WILLIAMSBURG, Va., July 1, 2018. As many U.S. East Coast tourists know, Virginia is for Lovers. But did you know that Williamsburg, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s historic second capital city, is also for foodies? And brew lovers? The annual Williamsburg Taste Festival, which took place in the city this past spring, highlighted some of the stellar music, food, beer and other adult beverage possibilities that have popped up all over this historic Tidewater tow in recent years.
Add to this the area’s impressive array of museums and historical sites such as nearby Yorktown and Jamestown (not to mention Busch Gardens). And you’ll soon discover that Williamsburg and its environs offer a widely varied and genuinely enticing summer vacation destination for couples and families alike.
Historic Colonial Williamsburg has long been a major destination for summer tourists interested in early American history. Not surprisingly, it’s also home to one of this country’s oldest institutions of higher learning, William & Mary University. The campus is located just outside the restored colonial area.
According to William & Mary’s website, its most famous building, “the Sir Christopher Wren Building at William & Mary is the oldest college building still standing in the United States. The college erected the Wren Building between 1695 and 1700, before the actual founding of Williamsburg.” The capital of the colony of Virginia was still located in Jamestown at the time.
But more recently, the city and surrounding area’s increasing popularity as a food and brew lover’s oasis has come to the touring forefront. Attending the most recent “Williamsburg Taste Festival” this past Spring, we soon discovered that this annual event serves as an evolving showcase for area restaurants, pubs and locally grown, brewed or distilled adult beverages.
2018 Williamsburg Taste Festival
2018’s Williamsburg Taste festivities highlighted restaurants, breweries, vineyards and distilleries located in and around the city.
In addition to those merchants and organizations participating in the festival, Williamsburg also offers a number of must-try restaurants and breweries.
Aside from the justly famed Colonial Williamsburg restoration, out-of-town festival goers quickly learned that by stepping off the beaten path just a bit, one can quickly discovers several interesting area museums and historic sites that are somewhat less known and less explored by tourists and visitors. Home to surprisingly rich collections unique to the area, these museums, combined with the area’s incredible edibles, can add considerably to the experience of tourists planning to visit the area this summer.
But on to this year’s Williamsburg Taste Festival highlights.
Street Beats: Music with a distinctly Latin beat
“Street Beats” was the the kickoff event for 2018’s Williamsburg Taste Festival. This outdoor fest, located in the areas around the city’s governmental downtown, took place under billowing, white tents. True to its name, this festival featured an eclectic selection of first class edibles. Those attending various events greatly enjoyed sampling the various food selections as they listened to live music driven by an irresistible Latin beat.
While grazing through the various food choices ourselves, we were serenaded – rather punchily – by the initial band scheduled for the evening. We’d characterize Timbason La Original as something of a fusion band blending Latin, Brazilian, hip-hop into a surprisingly intriguing and irresistible Latin brew. These enthusiastic musicians pumped up the festive mood, and lit up the earlier crowd of attendees at this event. Here’s a sample of the kind of music we enjoyed.
Street Beats: Paella and Barbecue
Ah, real paella! So this is why they call it the “Williamsburg Taste Festival.”
Friday evening’s opening night food offerings were as varied as they were outstanding.
For example, the aforementioned paella from La Tienda was fresh, colorful and quite authentic, even though served in mass quantities, given the size of the crowd. The initial presentation was simply spectacular as our headline photo and the photo below amply illustrate. This was God’s seafood bounty, artistically presented, almost in the manner of a fine work of art.
Among the other food purveyors present, the offerings of Old City BBQ were quite distinctive as well.
Soft-shell Crab Time
Somewhat surprisingly, the most delectible offering of all was something of a surprise. A stealth hit, if you will. We’re talking about the delectible, melt-in-your-mouth soft-shell crab sandwiches offered from the nearby food truck from the Virginia Blue Crab Company. Ready to enjoy this seasonal delicacy, we were initially put off by the long lines waiting at the single window. Not to mention what we thought was the frustratingly slow service offered by the pair of ladies running the mini-kitchen.
We soon discovered why the lines were long. Likewise why the service was slow and why the truck’s patrons waited patiently for their sandwiches and sides. That’s because the ultimate payoff at the end was actually worth it. The soft-shell crabs were individually battered right there in the truck, then delicately deep-fried. It was, in fact, the individual care taken in preparing each portion that was causing the delay. And most of the truck’s patrons seemed perfectly content to wait, knowing that the best was yet to come. The resulting soft-shell crab sandwiches were absolute perfection. Better yet for true soft-shell crab devotees, the serving portions were huge.
But the ladies in the truck had one final surprise. Choosing the Thai-themed slaw on offer as one of the sides graced this soft-shell crab feast with a unique gourmet touch.
Culinary Village: Food Highlights
Friday’s “Street Beats” was mainly food-oriented. By contrast, Saturday’s “Culinary Village” event mainly showcased area wines, brews and locally distilled hard stuff.
The available edibles were excellent. But there were less food vendors at this event than there were at the Williamsburg Taste Festival kick-off. The stars of this show were primarily the purveyors of an excellent selection of locally produced or distilled adult beverages.
As far as food offering were concerned, we felt that Big Island Aquaculture, which offered tangy, freshly-shucked locally Chesapeake Bay-farmed raw oysters to eager festival attendees, was absolutely top of the line. The oysters? Dee-licious, particularly when we put a dab of hot sauce on them before sending them down the hatch.
