Never eat anything bigger than your head. Or so the adage goes.
We ignored that advice.
We ate the state.
A year ago, with pens poised over the contract to write the "Food Lovers' Guide to Virginia," we winced at the vastness of the task. (Fun fact: Stand at the western tip of Virginia, and you are standing west of Cleveland.) We also sensed inherent peril — consuming so many calories might lead to a certain physical vastness.
Quash any images of leisurely lunches and long dinners. It wasn't like that.
The book's contents had to be hyper-current, so deadlines were vicious.
Most days, we hewed to ambitious agendas, but we did spend a fair amount of time detouring to little-known eateries along scenic byways. We started early. We ate in the car. We ate on the street. We ate while writing and frequently talked with our mouths full.
We returned home full, and brought coolers crammed with food.
Consider an actual Friday night in Richmond — a beer at the Capital Ale House, an appetizer at the Rappahannock Restaurant, dinner at Edo's Squid and a nightcap at Joe's Inn. Sort of like a progressive dinner party — fun, filling and, because we often sat at the bar, lots of interesting conversation.
We grew to like eating this way, and have done it since, sans the notebooks and looming deadlines. Here's our list of 30 must-eat-at places in Virginia:
1. Island Creamery
6243 Maddox Blvd., Chincoteague, 757-336-6236, islandcreamery.net
There are 36 reasons that the line at this ice cream shop sometimes stretches out the door and into the parking lot during summer tourist season. That's the number of ice creams, sorbets and frozen yogurts tempting visitors. If you're indecisive, go with the house speciality, marsh mud, a double chocolate decadence that resembles chilled brownie batter. Pair it with iced nirvana, which smacks of a house-brewed espresso. As you pay, grab a bag of waffle-cone pieces near the register. They're sweet and crunchy and reason enough to stop.
2. Terrapin Restaurant
3102 Holly Road, Suite 514, Virginia Beach, 757-321-6688, terrapinvirginiabeach.com, $$$$
This intimate spot, just a few blocks from the oceanfront, is an adventure. It's a blast to see what executive chef Rodney Einhorn has cooked up on a menu that changes seasonally. Local and regional products get center stage, and a favorite dish is one of his varieties of oysters on the half shell. He uses Pleasure House oysters, topped with impossibly tiny bits of pickled apples. The bivalve explodes in your mouth with a saltiness that's at once sweet and tart. But everything done here is done well.
3. Eat, An American Bistro
4005 Atlantic Ave., Virginia Beach, 757-965-2472, eatbistro.net, $$-$$$
At every visit, big flavors and a wisp of whimsy emerge from the kitchen. Case in point: The chalkboard menu recently listed "Ants on a Log." You know, that kiddie snack of celery topped with peanut butter and a sprinkling of raisins? Chef and owner Erick Heilig's grown-up version starts with a split, roasted bone and marrow topped with basil-fed escargot (instead of raisins!) and garlic, parsley and pieces of butter-grilled baguette. The Hasselhoff burger is made with brisket and chuck and topped with truffle mayo and a fried egg. A stop at the bar is mandatory, where the list of house drinks always intrigues.
4. Som Bao Café
2476 Nimmo Parkway, Virginia Beach, 757-430-1066, sombaocafe.com, $$
The air is filled with the scent of kaffir leaves, basil and spice, and the dishes' bold flavors leave no question that you've left the Western Hemisphere. The cafe is named for Somdee and Bao Phoutasen, who secreted their family out of communist Laos nearly 40 years ago, and is their children's way of honoring them. First-timers might want to start with thom khem — pork, chicken or beef with a hard-boiled egg in a broth with the cuisine's signature combination of tang, sweet and spice. Or experience the lao platter, a stunning feast for two featuring whole tilapia in a salty-savory broth. To go totally Laotian, pinch off a walnut-sized hunk of rice from the accompanying woven basket, dip it into Bao's sauce and use it as a utensil to eat the rest of the meal.
5. Stove, The Restaurant
2622 Detroit St., Portsmouth, 757-397-0900, stoverestaurant.com, $$$
This quirky, 32-seat restaurant in the heart of a historic Port Norfolk is the daily obsession of chef and owner Sydney Meers, one of the area's best-known restaurateurs. From his Southern folk artwork on the walls to a menu filled with house-made sausage and hams, it's clear that the chef and restaurant have become one. The ever-changing menu combines flavors from Meers' Mississippi roots with the finest Tidewater foodstuffs and adds a shot of Creole here and there. His lowcountry shrimp and grits won top honors in our 2013 Taste Test. Most every neo-Southern meal comes with a side of Syd, who intermittently cooks behind the tiled half wall of his open kitchen and repairs to the dining room to sip whiskey, neat, alongside dinner guests.
