It’s one of the closest long-distant trips you can make.
Although a little more than 20 miles in length, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel transports drivers from the “mainland” of Virginia to place that seems much, much further than it is.
Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Image by CameronDavidson@CameronDavidson.com.
That place is the Eastern Shore of Virginia, the elongated southern part of the Delmarva Peninsula, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Chesapeake Bay on the other. To the north is Maryland, and to the south is the bridge-tunnel.
Leaving Virginia Beach, it’s literally a drive out to sea. Although – on clear days – you can see both masses of land, there is still something isolated about the stretch of highway.
A ribbon of asphalt, passing vehicles and a bevy of seagulls are all that’s seen for about a half-hour. That is, unless you stop northbound at the visitors center on the first of the couple of manmade islands.
Once you reach the Shore, you are still on that ribbon of highway, but just a short jaunt off the highway are countless small towns and hamlets with lots to explore.
On the Eastern Shore, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has designated Business Route 13 from Cape Charles meandering north about midway on the peninsula as a Scenic Road. The route also takes a few turns and juts off in one or two locations, offering something tasty around each bend.
From our travels, here are our picks for a succinct handful of the things to eat, drink and do along this route on the Eastern Shore. There are tons more we don’t have space to list here, but this will get your tastebuds off to a good start.
Virginia has some 3,000 miles of highways and byways designated by VDOT as Scenic Roads, duly noted for their scenes of natural beauty and places of historical and social significance. Also along these thoroughfares are some wonderful places for foodies, and from time-to-time we’ll take that road less traveled, fork in hand, and report our findings to you here, making this part one of an ongoing series.
-- CAPE CHARLES AND KIPTOPEKE --
A perfect late summer respite is found at Brown Dog Ice Cream, which features a number of artisan flavors. A recent lineup included Blueberry Lavender, Malted Milk Ball, Pickett’s Harbor Peach and Coffee – made with java brewed by the Shore-based Coastal Roasting Co. of Eastville.
Insider tip: grab a cone and walk down Mason Street to the gazebo overlooking the Chesapeake Bay for a spectacular – and delicious – sunset.
Dine on the patio at The Shantyand enjoy some stunning water views and fresh catch. My picks for sharing with family and friends: a dozen (or two, or three) Hungar’s Creek raw oysters, a basket of oysters fried golden brown or a platter full of steamed clams, washed down with a Virginia beer or wine.
The iconic Sting-Ray’s Restaurant is located in an Exxon gas station and serves up great breakfast, lunch and dinner amid fill-ups at the pumps and an adjacent gift shop inside filled with kitsch. We order the crabcakes and sweet potato pie.
Drink:Kelly’s Gingernut Pub offers a tasty gastropub menu (try the Irish Cordon Bleu) and a wide assortment of draught and bottled beers. We, of course, gravitate to Virginia quaffs, and a favorite during the Dog Days of summer is the Devils Backbone Vienna Lager.
Do:Brews, Band and Barbecue and Oysters Too on Oct. 10 at the Sunset Beach Inn in Kiptopeke offers all the aforementioned treats.
Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival Oyster Roast, also on Oct. 10 in nearby Oyster features a Shore-centic menu with oysters, crabcakes, barbecue, local vegetables and more.
-- MACHIPONGO AND EASTVILLE --
We love to grab seafood to-go at Great Machipongo Clam Shack, but it’s also a good bet to sit down and dine in. We love the Eastern Shore Clam Chowder: tons of chopped clams served in a clear broth, coupled with a crab salad plate.
Insider tip: bring a cooler with some ice to stock up on fresh seafood to take back home or to your beach cottage.
Located in a quaint and quirky old service station, Machipongo Trading Company has a great selection of dishes (including vegetarian options) at breakfast and lunch. But whenever we see pimento cheese made in-house on a menu, we are compelled to order it, and we love the offering here, slathered and grilled as a panini sandwich.
We love Chatham Vineyards; it’s the perfect mix of a serene setting on Church Creek and vintages of wonderful wines from Jon Wehner. For whites, we gravitate towards the unoaked Chardonnay because it is the perfect pairing with oysters. For reds, the Vintner’s Blend, a Bordeaux-style offering, can’t be beat.
Do:Merroir & Terroir Oyster Extravaganza on Nov. 14 at Chatham Vineyards in Machipongo showcases oysters and clams served in a number of ways and paired with award-winning Virginia wines.
Insider tip: this event, located on the grounds of Chatham Vineyards, sells out quickly; purchase tickets in advance. Ducks Unlimited Oyster Roast on Nov. 21 at the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo provides serves up a classic oyster roast while raising funds to preserve the Shore’s waterways.
