The heart of dining in Lexington, Virginia.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Getting here, I experienced the most dramatic state-line crossing of my life: It was snowing in Charleston, West Virginia, on the morning of my departure and big flakes continued to fall from grey skies for three hours while I drove to Beckley and on through Greenbrier County. As I descended the Appalachians into the Shenandoah Valley, however, the skies were bright blue and it was sunny without a snowflake in sight. Welcome to Virginia, indeed!
My first stop was Lexington where I only had time for lunch and a brief stroll along Main Street. The town is filled with intriguing-looking shops, compelling architecture and friendly people, so I hope to return to learn more.
If you’ve only got time for one stop in Lexington, then head to straight to Southern Inn Restaurant, which has been the town’s hub since 1932.
The mystery is why it’s called an Inn. Chef George Huger, who has owned the restaurant since 1998, says that it has never offered overnight accommodations. Weird. “I don’t know the story behind the name,” he says. “The restaurant was started by an immigrant family who had an apartment that they lived in upstairs on the mezzanine level.” Maybe a language misunderstanding?
“We’re the oldest restaurant in Lexington,” says Huger. In the late ‘30s, the patriarch of the founding family died; the matriarch and eldest son kept the business going. By the ‘50s it had become a town institution. By the ‘70s “any business done in Lexington was done here,” he says.
It remained popular, yet the new owners felt some changes were due. (Some physical changes were also required after a fire caused by lightening.) “Our idea [when we purchased it] was to revitalize it to a point,” Huger says. “It’s a new version of a local diner restaurant in terms of cuisine and atmosphere. People can come for special occasions or for a business lunch or dinner or just because they don’t want to eat at home that night. You can get a nice steak, duck or seafood and at the same time you can get a burger or a salad.” The bar menu offers a range of fine wines and beers, including some local selections.
“We offer a little something for everyone,” he says. “We are upscale—I think the current terminology is ‘elegant casual’—but not super fine dining since we do have seats to fill.” (Compared to others in town, this restaurant is huge; thus it doesn’t make business sense to also be the most expensive place around.)
“We pride ourselves on hospitality, it’s where we set ourselves apart,” he says.
Specials change often but signature items linger on the menu. Crab cakes are popular in summer months while oysters rotate in to take their place in colder seasons. Fried chicken, meatloaf, pasta and liver are popular entrées while pecan pie and crème brûlée are signature desserts.
Huber, who grew up on a farm nearby, is committed to using local ingredients to the extent possible. “We do get a lot of product locally,” he says, “I’ve been working with several farms since I’ve been here. But we balance it with commercial to structure our pricing so we’re not charging too much more than others in town—when you buy local product, you pay a premium price.” His cheese plate routinely features options from Mountain View Farm, which is located nearby. His salads feature local lettuces in season (not during winter months). Meats were raised on farms nearby. Local beers flow from the taps.
In any season, Southern Inn Restaurant offers a scrumptious taste of Lexington, Virginia.
Like me, you’ll want to come back for seconds.
Odds of Encountering Children: Possible, of course. At lunch on a weekday, however, I saw none.
Southern Inn Restaurant
37 South Main Street
Lexington, VA 24450
Got more time to visit than I had? Here are five ideas for grownup fun in the Lexington area:
- Visit the award-winning Devil’s Backbone Outpost Brewery
- Tour Rockbridge Vineyard
- Dine at The Red Hen, a farm-to-table fine dining restaurant that’s won national recognition and is so small it’s mind-boggling
- Hike Goshen Pass
- See the Natural Bridge, which is in the running as the 8th Wonder of the World
— Photos © HSP Media LLC