6. Vintage Tavern
1900 Governor's Pointe Drive, Suffolk, 757-238-8808, vintagetavernvirginia.com, $$$$
This rustic charmer is located in a stone structure that looks like a welcoming home. Its interior is accented with wood and a large fireplace, but your eyes keep going to the ample windows, where you see a backyard patio complete with a stream and a backdrop of trees. There's no better way to start than with a taste of Southern goodness, featuring a pile of salty Virginia ham, sausage crafted on the premises, deviled eggs, house-made preserves and buttermilk biscuits. Pork, raised on nearby farms, is the centerpiece of many dishes, including the often-changing Route 17 plate, where pig lovers can find pork belly, pork loin or pulled pork. The high-ceilinged, spacious bar isn't a bad place to dine either, and the creative take on the classic ginger-and-bourbon Virginia highball will make you want to kick back and stay awhile.
7. Blue Talon Bistro
420 Prince George St., Williamsburg, 757-476-2583, bluetalonbistro.com, $$$
You can't go wrong at this restaurant in the heart of historic Merchants Square. Executive chef and owner David Everett loves comfort food and Virginia products, and you'll find such rare treats as pig's feet and an ever-changing, house-made pate. Save room for a cocktail, whipped up by one of the most inventive mixologist staffs around. We've been hooked on sidecars — a blend of cognac, cointreau and lemon juice — since one of the Blue Talon bartenders turned us on to them.
8. Dudley's Bistro
4904 Courthouse St., Williamsburg, 757-566-1157, on Facebook, $$$$
Talk about a shock. When we drove to the circa 1905 farmhouse in Toano where we'd always found chef Jim Kennedy, we discovered a pizza joint instead. Still in mourning, we happened upon Dudley's Bistro in the New Town section of Williamsburg. Could it be? One look at the menu and we knew Kennedy was back in the kitchen — herb crepes topped with wild boar bacon, duck confit and tomato jam, goat cheesecake for dessert. Then, he appeared in the nine-table dining room chatting with guests as he always did at the old place. Kennedy's an ardent locavore (lover of all things local), which he combines with a simple-is-best philosophy. This is a not-to-be-missed experience.
9. Buffalo and More
4041 Riner Road, Riner, 540-381-9764, buffaloandmore.com, $
You must question your status as a committed carnivore if this 4-mile detour off Interstate 81 seems like too far to go for a restaurant that serves everything buffalo. And talk about locavores. Chef and owner Connie Hale and her partner, Carla George, actually raise the buffalo in pastures about 15 miles from the restaurant. They make buffalo-chili nachos, buffalo burgers, buffalo barbecue, buffalo Philly cheesesteak, buffalo brisket, buffalo hot dogs — you get the idea. Get some to go from the freezer case, where rib-eyes, roasts, short ribs and such are sold by the pound. Connie's mom, Reba, makes the desserts. If she's had a notion to bake chocolate chess pie, just go for it.
10. Coles Point Tavern
850 Salisbury Park Road, Coles Point, 804-472-3856, colespointtavern.com, $
This circa 1954 tavern is a ramshackle affair perched over the Potomac River. People who like eating on old fishing piers, where locals pass time at the bar, will like this spot. Oddly, the parking lot is in Virginia, while the tavern is just past the line in Maryland, making certain types of gambling legal. Plus, it houses a full-on, carry-out liquor store, another no-no in the commonwealth. The menu is standard bar fare — burgers, big old salads and subs — but there's also some mighty fine seafood. When we ordered a crab-cake sandwich, the cook formed it, smashed it on a flattop grill and served it up slightly browned. The barman said, "That crab was swimming this morning."
784 Locklies Creek Road, Topping, 804-758-2871, facebook.com/merroir, $$
We like a spot where the oysters are offered by the names of the creeks that they came from. That's because we know that "merroir," like terroir, affects the flavor. We like it even better when you can order a dozen raw, mixed oysters, and even better still when the bivalves are paired with select craft beers and wine. Check all three boxes at this chic little "artisanal tasting room" in a retrofitted bait shack right on the Rappahannock River. The menu is short, but oh-so-tempting. Try a sampler platter of a dozen shucked oysters (no shell, fully detached, liquor intact), raw or roasted. If it's not blowing, relax out back and take in a grand view of the "rivah." That's what they call it round here.
