A Weekend in Staunton

Music, arts, theater, and hospitality shine in this small town.

Sera Petras

Victor Meyer fondly remembers Tuesday night jam sessions at Marino’s Lunch, a Staunton music landmark. The place was variously a grocery store, speakeasy, and gambling parlor before Arline Marino took it over in 1946. When the Marino family launched Tuesday night bluegrass sessions in 1962, it became a magnet for stellar musicians.  

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When he learned the restaurant would close after Arline’s death at 91, Meyer, an amateur bluegrass guitarist himself, was determined to track down the original Marino’s sign and buy it. Marino’s meant that much to him. A few weeks later, Meyer had “good news and bad news” for his wife, Nathalie. “The good news is I bought the sign,” he told her. “The bad news is that it comes with a restaurant attached.” 

The musicians—masters of guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, harmonica, dobro, or washboard—told Meyer, a former Navy Seal, there was no replacing Marino’s. Regulars called the Tuesday sessions “church.” So Meyer got to work, adding outdoor seating and infusing the restaurant with an upscale diner vibe. A walkway, painted with piano keys, now runs beneath a mural of musicians heading inside to play. 

“We didn’t want to see this important institution disappear forever,” Meyer says. “We often say, ‘it’s not about the church; it’s about the congregation.’” On Tuesday nights, you’ll now hear as many as four circles of musicians jamming, indoors and out, as Marino’s plays on.

Staunton also delivers classical music, if that’s more your beat. The Heifetz International Music Institute at Mary Baldwin University (MBU) offers year-round performances and lures top performers from around the world. On a summer evening, I join a crowd of listeners mostly in their teens—Heifetz summer campers—or their 60s to hear up-and-coming young string artists share their blooming talent. 

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The Institute sets itself apart by also teaching yoga, public speaking, and mindfulness to cultivate performers who play beyond technical proficiency. The next day, when I run into a young cellist from Israel in The Split Banana, as we both order gelato, I share how moving I found his performance and his talk about the piece. At my words, the cellist’s young friend bumps him gently. “Seeeee? Told you you were great,” he says. The cellist meets my eyes, smiles shyly, and thanks me. As I walk away with the creamy gelato melting on my tongue, I hope that my small boost of confidence will help him to delight audiences all over our planet.

Historical Beats 

Settled in 1732 and named for Lady Rebecca Staunton, the wife of the then-governor, Sir William Gooch, Staunton is home to a population of less than 25,000. It’s known as the “Queen City of the Valley” because from 1738-1770, it was the seat of the world’s largest county, the Northwest Territory—which encompassed what is now Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and part of Minnesota. The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road and later the Virginia Central Railroad both passed through the city. Staunton’s red brick downtown has numerous buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. 

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Paul Borzelleca, owner of Modernboy Woodshop, and his wife, Marlena Hobson, moved here 35 years ago, when she took a job as an art history professor at MBU. As we chat, he points to an old city map that shows the empty blocks where historic buildings once stood.

“All of this area was leveled in the ‘60s for ‘urban renewal,’” he explains. Further attempts to tear down historic gems led to the rise of the Historic Staunton Foundation, which now works to preserve the town’s architectural legacy.

Borzelleca has lent his skilled hands to local projects, including the construction of Blackfriars Playhouse (the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s original indoor theater), the reclaimed barnwood bar at Marino’s Lunch, and the restoration of a storied spiral staircase at the Blackburn Inn and Conference Center, originally known as Western State Lunatic Asylum. 

When it opened in 1828, the hospital complex included farmland, orchards, and gardens, all meant to promote patient health and healing by working the property. Its director, Dr. Francis T. Stribling, co-founder of the American Psychiatric Association, was committed to the emotional well-being of patients. But in later years, troubling practices like lobotomies and sterilizations led to its eventual closure. The building was converted to a minimum security prison in 1981. Now carefully renovated, the property is once again a bright spot, attracting visitors and locals to events, including a summer music series hosted on its expansive front lawn.

