In November, USA TODAY crowned Abingdon, Virginia, the best small-town food scene in its 10 Best Reader’s Choice Awards — for the third year in a row.
“It is a huge feather in our cap,” Tonya Triplett, Abingdon’s assistant town manager and director of economic development and tourism, said of the win. “It just shows what a true great food scene we do have here in Abingdon.”
Triplett said her department used email reminders and social media to encourage residents to vote daily.
Less than ten square miles and home to just shy of 8,000 people, the town has an astonishing 35 locally owned food venues with specialties ranging from biscuits and gravy to Eastern European pastries and jambalaya. There’s a tea maker who forages Appalachian forests for herbs, an Italian chef who sources his scallops from Iceland and a 24-year-old who hand-picks his restaurant’s beef while it’s still out grazing at a local farm.
Here’s a look at a few of those venues and what makes them tick, on their own and as a foodie community.
“We wanted to be the best in the nation”
When resident Hugh Belcher partnered with his wife, daughter and son-in-law in 2020 to launch The Girl and the Raven, a coffee shop serving breakfast and lunch, the four set their sights on coffee.
“We wanted to have the best coffee bean and the best espresso drink,” said Belcher, a bald, bearded 63-year-old with deep-set blue eyes. “We didn’t want to be the best in the region. We wanted to be the best in the nation.”
Belcher’s daughter, Ariane, and son-in-law, Cillian Hegarty, had been living in New York City, splitting their time between acting and working in high-end restaurants, when the pandemic hit.
When they relocated to Abingdon and decided to go in on The Girl and the Raven with Hugh and his wife Julie, the group invested roughly $30,000 in a high-end espresso maker and two coffee grinders, Belcher said. They began researching and buying fair trade-certified beans from a New York supplier. And Cillian, who has extensive barista experience, spearheaded a menu of Italian- and Australian-style coffees and espressos. They also filled the food menu with locally and regionally sourced Appalachia classics such as biscuits and gravy and chicken salad.
Inside the restaurant–a high-ceilinged house filled with natural light and paintings of ravens–a waiter brought out a latte. The foam was impossibly fluffy, the espresso rich and butter-soft. Recently, Belcher said, a customer from Seattle called him over and asked if he was the owner.
“And she says, ‘I’m from Seattle, Washington’–known for coffee–‘but this is the best latte I’ve ever had in my life.’ This happens at least once a week,” he said.
“Cocktails that no one else around is doing”
Zane Triplett (no relation to Tonya Triplett) likes to push ingredients to their funkiest limits. Foresta, the restaurant he opened in late July, offers upscale Mediterranean Italian dishes and edgy drinks. The decor is an experience in itself: Mini Christmas trees fill the main dining room, while the bar and lounge spaces are decked in an I Spy dream-tangle of fairy lights, traditional wooden masks, swords, antique statuaries and the complete works of Lewis Carroll.
Triplett, a 32-year-old Abingdon native sporting purple-tipped hair and ripped jeans, cut his teeth making cocktails in bars and restaurants in Knoxville and Nashville. Foresta, he said, offers “fun cocktails that no one else around is doing.”
“The awakening,” for example, combines a cloudy sake, fresh-squeezed lemon, Froot Loops-flavored vodka, banana liqueur and citrus salt. That might sound like a noisy combination, but it’s light, bright and elusively floral. Triplett likes to sprinkle it with Honey Bunches of Oats: cereal and milk.
The coastal Italy-themed dining menu–which changes weekly and has included lobster ravioli, Scottish Faroe Island salmon and duck prosciutto–is the brainchild of head chef Marco Rossi.
“I think that just being [an] Italian restaurant is kind of overdone…. I wanted to do something a little bit different,” said Rossi, who grew up in Rome and worked in London, Paris and Nashville before joining Triplett in Abingdon. “The octopus comes from Spain. The scallops, these are…wild-caught out of coastal Iceland. It’s fun to work with this kind of material. I love it.”
Customers have responded well: Foresta is currently competing against restaurants in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago in another 10Best competition, for best new restaurant in the country.
“I’m just happy to be on the list,” Triplett said. “Literally, a town of [8,000] is punching against towns with two, three and four million.”
“That’s what keeps us going–supporting each other”
While you can feel the ambition in restaurants like The Girl and the Raven and Foresta, it seems to be a friendly kind, focused on excellence rather than competition. Several Abingdon food venue owners said the town’s food scene is strong in part because it’s symbiotic.
“We all go support each other every week,” said William Denton inside White Birch, a farm-to-table breakfast, lunch and juice bar he co-owns. “I go to their restaurants, they come here.”
Denton, 24, has puppy dog eyes framed by clear hipster glasses. He grew up on his grandparents’ Southwest Virginia dairy farm and said he loves the restaurant’s commitment to supporting small farms in the region.
The chicken served in the restaurant’s popular Thai chicken wrap is “home grown” and free range with no preservatives or antibiotics, Denton said. White Birch’s kale, spinach and bikini squash come from a local two-acre place, and every so often, staff head to another farm to pick out the cow they want slaughtered for their next batch of meat. The juices? Fresh-pressed by a 71-year-old named Patsy in a facility a mile away.
“My juice queen is what I call her,” Denton said with a grin.
Local food shops add another layer of support and creativity to the town’s food scene. White Birch got its start at Blue Hills Market, a specialty food store that offers products from a slew of local vendors and rents its kitchen to food startups.
“We’re a local food business incubator,” Sean Bossie, the general manager, said. “We’ve had five different businesses…that have started here and moved on to different locations.”
The products of the Abingdon Olive Oil Company–which include blood orange-fused olive oil and an Italian balsamic aged in oak barrels–wind up on menus like Foresta’s. And a farmer’s market that regularly draws 1,500 to 1,700 customers on peak-season Saturdays offers space for foodies to interact and dream big.
hat’s how Sarah Beth Childers became the owner of a permanent building space for Wolf Hills Coffee, which she said Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam has visited four times since it opened in fall 2020.
A former preschool teacher, Childers started roasting her own coffee beans with friends in her garage. Her sales took off at the farmer’s market, where she learned of a hard cider company and local tea maker interested in a permanent location.
Now, Wolf Hills Coffee, Tumbling Creek Cider Company and Appalachian Teas and Botanicals share The Spring House, a multi-room space Childers bought and rents to the other two companies. In addition to the house-made coffee, tea and cider, the shop features bagels from a Bristol, Tennessee, bakery and Balkan-style pastries made by a local family. Wolf Hills Coffee also supplies coffee for 10 or so local restaurants; each gets a unique blend that isn’t sold to the general public.
“If you’re going to have coffee, and all of these restaurants serve our coffee, you’re going to have a different one at each place,” Childers said. “I think that’s what keeps [our food scene] going–supporting each other.”
Denton echoed that. Recently, he ran out of two-ounce portion cups for sauces during a lunch rush. He called Jack Barrow, the owner of 128 Pecan, a Southern cuisine-focused restaurant around the corner.
“And he had two sleeves of them up in here in, like, two seconds,” Denton said. “If you need anything and run out of something, you call one of them and they’ll get it to you.”