12. Aziza's on Main
2110 E. Main St., Richmond, 804-344-1523, azizasrichmond.com, $$
We almost didn't find this place but, after we did, we couldn't stop thinking about it. The restaurant is Lebanese by day, Mediterranean by night and charming always. With only 10 tables and a small bar tucked into an unassuming storefront, you could easily pass it by. Don't you dare. We had the veal shortbreads — gamey and cooked perfectly — and octopus with house-made chitarra pasta topped with a vodka sauce. Stunning. We sometimes wake up at 2:30 in the morning and want a second helping. It's that good. And there's more. A pizza oven in the back offers some of the best pie around.
13. The Roosevelt
623 N. 25th St., Richmond, 804-658-1935, rooseveltrva.com, $$-$$$
The food here is the kind your Southern grandma would serve if she were a hip lady who concocted dishes like sausage corn dogs. The Roosevelt is a locals' favorite for Sunday brunch, but the 14 tables fill up quickly so arrive early. And order the corn dogs, which come wrapped in corn batter and are served with a heated maple syrup in a small cast-iron skillet. Chase them with a Bloody Mary garnished with a slice of green tomato. While you're stuffing your face, enjoy the historical photos on the walls and check out the detailed map of our state's capital circa 1865, just as the Civil War was ending.
14. Edo's Squid
411 N. Harrison St., Richmond, 804-864-5488, $$$$
You won't find a website for Edo's Squid, nor will you find it on Facebook. In fact, at night, it's fairly difficult to find when you're standing right in front of its downtrodden building. Entering the door at the left corner of the building and ascending a narrow and steep staircase seems like a good bet. The steps end abruptly at a cache of paper towels and cleaning supplies. Open the door to the right and there it is, a Richmond favorite where a marble bust of Petronius, the ancient Roman judge of elegance, guards the copper-topped bar. Seafood offerings might include branzino and skatewing; land offerings, quail or lamb porterhouse. The squid with arugula and beans, perfectly seasoned with garlic and olive oil, in itself is worth the drive. So what if the food you paid top dollar for comes on a chipped plate. Petronius approves.
15. Kuba Kuba
1601 Park Ave., Richmond, 804-355-8817, kubakuba.info, $$
Outside the front door of Kuba Kuba, it's all shady streets and chirping birds. Inside — bam! — it's like being shot straight into the Caribbean, with an explosion of colors, artwork, pots, pans, music and flavor. Order a beer, and it comes in a can. Salads look like confetti on a plate. The bread on the side, with the palm leaf baked into the top, certifies the authenticity of the family-owned, 15-year-old establishment. Said bread forms the base of the Cuban sandwich, made with slow-roasted pork and Smithfield ham, a taste of Havana, right in the city's Fan District.
101 W. Franklin St., Richmond, 804-649-4629; lemairerestaurant.com, $$$$
Traveling to Richmond and bypassing the Jefferson Hotel would be like going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower. The opulence — massive marble columns, fountains, a staircase that may or may not be the inspiration for the one that Scarlett O'Hara tumbled down — is a must-see. Better yet, make reservations for dinner at Lemaire, the hotel's award-winning restaurant that combines a staunch Southern bent with an unwavering farm-to-fork philosophy. Chef Walter Bundy, a Richmond native, dreams up dishes such as rooftop honey glazed pork loin chop, served with spoon bread, roasted apricots, all-day turnip greens and bourbon jus. After dinner, head to the lobby bar and have a drink where Elvis drank.
17. Belmont Butchery
15 N. Belmont Ave., Richmond, 804-422-8519, belmontbutchery.com
You'll often find owner Tanya Cauthen behind the register, where she can chat with everyone who comes through the door. But you'll also find her behind the counter, especially on days when the master butcher and her crew are breaking down slabs of meat. She stocks grass-fed beef from nearby sources, and steaks are cut to order. House-made bacon can be tinged with rosemary. "I believe in feeding Richmond well," Cauthen says, "and I like to do that with lots of local stuff." And check out her one earring. Yup, it's the shape of a meat cleaver.
18. Our Lady of the Angels Monastery
3365 Monastery Drive, Crozet, 434-823-1452, olamonastery.org
You can find the 2-pound wheels of Gouda made by the Cistercian nuns at specialty shops throughout the state and online, but it's worth the effort to go straight to the source. You'll travel a winding, back-country road, and be convinced you're lost, before you finally see the imposing brick structure in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once there, make your way down a hall and enter a small room, where one of the nuns will take and fill your order — and offer a kind word or two. Make sure you have a knife in the car, because you'll want to dig in immediately. The cheese, made by cooking cultured milk until the whey separates from the curd, is heavenly.