But, since man (or woman) does not live by oysters alone, we also enjoyed classic Italian pasta with marinara sauce, courtesy of the delightful folks running the booth for Sal’s by Victor.
Finally, the most righteous way to top things off: Another big hit at the festival were the sweet treats offered by Extraordinary Cupcakes. Our verdict: Well, extraordinary for sure.
Culinary Village: Adult beverage highlights
The focal point of this event was the truly great selection of local craft brewers, distilled spirits and a couple wineries, including the Williamsburg Winery and the Silver Hand Meadery. The latter, for fans of all things medieval, offers 21st century mead. That’s a honey-based wine that was popular among northern Europeans way back in the day.
Alewerks, Brass Cannon, Billsburg Breweries all offered complex but also satisfying brews. We took great care to march our way through every brew we could. All were robust. The IPA-style brews were très hoppy, to the great delight of my esteemed spouse, a long-time hop fanatic. As for the harder stuff. The Copper Fox and Eight Shires distilleries offered distinctly different and interesting takes on bourbon and white spirits.
Eight Shires was of particular interest, given the well-informed and genial proprietor’s obsession with re-creating authentic colonial spirits. If Eight Shires’ current offerings prove close to those original “makers’ marks,” we can assure you of one thing. Those American colonists regularly enjoyed a fine time at their favorite local watering holes.
BTW, a hat tip to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Kudos for its relatively new law that’s helped ease establishment of small distilleries throughout the state. The legislation soon inspired the current revival of craft-distilling (not hootch!). That reminded us how Virginia’s active earlier encouragement of vineyards helped its local wine offerings to explode. Now, individual entrepreneurs have a green light to innovate and launch new small businesses. This proves once again that it’s always the best policy for any state and local government.
Here was a truly outstanding event, a real high point in this year’s Taste of Williamsburg fest. Located just a few steps from Colonial Williamsburg, the Amber Ox is a longtime favorite. In fact, it’s a real hit among the Williamsburg area’s food and brewpub fanatics and college students alike.
Longtime favorite? Actually, the Amber Ox only opened its doors around Christmastime, 2017. But given its short existence, this establishment has become so popular you’d almost think it’s been around since forever.
Like the other events at the Williamsburg Taste Festival, the Amber Ox “out and about” was a ticketed event. And as we entered and were checked off the guest list, the happy crowd already there somehow told us they’d already sold out this event. We enjoyed Chef Troy’s non-traditional approach to traditional favorites. And just as importantly, we enjoyed washing everything down with a few of the terrific beers brewed on premises, courtesy of the Amber Ox’s in-house “Precarious Beer Project” brewery.
Even better: unlike some rowdier brewpub establishments, the Amber Ox features joins great food and great beer with a convivial atmosphere, that’s not too loud to have a decent conversation.
Since this article is something of an Williamsburg Taste Festival overview, rest assured we’ll be back soon with a followup article on this popular, first rate establishment. We’ll also highlight a few additional dining locations. They’re all certainly worth a few more virtual column inches.
Taste of Williamsburg: Bourbon and Cigars
This event was a quiet hit with us, at least, as well as the relatively small number of bourbon and cigar aficionados who attended it. Right, even looking at a tobacco leaf is politically incorrect at the moment, and fans of bourbon and scotch tend to come and go.
But for me at least, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional high class stogie. And there’s even less wrong with sampling the varied styles offered by a boutique-style distillery like Woodford Reserve. Along with enjoying (generous) samples of Woodford Reserve’s Distiller’s Select and Barrel Finish Select bourbons and ryes, I savored a rich, robust, yet gentlemanly cigar from the well-respected Nat Sherman label. In the background and aiding the evening’s mood considerably was the mellow, soft-jazz music of Sammy Lee.
In fact, mellow is the best word to describe this rather elegant event. The atmosphere encouraged conviviality, and a number of those attending (like us) ended up making new friends with people they’d never met. The whole evening felt like it was something that could only happen in America’s South, where people can still be themselves and enjoy the better things of life, just because.
Off the beaten path
During available downtime on our recent Williamsburg, we visited a few additional restaurants, locales and museums that were not on the official Taste of Williamsburg menu. Most are a bit off the beaten path.
Of the area museums, the small but impressive Virginia Musical Museum proved to be the quirkiest and most eclectic of the lot. Located inside a piano dealership, this museum’s ideosyncratic collection ranges from vintage musical and mechanical instruments to memorabilia from the Golden Age of Rock and R&B. This latter section is cleverly focused on local Virginia musicians that made the leap into the big time.
Another unusual happening: A small Williamsburg opera company offered a production of “Carmen,” which we attended. No, it wasn’t the Met. But the high quality of the production surprised me, as the singers and musicians of this professional company consistently punched way above its weight class in musical quality and imagination.
All this, and more, is a bit too much to cover in this Williamsburg. As a result, we’ll be publishing additional articles soon focusing primarily on the Williamsburg area’s growing culinary and museum offerings. As we discovered during our recent visit, there’s a lot more to Williamsburg than sampling the colonial era’s sights and sounds.
—Top photo: Rice and vegetable base for La Tienda’s spectacular paella. See the rest of the dish under the Street Beats heading above. (Photo by the author.)