Roanoke’s Vibrant Energy

Roanoke beckons with biking trails and more.

For most of my life, Roanoke has been a bit of a mystery. Growing up at the opposite end of the state, I knew it only vaguely, as a railroad town on the edge of Appalachia, easy to zoom by on I-81 without blinking.  

(Photo by Chris M. Rogers)

But about a decade ago, the Star City—nicknamed after an electrified Christmas display that’s been shining over the town for almost 75 years—began to develop a new reputation as a place for mountain biking, downtown lofts, and chef-driven restaurants. This working-class city was reinventing itself as a Blue Ridge hipster hideaway.

Was it true? I had to see for myself. 

And sometime during my visit—perhaps when I was hiking in Poor Mountain Natural Area Preserve, or sitting down to braised lamb at Bloom restaurant, or wandering under the soaring glass and steel atrium of the Taubman Museum of Art—I became a believer. 

Mike Whiteside, costar of Salvage Dawgs, the DIY Network reality television series, assures me Roanoke’s reputation is well-earned. “I’d say we’re like Asheville light,” he says, comparing it to North Carolina’s popular outdoorsy mountain city. Like Asheville, Roanoke has its share of freethinkers and craft beer, but it’s a little more family-focused. 


Follow the River

Taking Whiteside’s advice, I start my visit on the city’s recently expanded Greenway, which parallels the Roanoke River for 13 miles. On a sunny afternoon, it’s a perfect introduction to the city. I start near the 40,000-square-foot Black Dog Salvage warehouse Whiteside owns with costar Robert Kulp. The place also has a guesthouse, decorated with reclaimed décor, and hosts weekend concerts at the Dog Bowl, its own amphitheater. 

As I bike along the trail, Roanoke’s story unfolds, from the Norwich neighborhood once home to river-powered factories, to Carilion Medical Center, part of the city’s future as a medical research hub. Later, I pass a new mountain biking loop—basically a dirt bike playground—where kids and adults zip up and down ramps and hills, all evidence of Roanoke’s new identity as the Mountain Bike Capital of the East. 

Olympians train here, too. The 38-member world champion U.S. women’s pro cycling team traded Boise, Idaho, for Roanoke and is now training for the 2024 summer games in Paris under the team name Virginia Blue Ridge TWENTY24.

(Photo by Chris M. Rogers)

It’s not just talk. I’m amazed by the outdoor gear on consignment at trailside Roanoke Mountain Adventures where, even though I really don’t need new hiking boots or a down vest, I’m tempted. 

Down the path, other temptations are on offer at Blue Cow Ice Cream Co., the city’s small-batch maker, where I consider stopping for a scoop of peanut butter pretzel.

But it’s almost time for dinner, which is scheduled at The Vault, the signature restaurant at the Liberty Trust. The 1910 bank building, which opened as an upscale hotel last year, is owned by Savara Hospitality, a small boutique chain that runs Richmond’s Linden Row Inn. Managing partner Vishal Savani tells me he invested in the building because Roanoke’s future looks bright. “We see it as similar to where Richmond was maybe 20 years ago. Folks are moving downtown, and businesses are moving to the area.” 

Now the hotel lobby where customers once waited to cash checks is arranged with sofas, chairs, and low tables, where dinner is served. Manager Andy Schlosser compares the atmosphere to “dining in a rich friend’s living room.” It’s a place to enjoy good food without the fuss of white tablecloths and a fawning wait staff, he tells me. “This is just more fun.”

Following his advice, I sample several small plates: a steak tartare made tableside; sea scallops cooked in Virginia apple brandy; and khachapuri, a melty cheese bread with egg yolk in the center, a traditional dish of Georgia—the country, not the state. It’s all expertly prepared and easily the most delicious experience I’ve had in a bank lobby. Only reluctantly do I wrap up dinner and head to my mountain-view hotel room on the fifth floor. 

With a big bed, and a large, well-lit bathroom, you’d never know this was once a financier’s office. So instead of balance sheets, I tuck into high-end linens and call it a night.