19. Crozet Pizza
5794 Three Notch'd Road, Crozet, 434-823-2132, crozetpizza.net, $$-$$$
It's tough to get a seat in this two-room joint, where loyals crowd well-worn booths. On the chalkboard menu, there's only pizza, the dish that put this place on the map after Bob and Karen Crum opened the doors in 1977. Now run by their daughter and her husband, Colleen and Mike Alexander, the restaurant still is all about pies. They come in three sizes but endless variations. Order one of the specialties or create your own. And leave a business card on the wall, which is packed with similar mementos from satisfied customers.
20. Red Truck Bakery & Market
22 Waterloo St. at Courthouse Square, Warrenton, 540-347-2224, redtruckbakery.com
You're in luck at this bakery if you find the savory ham-and-cheese scones — made only a couple days a week — because they sell out quickly. But the temptations are many in this converted gas station, where locals often gather around a communal table in what used to be a garage bay. You'll find a double-chocolate cake flavored with local hooch, a bourbon variety made with root beer and cherries, and sugar cookies shaped like a pickup and decorated in red icing. You can stop in the parking lot and admire the real thing — the namesake 1954 Ford F-100 that gives this place its identity.
21. Mas Tapas
904 Monticello Road, Charlottesville, 434-979-0990, mastapas.com, $-$$
University of Virginia students crowd this industrial-looking tapas bar on Friday and Saturday nights, when even the outdoor patio fills up if the weather's nice. The restaurant's moniker is a play on the first name of chef and owner Tomas Rahal, who showcases local ingredients. Try the Brussels sprouts and parsnips, which have a sweet, carmelized sear that contrasts nicely with the garlic and pine nuts. Or the gambas al' parilla, jumbo shrimp grilled in the shell and set off with garlic aioli and gray salt. Finish with the chocolate torte — a true one, no flour here — flavored by dark bittersweet Guanaja cacao.
22. Sam Snead's Tavern
7696 Sam Snead Highway, Hot Springs, 540-839-7666, thehomestead.com, $$$-$$$$
This bar is a great place to watch a game, grab an adventurous meal or celebrate one of the country's greatest golfers, Sam "Slammin' Sammy" Snead. He grew up near here and began caddying young at the Omni Homestead resort, which this restaurant is part of. The pub is a mini-Snead museum, with photos and memorabilia, including the golf balls he used to record 35 holes-in-one. Then there's the food. The pimento cheese is some of the best around, bursting with four local cheeses and peppadew chiles. Entrees, which change seasonally, might include duck braised in cider or aged sirloin steak. End with the bread pudding made with cinnamon doughnuts and topped with a bananas Foster sauce. It's been a Homestead specialty for more than 70 years.
213 Second St. SW, Charlottesville, 434-984-2264, bangrestaurant.net, $
You'll understand this tapas bar's name when you take a bite of the sesame tuna with wasabi cream — bang! — or the cilantro wontons with chili sauce — bang! The menu includes many offerings for vegetarians and even more choices for carnivores, and portions are generous and easy to share with friends. The martini list is lengthy, and we're partial to the sin city, a wallop of berry vodka, pomegranate liqueur and blackberry puree. For the guys, there's the Mr. Big, a cosmo made with white cranberry juice that won't make you look as though you're sipping a girlie cocktail.
24. Sisters at the Martha
At the Martha Washington Inn, 150 W. Main St., Abingdon, 276-628-3161, themartha.com, $$$$
We rolled into town late one afternoon, top down on the roadster, road-weary and parched. We gazed longingly across the manicured lawn and onto the expansive front porch of the Martha Washington Inn, where cocktails were being served. Turns out, you needn't be a guest of the venerable inn, or be wearing a sundress or sport coat, to partake of its dining delights. Anyone can settle into a wide, white wicker porch chair and order a libation and even an appetizer. This is one of the state's finest settings for a 5 o'clock refreshment.