-- WILLIS WHARF AND EXMORE --
Willis Wharf, H.M. Terry Company
An authentic shiny silver diner, Exmore Diner serves up authentic, delicious diner food. At breakfast our choice is a Bacon & Cheese Omelet with grits and biscuit. At dinner we love the soft shell crabs in season or the clam fritter, made fresh with seaside clams, any other time of the year.
We like to drive through Willis Wharf and catch a glimpse at the bustling family-operated Sewansecott Oysters operation from H. M. Terry Co., who has been in business through four generations and more than 100 years. You may catch some of the boats heading out to Hog Island ready to harvest some of the bivalve beauties.
-- WACHAPREAGUE AND MELFA --
Pam Barefoot of Blue Crab Bay Company in Melfa. Image by CameronDavidson@CameronDavidson.com.
Considering that Wachapreague is the Flounder Capital of the World, a favorite dish of ours at The Island House Restaurant is the Flounder Platter; it’s offered fried but we love it broiled. The plate comes with fries and slaw.
Insider tip: designed after the old Parramore Island Life Saving Station, burn some calories by climbing the spiral staircase to reach the lookout tower and view the surrounding barrier islands.
Visit Blue Crab Bay Co.’s retail outlet in Melfa and sample a number of the specialty food company’s tasty offerings. One of our favorite snacks is the Crab House Crunch: peanut squares (think peanut brittle) is tossed in a spicy Chesapeake Bay seasoning for some sweet and some heat.
People watching and fabulous fried chicken are my favorite things about Tammy & Johnny’s, a local Old School fast food joint in Melfa run by siblings named, wait for it, Tammy & Johnny. Also grab an order of Sweet Potato Sticks.
Grab a bottle – or two – of Blue Crab Bay Co.’s signature Sting Ray Spicy Bloody Mary Mixer (spiked with ocean clam juice) for perfect brunch cocktails.
Do:Clamboree on Aug. 15 at the Eastern Shore Yacht and Country Club in Melfa starts with all-you-can-eat steamed local clams and a dinner inside overlooking the Pungoteague Creek benefiting the Eastern Shorekeepers.
Island House Oyster Roaston Nov. 1 at the Island House Restaurant in Wachapreague offers classic oyster roast dishes amid scenic views of Wachapreague harbor.
Oysters a la Carte on Nov. 14 at Blue Crab Bay Co. in Melfa celebrates the specialty food company’s 30th anniversary with oysters, clams and local wine.
-- ACCOMAC AND ONANCOCK --
Mallards at the Wharf
Inside the boutique Charlotte Hotel is a lovely restaurant featuring contemporary cuisine with many dishes using Eastern Shore products. The menu is seasonal and changing; recent offerings included a starter of Potato Wrapped Shrimp flash fried and served with a sweet chili sauce and entrée of Atlantic Salmon crusted with feta and served with a lemon beurre blanc.
Fine dining and lodging is offered at The Inn & Garden Café, a charming bed and breakfast. Writing menus to the season, fresh ingredients are used in dishes like mussels simmered in butter, garlic, white wine, lemon and thyme and a Vegetable Strudel that features artichokes, tomatoes, spinach and other ingredients in puff pastry.
A must-stop every time we head to the Eastern Shore is Mallards at the Wharf in the old Hopkins General Store on Onancock Creek. Every dish we’ve had from Chef Johnny Mo is amazing; a favorite of ours is the rockfish. Known as The Musical Chef, he may come from the kitchen and serenade diners while there. This time of year, dining outdoors is a must.
(Insider tip: there is a sister location, Mallards Sidewalk Café, in Accomac)Drink:The Blarney Stone Irish Pub is a charming place to grab some great pub grub (they are noted for their Shepherds Pie); we also love to come for pint – or two. In addition to beer and signature cocktails, a nice assortment of whiskey is offered. We recommend the whiskey sampler, a half-ounce pour of each of the four featured brands.
The Onancock Challenge & Seafood Boil on Sept. 12 at Mallards at the Wharf in Onancock offers bowls of mussels, clams, fish, shrimp and vegetables in a savory broth following a paddling contest on Onancock Creek.
Patrick Evans-Hylton, a Johnson & Wales University trained chef, is a Norfolk, Va.-based food journalist, historian and educator. His work has appeared in print, television, radio and social media since 1995. Evans-Hylton calls his cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia, his love letter to the state’s foods and foodways. He blogs at PatrickEvansHylton.com.