An Architectural Gem

The Inn is named for one of its architects, Thomas Blackburn, who studied with Thomas Jefferson, and the neoclassical building reflects the third President’s influence. Great care was taken to restore its moldings, transom windows, and original wood floors. My favorite feature, the stunning circular staircase, leads to a cupola, which overlooks the grounds and beyond to Staunton and surrounding mountains. 

In my room, one of 49 in total, several of Blackburn’s original sketches hang framed on the walls. The room’s minimalist décor includes modern touches like a rainfall shower, en suite refreshment area, and plush linens, while the floor plan reflects the strictures of historic renovation: instead of closets, the rooms are equipped with architectural T-squares for hanging clothes.

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“You can only knock down so many walls before you start losing the historic integrity of the building,” Brooke Driver, Blackburn’s director of sales and marketing, tells me as she points out the restoration’s precision and historical accuracy. 

The Inn also has an on-site bistro for coffee and breakfast. In another restored building, the Blackburn’s charming spa offers massages with optional add-ons like cupping, hot stones, and aromatherapy, and the facial menu includes up-to-the-minute treatments like microdermabrasion and LED light therapy. 

The views are lovely, especially at sunset, and I walk outside to gaze in all directions. Before I take the 10-minute walk into Staunton itself, I cross through a field to the woods at the property’s edge, where the many graves have only numbers on them. For a few quiet moments, I stand to acknowledge those who came here so long ago and wish them peace.

The Valley’s Rich Fruits and Fauna 

Tucked into the Shenandoah Valley, the rich land surrounding Staunton inspires culinary creativity. “We deal with a ridiculous amount of local growers and producers,” says chef Ian Boden, owner of The Shack, an intimate and well-reviewed destination restaurant. “We have a huge pantry because we’re always preserving and putting stuff up.” 

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When I visit, his crew is busy pickling, fermenting, freezing, and processing ingredients—like 60 pounds of sour cherries—that they’ll rely on year-round. It’s a banner year for morels, which they conserve with lemon zest, fresh bay leaf, a little bit of salt, and olive oil. “So now we’ve got 40 pounds of morels in the walk-in and ready to roll,” Boden says. “I’m excited every time something new comes through the door.” Heirloom fava beans roll in from a local farmer he’s known for more than a decade, along with a sparkling wine from nearby Thibaut-Janisson winery, a Boden favorite.

Boden put down roots here when he married a local hairstylist and ceramicist. His restaurant is, in part, designed to honor her Staunton history. “It’s called The Shack because the image is the actual shack that her Grandma Tissy raised her six kids in,” says Boden. “This is a way for me to pay homage to my wife and her family, in the way that I know how.”

He relates to the many cultures that coalesce in Staunton. “I’m a Russian-Hungarian Jew, and we work in the Appalachian Mountains,” he says. “So obviously those two things influence our cooking in a huge way.” Short growing seasons in both geographic areas inspired cooks to rely on fermenting and pickling to preserve food. Boden also serves on the board of the city’s popular producers-only farmers market, held on Saturdays in season. He relishes the area’s easy access to natural beauty and solitude and has lately taken up photography.

A Warm, Welcoming Vibe
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As I pop in and out of Staunton’s many stores and restaurants, the word I hear most about the town is “welcoming.” The stylish botanical storefront of Burrow & Vine draws me in to chat with Megan Burrows, who opened the adorable plant and decorative furnishing store last spring. 

“The community in Staunton is just so welcoming and supportive,” says Burrows, also a macramé artist who teaches classes in the space.

Claudia Bernardi, an Argentinian-born artist who previously lived in the San Francisco Bay area, also testifies to Staunton’s open arms. Since 2006, MBU has regularly invited Bernardi as guest faculty for their May term and other events. Over years of interacting with faculty, students, and locals—and directing them in mural painting projects throughout town—she thinks of Staunton and its supportive community as her home. 

