Local establishments, delicious bites – this is a glimpse into the present and future of Harrisonburg’s downtown scene. The Rocktown Bites! food tour highlights a smorgasbord of tasteful favorites, from dining cornerstones to hidden gems.
On this particular Friday, guide Shami, of Harrisonburg’s Downtown Renaissance, led our group of 7 (tours are kept to a maximum of 10) down to Billy Jack’s, the renowned burger-and-beer establishment and brother restaurant to Jack Brown’s. Usually frequented by college kids during the academic year, this was our first venture inside. Co-Owner Aaron joined us at the bar and elaborated on the restaurant’s coming to be and vision, and also explained the advantages of the Wagyu beef they use in their burgers. The difference in taste is clear – while not the thick and chunky burger of a meathouse, the creations here are full of genuine flavor, extra tender, and complimented by a melt-in-your-mouth bun. We were also presented with their never-frozen “Sticky Nugs” (think chicken nuggets but way better) drenched in a delightfully savory sweet-and-sour type sauce. On tap: twelve constantly rotated beers – not to mention the other hundred or so bottled or canned varieties.
Next on the itinerary was BEYOND – a hidden gem for us and one we’ll now be recommending to our guests. Crispy spring rolls, sweet-and-sour meatballs, pineapple cheese wontons, and samplings of an orange chicken dish were beautifully presented and quickly consumed. YUM. The Asian-inspired dishes there range from tapas to sushi, and the chefs’ fusion style really keeps things fresh. Note: it’s worth checking their specials and calendar before you visit – you might catch some 1/2 price sushi or a live jazz performance.
Then it was on to Capital Ale House, where the manager met us, delivered a brief background on the establishment, and proceeded to fetch everyone two samplings from the 100 beers they feature on tap. The chef Eric came out to introduce their bigger-than-your-average-plate German pretzel (which is actually imported from Germany and served with a honey mustard of the same nationality) and generously hung around to answer a flurry of curious questions. Here, the menu can be described as upscale Southern cuisine with a German influence (and we can’t miss putting in a plug for their desserts, too).
With four stops to go and our bellies feeling happily, if not overly, stuffed, the next stop provided a reprieve. Court Square Coffee, where the coffee is organic, fair trade certified… and ridiculously good. We’ll just chalk it up to the downright pleasantness of Jeremiah, the tiny shop’s owner who hails from Alaska and splits his time between coffee and his wife and three kids. Count us as regulars now. We picked up a frequent drinker card and everything.
Of course, no food tour can be complete without ice cream, and the Harrisonburg mainstay Kline’s came next with their custard-style ice cream. Family-owned, the local favorite has been in business since 1943.
Then it was on to the Friendly City Co-op. And it was totally okay that this wasn’t a restaurant, as we were pretty much filled to the brim by this point. The front-end manager of the store walked us around and pointed out some of the big local suppliers which keep their loyal base of shoppers coming back. Local and organic eggs, local produce (if not labelled organic, most might as well be – not all local farms can afford to pay for the certification), bulk foods, rich milk in glass bottles, Virginia cheeses, and even a selection of cuts from the famous Polyface Farms. One of the highlights: a make-your-own peanut butter machine. In go the peanuts, out comes a real peanut butter (or almond, if you choose) that doesn’t separate and doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Definitely a place to take advantage of if you’re in town – you need not be a member of the co-op to shop there.
Our last stop was over at Glen’s Fair Price Store. A Harrisonburg icon since 1941, the eclectic shop takes pride in its crowded aisles and you’ll feel like you stepped back in time as soon as you walk in. From costumes and party rentals to a camera shop, Madame Alexander dolls, and the kinds of candy bars you haven’t seen in years, it’s a real treat to meander through and indulge in a little discovery.
So, if you’re coming into town and want a true taste of the local scene, this is a phenomenal inside look at some of Harrisonburg’s favorites. Just mention you’re interested in the tour when booking or a few days’ ahead and the Stonewall Jackson Hospitality Team will check availability and make sure you have a place on the roster!
Tours start promptly at 2pm every Friday and Saturday from the Hardesty-Higgins House Visitor’s Center and go until about 4:30. In case it’s not obvious, come hungry.
“Summer in America” — July 4th (Thurs), July 5th (Fri), July 6th (Sat).
“Around the World in Rocktown” — August 15th (Thurs), August 16th (Fri), August 17th (Sat)
Advance RSVP required for all tours. Most dates are $35/pp.
The Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance works in collaboration with private and public partners to develop and implement a comprehensive vision and master plan to revitalize downtown Harrisonburg into a prosperous and vibrant city center.