(Photo by Chris M. Rogers)

Back on Track
(Photo by Chris M. Rogers)

The next morning, I learn that upscale Roanoke can still make a down-home breakfast. At Scratch Biscuit Co., the signature offerings come buttery and with just the right amount of flake. I top mine with chicken, egg, and cheese, and am set for the morning.

The restaurant’s on the edge of Grandin Village, an old-fashioned shopping district, where I find Book No Further, a delightfully eclectic used bookstore that invites browsers to settle down in comfy chairs. It’s near Grey Goose of Grandin, a vintage design and décor store with a botanical theme. I consider catching a movie at the Grandin Theatre, a 1932 restored movie palace, but the more I dig into Roanoke, the more I want to see.

Although the city now relies on high-skill employers like Virginia Tech’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, it owes its riches to the Norfolk & Western Railroad, which built and maintained steam locomotives here until 1960. 

The Virginia Museum of Transportation brings it all back to life. Located in a former freight station, it feels like a giant’s toy box, scattered with trains, planes, and cars. There’s something for everyone, from a 2007 Ford Crown Victoria police car from Salem to a 378,000-pound Class A steam locomotive. A display case inside holds a full set of Norfolk & Western’s burgundy and white dining car china, while another exhibit honors Martha Anne Woodrum Zillhardt, the first Virginia woman to earn an instrument rating pilot’s license.


Downtown Stroll

From the museum, a trackside Railwalk takes visitors several blocks past warehouses and switchyards before reaching a restored Moderne-style train station. It’s now home to the city’s visitor’s center and a museum devoted to photographer O. Winston Link, who traveled the region in the 1950s, taking stunning images in the final days of the steam locomotives. They weren’t just lucky snapshots. Link would spend days planning and setting up his pictures, orchestrating every detail.

One of his most famous photos shows a train passing a drive-in theater in West Virginia. A couple snuggles in a convertible car while steam exhaust billows into the night sky, a final homage to an era.

But Roanoke has hardly given up on rail. In a back-to-the-future moment, it welcomed Amtrak in 2017 and added extended service in 2022. With two daily trains to Washington, it’s now easier than ever to visit. 

(Photo by Chris M. Rogers)

There’s much more to see downtown, which centers on an historic market square, surrounded by boutiques, restaurants, and shops. The Candy Store offers thousands of sugary treats—from the chocolate marshmallow Idaho Spud bar to oddities like Dr. Pepper-flavored cotton candy. 

A few blocks away I find Crafteria, an Appalachian makers’ market located inside a 1950s art deco cafeteria building. Now, instead of Jell-O salads, shoppers browse through regional art, books, and crafts. There’s jewelry made from coal dust, bandana baby bibs, and other surprises like pawpaw vinegar and green chile ramp sauce.

The sauces remind me it’s time for dinner, which is planned for Bloom, a neighborhood restaurant and wine bar that would feel at home in a big city. The kitchen uses local ingredients when it can, but keeps its options open. I order a glass of Beaujolais accompanied by an arugula salad with feta, beets, and sumac yogurt vinaigrette. It’s followed by locally raised lamb rubbed with Moroccan spices. For dessert, there’s sweet potato parfait with date caramel and coconut milk. A tasty end to a fascinating day.


Art and Nature

I kick off my last morning in town at RND Coffee Lounge. RND—for Roasters Next Door—has some serious bragging rights. Owner Quincy Randolph, a trained chef, threw down his chicken and waffles on Beat Bobby Flay but, sadly, didn’t win. But today it was simple, with a cappuccino and scone.

(Photo by Chris M. Rogers)

My next stop, the Taubman Museum of Art, rises like a steel and glass star from downtown. It was designed by the late architect Randall Stout, who worked with Frank Gehry, the prolific modern architect who designed the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Gehry’s influence is evident throughout the soaring structure.

While the museum hosts special shows, its permanent collection is always free. The Judith Leiber room could be called a Temple of Bling. It’s filled with purses and pillboxes encrusted with Swarovski crystals, all made by the luxury fashion designer. Other museum favorites include pieces by Norman Rockwell and folk artist Howard Finster.

Down the block, the Center in the Square building houses a theater and multiple attractions, including a science center and the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, where I learn about Noel Taylor. The city’s first Black mayor, Taylor served for 16 years. Upstairs, a free rooftop observation area offers mountain and city views. 