25. Molasses Grill
63 S. Main St., Halifax, 434-476-6265; molassesgrill.com, $$$
In the vast expanse of central Virginia, towns are like islands surrounded by rolling farmland. It's impossible to guess where gourmets gather. That's the case in Halifax. Across from the pillared courthouse, circa 1839, the Molasses Grill has been pleasing refined palates since 2005. That's when chef Steven Schopen, an English chap with worldly roots, and his wife, Karen, opened this restaurant. Inside, brick walls and burnished pine lend a sense of calm, but opening the menu causes palpitations. Schopen pairs Southern staples with locally sourced ingredients and turns out house-made sausages, breads and dishes such as grilled pork tenderloin with a shellac of bourbon and molasses. Or how about fried chicken and some pimento mac and cheese? Worth the 5-mile or so detour from the straightaway.
26. Foti's Restaurant
219 E. Davis St., Culpeper, 540-829-8400; fotisrestaurant.com, $$$
This storefront eatery — with a tin ceiling, wood-plank floor and exposed brick walls — has been earning accolades from elite critics since it opened in 2005. Owners Frank and Sue Maragos earned their chops 25 miles up the road at the prestigious Inn at Little Washington, where Frank rose to the rank of executive sous chef, Sue to senior server. Their rarefied background is evident in the service and menus. Leg of lamb is braised with cinnamon and tomato and presented over cardamom-scented jasmine rice. The chocolate brûlée is served with a bacon spoon. Around town, you might hear Foti's referred to as the "poor man's Inn at Little Washington." Rest assured, there's nothing poor about it.
27. Exmore Diner
4264 Main St., Exmore, 757-442-2313; exmorediner.com, $
This is a diner, a real one, opened in 1954 and dishing blue-plate specials ever since. There's a row of booths along the front and a row of barstools at the Formica counter. If it's spring and the culinary gods are smiling upon you, the specials board will list "drum ribs," meaty swords from the mighty fish — breaded, fried and flaking right off the bone. Don't think of getting anything else. Other times of the year, savor what might be the last honest $5 crab-cake sandwich on the planet. Wash it all down with a giant tumbler of Southern-style sweet, sweet tea.
28. Nottoway Restaurant
At the intersection of U.S. 1 and Interstate 85, Warfield, 804-478-7875, $$
So there's Campbell's soup on the menu. Put that out of your mind. Instead, listen for the gurgling grease coming from the pans in the kitchen where the chicken is a-fryin'. Bite through the blistered, seasoned skin and into thigh meat, and you just might hear the angels sing. It's an entirely different experience than chicken from a deep-fat fryer. This nearly 90-year-old restaurant also dishes chicken-fried steak, ham rolls and fried catfish, all delivered by motherly waitresses with just-so hair and spotless tennies. A note of caution: many websites and search engines put the restaurant in McKenney. It's actually south of there.
29. Zynodoa Restaurant
115 E. Beverley St., Staunton, 540-885-7775, zynodoa.com, $$$$
On the outside, this restaurant looks historic, but inside the feel is totally urban. Chic wooden tables and cozy booths provide seating, but you'll be tempted to gather at the sleek bar, with its illuminated liquor supply and funky, low-backed stools. The place gets its name from the ancient word for "Shenandoah," and that's appropriate for a restaurant that celebrates products grown in the nearby Valley, as well as the Piedmont. The menu is Southern with a modern twist, and it changes often. But order this one if you see it: the pan-seared scallops perched atop a ham-and-bean stew with cranberry-orange chutney. You won't forget it.
30. Lake View Restaurant
In Douthat State Park, 14239 Douthat State Park Road, Millboro, 540-862-8100, $-$$
This restaurant overlooks Lake Douthat, the centerpiece of a state park that opened in 1936. Take a seat in the enclosed porch or open-air deck and enjoy the tree-covered Allegheny Mountains, which blaze with reds, bronzes and golds in autumn. The food is standard — burgers and sandwiches for lunch, and trout, quail and fried chicken for dinner — but you won't mind. You come here for the view. After eating, walk off some of those calories with a relatively level hike around the lake. For those staying at the park, the restaurant is one of the few places with reliable Wi-Fi, though we're not sure why you'd want to connect to the outside world in such a breathtaking spot.
More to the Story: Jim Haag and Lorraine Eaton, writers at Style Weekly's sister publication, the Virginian-Pilot, spent 16 weeks reviewing nearly 200 restaurants across the state and preparing critiques of about 100 ice cream, gourmet, wine and butcher shops, along with compiling lists of Virginia's wineries and food festivals. The result is their new book, "Food Lovers' Guide to Virginia: The Best Restaurants, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings." This feature comes from that exhaustive — and delicious — research. You'll notice that the list excludes destinations in Northern Virginia. That area wasn't part of their assignment because it's covered in the Washington edition of the book series. What did they miss? Add your must-visit dining spots by emailing email@example.com.