticulously organized, ready for an actor desperate for a last-minute costume fix.
[fun] Looking up at the town’s amazing architecture
In this beautiful town, you have to look up. At the architectural gems covering many decades and representing many different styles: Victorian, Renaissance, Colonial, Richardsonian Romanesque, Beaux Arts, Italianate, and more. Beverly Street is the main showcase, though there are other historic neighborhoods with lovely architecture as well (including Stuart Addition, Newtown, and Gospel Hill). Free walking tours are offered May though October, providing tons of context to the architectural history. Frank Strassler of Historic Staunton gave us our tour, focusing on the transportation district (which we could see outside our hotel window), called The Wharf. One of the best views of town is found near the railroad station, atop the bridge connecting historic Gypsy Hill Park.
[fun] Urban wine-tasting
It’s no secret that the Shenandoah Valley is agriculturally rich, a fertile realm of farms, pastures, orchards, and fields. It’s long been famed for its apples, but now wine has stepped into the mix. They say it’s a matter of relatively low rainfall, cool climate, and deep limestone soil (aka terroir). Ox-Eye Vineyards not only has a vineyard right outside town, it also has a tasting room near the Wharf (in a historic house designed in 1904 by architect T. J. Collins). It’s a great place to stop by, hang out, and taste some wines. The winery is big on art as well, with shows slated throughout the year.