What makes a town turn the tourism corner? There it is one day- lovely, livable but a tad uneventful. There it is another- lovely, livable and loaded with weekend visitors. How does a place like the Eastern Shore’s St. Michaels become a place like St. Michaels, as opposed to the rough-and-tumble outpost it used to be?
It wasn’t St. Michaels that brought these questions to mind, actually. It was Onancock, Va. My wife, Jill, and I pulled into the Virginia Eastern Shore town of 1,500 residents one Thursday last fall and straight away sniffed out a sandwich shop. In a flash, Lance Kaufmann appeared at our side, a bald-pated bundle of boisterous welcome.
“Never been here before?” he asks. “Oh, you’re in for a treat. Things are really happening in Onancock. It reminds me of St. Michaels in the old days, when things were just starting to come together.”
We fell into step as Kaufmann led the way through the onetime hardware store he and his partner, Bob Anders, have transformed into Stella’s. For a sandwich-shop-looking joint, it serves up a potpourri of pleasures. Up the back steps is a more formal dining room, bathed in candlelight and flanked by a 30-foot-long bar. A cushy library is tucked in one nearby room, a one-table billiards parlor in another. In five minutes flat, Kaufmann had made us feel like welcome old pals. We said our farewells, promising to return that night. Outside, I turned to Jill and stated the obvious: “That place is kinda crazy. Good crazy, but crazy.” Thus was the tone set for our visit.
Not so long ago, travelers to Onancock tended to be of the passing- through type. Many were bound for a ferry that runs between here and Tangier Island. Others were stopping en route to sporting pursuits in the surrounding watery paradise of creek, ocean and bay. But with a growing and worthy array of dining, shopping and lodging options, Onancock now ranks as a destination unto itself. On the surface, this turn of events seems sensible. The town is thick with Chesapeake history, after all. It lies along a serene stretch of Onancock Creek. Some swell old buildings lend charm to its downtown streets. The more we wandered, though, the more it seemed that sensible isn’t the right word at all for Onancock’s recent rise. Too many of the folks we ran into weren’t sensible at all; they were crazy people doing crazy things with their lives. Good crazy, mind you, but crazy.
Take Gary Cochran and Charlotte Heath. Two and a half years ago, they opened the Charlotte Hotel, a boutique eightroom inn with a fine restaurant on North Street. This isn’t something the husband-and-wife team set out to do. Up in the Pennsylvania town of Eighty Four (as in 84 Lumber’s headquarters), they’d spent a decade restoring a condemned 18th-century farmhouse. “All of a sudden there was nothing left to do but maintain it,” Heath says. “What fun is that?”
So Cochran took a retirement buyout from the glass company where he worked, and the pair went casting about for a new challenge. They settled eventually on a bedraggled farmhouse outside Onancock. The night that deal closed, they splurged on champagne at a downtown restaurant. They got to talking with the restaurant’s owner. He mentioned an empty building he owned and invited them to see it, right then and there.
Walking in, Heath heard the building talking: “I should be a hotel,” it said. She didn’t know yet that it started life in 1907 as the White Hotel. “The next thing we knew, we bought it,” she says. Then, a contractor they hired to overhaul the building ditched the job, leaving the couple short on cash and a long way from the finish line. Leaning on a phrase from writer Maya Angelou- “Ain’t nothing to it but to do it!”- they leaped into a bottomless pit of 16-hour days of demolition and construction. Cochran made most of the hotel’s furnishings himself. Heath, an artist, treated the whole building as a canvas, painting patterns and scenes straight onto floors and walls, and scrawling snippets of poetry down halls and around corners. The framed paintings on the walls are hers, too, and her work is featured in the just- opened Next Door Gallery located, yes, next door.
The Charlotte is a do-it-yourself affair, with an atmosphere as charming as it is unique. I said as much while chatting with Cochran at one point. He sipped from a glass of wine, then deflected the praise with a well-practiced one-liner: “All that happened, really, is I got a pile of money out of retirement, and now you’re standing in it.”
After settling into our room, Jill and I ventured out for a stroll. We might have timed our visit better. The old-time Roseland movie theater is open mostly on weekends only. We’d just missed a Market Street Playhouse community theater production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” But we consoled ourselves with a treat at the Corner Bakery, run by Eastern Shore native Pete Smith and his wife, Connie. Then we browsed Asianflavored antiques and vibrant ceramics at Walter and Walton’s, and popped into Bizzotto’s Gallery-Caffe, which trades in the unlikely combination of white-tablecloth dining and handcrafted leather handbags.
At the other end of Onancock’s shopping spectrum is the House of Deals, with its cluttered cornucopia of housewares and hardware serving as a backdrop for the fresh produce and seafood that locals swear by. While Jill went off in search of an oven thermometer, I wandered one narrow aisle after another until stumbling, much to my surprise, into a serious game of cards at a table in back of the store. Later, I asked owner Rosalie Lewis how her shopkeeping duties came to include the role of poker hostess.
“Oh, that’s not poker,” she corrects me. “That’s Crazy Eights back there. Game’s been going on 15 years. It keeps some of them old watermen out of trouble, that’s all.” Oven thermometer in hand, we headed down to gawk at the Onancock Creek waterfront and see the classic old Hopkins and Brothers general store building- it’s home to a new restaurant, Mallard’s at the Wharf, which serves up spectacular views along with casual dinners. Then we rounded back up King Street to gardenART, where Jill found enough fodder for browsing and buying to keep us past closing time.
Three short years ago, gardenART owner Joani Donohoe was as content as could be with life as a landscape designer in the Washington, D.C., area. The place she bought in Onancock was supposed to be a second home, not spark a wholesale life change.