The building’s also home to the Roanoke Pinball Museum, where 70 jangling, flashing, bleeping machines are all free to play with admission. I start by honoring silver-ball history with a round on a rare 1947 Humpty Dumpty machine, the first game to use electromagnetic flippers. Looking around, I notice the oldest machines’ scores top out at three or four digits. The newest reach 999 million and more. Talk about inflation. 

Although hardly a wizard, I find my rhythm on the 2018 Beatles game, which rewards my flipper work with songs like “Hard Day’s Night” and “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

And with a dance in my step, I’m off to my last Roanoke stop—the mountains. Although it’s tempting to visit McAfee Knob, the famed Appalachian Trail overlook 15 miles away, I set my sights on a lesser-known destination. 

Poor Mountain lies just four miles outside the city limits and is deserted this early afternoon. The natural area preserve, part of a statewide system that protects some of the Commonwealth’s most significant natural areas, lies at the bottom edge of northern Blue Ridge. It’s home to piratebush—Buckleya distichophylla for all you plant people—one of the rarest shrubs in North America found only sporadically in mountainous parts of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. But I’m here for the views and climb to a scenic overlook. 

As the mountains roll into the horizon, I pause to think about what I had seen in the last few days. Although the city is little more than a stone’s throw away, you’d never know what lies on the other side of the mountain. Visiting made all the difference. 

(Photo by Chris M. Rogers)

Make It a Weekend
Eat

The River and Rail Restaurant: At chef Tyler Thomas’ farm-to-table bistro, the menu changes daily, but look for the monkfish filet with coconut veloute or pastrami-spiced osso bucco with country ham jus. RiverAndRailRestaurant.com

Billy’s: The jumbo lump crab cake with remoulade is nestled on a bed of succotash at Sunday brunch. Look for lamb lollipops and shrimp and stone-ground grits at dinner. Private events, too. BillysRoanoke.com

Fortunato: House made pastas, Neapolitan-style pizza, and dishes like Maialie al Sugo, with polenta, braised pork, tomatoes, and sausage all satisfy. FortunatoRoanoke.com

Drink

Brady’s Distillery: The first new one here in a century, it was worth the wait. Try a taster of whiskey, bourbon, vodka, and rum, or order a Bourbon Derby with honey and grapefruit juice. BradysDistillery.com

Big Lick Brewing Company: This microbrewery helped introduce Roanoke to craft beer, and offers sours, stouts, and an array of IPAs. BigLickBrewingCo.com

A Few Old Goats Brewing: Beers rotate quickly at this two-barrel nanobrewery, so what’s on draft changes weekly. Dog-friendly, with an outdoor space and games to play while sipping. AFOGBrewing.com

(Photo by Chris M. Rogers)
Stay

Hotel Roanoke: A grand city hub for more than a century, this posh hotel is now run by the Virginia Tech Foundation. HotelRoanoke.com

Roanoke Boutique Hotel: The concierge at this three-room Historic District bed and breakfast will arrange your adventures, indoors and out. Bike gear storage, too. RoanokeBoutiqueHotel.com

King George Inn: Proprietors Lynn and Jack Hunt offer four guest suites and a carriage house along with plenty of Southern hospitality. KingGeorgeInnBAndB.com

The Liberty Trust: Originally built in 1910 to house a bank, this refined hotel has over 50 rooms across seven stories, The Vault restaurant, and is located near the city center. LibertyTrustHotel.com

Shop 

She’s International Boutique: Founded by a former flight attendant, She’s brings global style, like a tulip handbag from the Netherlands, to the Blue Ridge. ShesInternationalBoutique.com

Mast General Store: You’ll find outdoor brands like L.L. Bean and Prana along with old-time sundries at this regional retailer. MastGeneralStore.com/Roanoke

La De Da: A boho chic boutique, which brags about its “fantastical frocks,” also offers jewelry and menswear. LaDeDa.net

TXTUR: This local furniture maker’s made-to-order offerings are showcased in a new downtown location. TXTUR.com


This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue.

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