“Our murals are an opportunity to learn aspects of the community that we don’t know,” says Bernardi. Bright and eye-catching, they celebrate Staunton’s diverse community, share its stories, and mark a new beginning. Last summer, she directed a colorful mural at the new location of Gloria’s Pupuseria, after the Salvadoran restaurant was flooded out of the Wharf area.

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Sheryl Wagner, director of tourism at Visit Staunton remembers the August 2020 storm well. “Water was rushing down Central Avenue like a river,” she recalls, “which pummelled the Wharf Historic District and the businesses there. Homes, parks, everything was in ruins.” 

Reflecting on Staunton’s reputation for kindness and generosity, she describes how an entire community quickly came together to rebuild. “People from Staunton and beyond brought truckloads of cleaning supplies, drinking water, food, generators, and, most importantly, helping hands. The kindness shown by the people of Staunton was overwhelming and beautiful to witness.”

Despite its small size, Staunton has a distinctly “urban” feel, says Doreen Bechtol, an actress and associate professor at MBU. In 2002, she and her husband moved here from New York City to become part of Blackfriars’ first residential company. Staunton is urban, Bechtol explains, because “everything is in your downtown—your food, your entertainment, your groceries, your banking, and your government.” 

Routinely, she walks from their historic 1867 home down the street to purchase whatever she needs from someone she knows. She enjoys the “comfort and familiarity” that make the whole town feel connected, even through tough times. In my experience, the residents here will happily open their arms a little wider for any guests. 

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Where to Stay

Hotel 24 South: Updated in 2018, this historic hotel offers easy access to downtown. Hotel24South.com

Steeles Tavern Manor: Set on 60 rolling acres, it’s ranked among the country’s top B&Bs. SteelesTavern.com 

Inn at MeadowCroft: A handsome 1790s log home with renovated cabins, equipped with modern amenities in nearby Swoope. InnAtMeadowCroft.com

Where to Eat

Zynodoa’s inventive offerings include ingredients sourced from local purveyors. Zynodoa.com

Blu Point Seafood Co.:  Zynodoa’s latest venture, is the place for fish ‘n’ chips, lobster mac ’n’ cheese, or grilled tuna. BluPointSeafoodCo.com

Remedy Burger makes theirs with Seven Hills Beef, double smashed, to pair with their truffle fries. Looking for a cocktail? Just ask. RemedyBurger.com

Ciders From Mars: In the trendy Wharf area, it serves locally made ciders blended from Virginia apples. Enjoy the outdoor deck to catch live music some nights. CidersFromMars.com

Reunion Bakery & Espresso is the place for delectable coffee, pastries, and breads. ReunionBakery.com

Chicano Boy Taco offers mouth-watering and creative taco combos. ChicanoBoyTaco.com

The Shack: Diners travel for miles to experience Ian Boden’s seasonal five-course tasting menu. At The Staunton Grocery, also Boden’s, a killer chicken salad sandwich awaits. TheShackVa.com/The-Staunton-Grocery

What to See and Do

The American Shakespeare Center. AmericanShakespeareCenter.com

Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum features “Sons of Staunton,” an exhibit that pairs Wilson and country music’s Statler Brothers, also born here. WoodrowWilson.org

The Frontier Culture Museum offers open-air living history with costumed interpreters depicting early pioneer life. FrontierMuseum.org 

The Blue Ridge Mountains offer abundant driving and hiking including the popular trail to Humpback Rocks. NPS.gov

Betsy Bell Wilderness Park offers an observation tower from a 1,959-foot elevation. CI.Staunton.Va.US

Trinity Episcopal Church features 12 stained-glass windows created by the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany. TrinityStaunton.org

Where to Shop

Essentially Zen’s bestselling body frostings come in fragrances like lemon jasmine mimosa and kaffir lime. This 2022 Made in Virginia winner also curates Zen Boxes and hosts soap-making parties. EssentiallyZen.Shop

Sunspots Studios offers live glass-blowing demonstrations, a colorful array of artisan glass products, and classes where you can learn to blow your own ornament. Sunspots.com

The Book Dragon’s resident bookseller gives savvy advice on what to read next. TheBookDragonShop.com

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue.

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