“I told everyone at my job that Onancock wouldn’t be a happening place for 10 years at least,” she tells us. Then a couple of nice new stores opened. Then the Charlotte Hotel came along. With real estate prices headed north, Donohoe caught a case of now-or-never fever. “It was all of 18 months later that I quit,” she says.
Hanging on a wall near her cash register is a photo showing her warehouse buried under vines, almost invisible. This building was unoccupied for a mind-boggling 55 years before this store opened last April, with a design that neatly celebrates the building’s workin- progress status. There’s no proper ceiling, for example, but willow screen hangs up overhead to great effect. We took the side way out, wandering through gardenART’s array of shrubs, trees, statuary and garden furnishings on the way back to the Charlotte.
The hotel dining room is an intimate one, with golden yellow walls, glowing sconces and just nine tables. We’d heard advance raves about chef Phillip Blane, and he didn’t disappoint. The best of our appetizers was on the wild side, a braised sweet onion and cranberry ravioli. Jill opted for the grilled quail stuffed with bacon and figs while I went with pan-roasted rockfish on herbed rice served with oysters, chorizo and sweet peppers. Between bites, we tried to recall the last time we savored a meal as good. We came up with it, but we remembered, too, how that meal had set us back nearly twice as much as the roughly $20 an entree charged here. Stuffed, we ventured back outside again, admiring some swell Victorians by moonlight along Onancock’s residential back roads before settling into a library sofa at Stella’s, savoring a nightcap while flipping through coffee-table tomes. Spotting Blane at the bar, we made our way over to say thanks for dinner. That led to a second nightcap while he told the tale of finding his way to Onancock.
Born in New York City, Blane was living in Tennessee when he caught wind of Cochran and Heath’s plans for the Charlotte. His mother is a friend of Heath’s. She recommended him for the job, despite the fact that he had a grand total of zero experience working in a restaurant. When Heath visited him in Memphis, Blane shared a piece of journal writing in which he’d described his dream day, one spent serving as chef in a small restaurant committed to making serious magic out of the freshest of ingredients.
Heath offered him the job without so much as tasting his cooking. (When I asked Heath about this later, she took mock umbrage at the implication she’d been rash: “His mother said he could do it!”) Blane changes his menu at least once every two to three weeks. He tracks the inseason mix of produce and fish on an elaborate chart, always looking to mix new combinations in with established successes. His favorite night to date in the Charlotte kitchen began when a regular customer showed up just before dinner and insisted Blane follow him out to his Lincoln Continental.
“You’ll wanna see this, you’ll wanna see this,” the man promised vaguely. Inside his trunk was a humongous rockfish, so freshly caught that it was still gasping for air. Blane flew back inside, ordered a new menu printed up, and commenced frantic fish cleaning. A local sought out Blane later that night to rave about his dinner. “Of course it was the best rockfish he ever had,” Blane tells us. “The thing was still breathing about a minute before I dropped it in the pan!”
The next morning, we headed out in search of some historical context for all these new Onancock happenings. The town then known as Port Scarburgh wasn’t formally established until 1680, some 72 years after John Smith sailed into Onancock Creek. With deep-water ports rare hereabouts, Onancock has always been one of the largest towns on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. So shipping and sailing are key to its story. So is religion. The postcard-pretty Cokesbury Church was built in 1854 by a congregation that dates its history to the early days of Methodism. Along Market Street is a marker celebrating Presbyterianism founder Francis Makemie, who moved here and started preaching in 1699. Farther up Market is Kerr Place, a 1799 federal-style house where the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society is based. The fabulous faux-marble finishes inside are worth the price of admission to the society’s tours all by themselves.
Come lunchtime, we were back downtown on one last browsing expedition. The North Street Market offers a wide selection of high-end kitchen gadgets, hard-tofind taste treats, and fine wines and cheeses. It’s run by the husband-and-wife team of Roz Anderson and Steve Lotharius, who moved here from Wisconsin after retiring- she had been an attorney, he an executive with McCormick Foods. The one thing they wished their new home had was a gourmet shop. After a while, they stopped wishing and opened one, starting small and building slowly to an inventory of 5,400 different products. Now they sponsor popular wine dinners and organize occasional vineyard field trips. Lotharius’ latest brainstorm is a monthly “Dinner & a Movie” series of artsy films screened on otherwise dark nights at the Roseland.
It seemed just about right that this would be our last stop in Onancock, since it gave me another chance to ask the obvious question: So what happened to that original plan, retirement?
“With so many of us in town, it’s the same story,” Lotharius says. “We all worked really hard for a long time to make enough money so that we wouldn’t have to work anymore. Then we moved here, and now we’re all working harder than ever.”
It’s crazy, to be sure, but good crazy.
Stella’s Fine Food and Spirits, Market and North streets, 757-789-5045. Bizzotto’s Gallery-Caffe, 41 Market St., 757-787- 3103. Mallard’s at the Wharf, 2 Market St., 757-787-7333.
The Charlotte Hotel and Restaurant, 7 North St., 757-787-7400, http://www.thecharlottehotel. com. Rooms from $99 a night. Colonial Manor Inn, 757-787-3521, www. colonialmanorinn.com. Rooms from $79.
Roseland movie theater, 48 Market St., 757-787-2010. Market Street Playhouse, 34 Market St., 757-787-2050. Kerr Place, 69 Market St., 757-787-8012.
Walter and Walton’s, 23 Market St., 757-787-1995. gardenART, 44 King St., 757-787-8818, http://www.gardenartonking .com. North Street Market, 5 N. Market St., 757-787-8805.