Dock on the Bay

Once-sleepy Onancock has a boatload of new restaurants, art galleries, and inns. But it still has small-town charm.

By: Mary Burnham, Bill Burnham

It’s 10 am on a Saturday, and Liar’s Bench is full.

The four older gentlemen on the bench have spun a few fishing yarns in their time. From their perch at Onancock town wharf, they watch trucks backing boat trailers down the ramp and kayakers in red vests. A ferry departs for Tangier Island, an old community 12 miles out in the Chesapeake Bay. Nine slips line the tiny wharf, with sailboats and cruisers from as far as Nova Scotia and Florida.

A recent revival in Onancock (pronounced “a-nan-cock”) has resulted in a burst of new restaurants and shops. Still, there’s nary a Starbucks or big-box store in sight. You will find a running game of Crazy Eights in the back room of the local hardware store.

The town is becoming an alternate destination for those who’ve “done” St. Michaels. In Onancock, visitors can peek into artists’ studios and funky shops. Parking is plentiful, and folks nod in greeting.

Although it bills itself as a 1680 Colonial port—founded as a port for tobacco—Onancock is up to date. There are half a dozen upscale places to lay your head, from restored Victorian inns with porch swings to a boutique hotel. The movie theater only looks as if it’s from the 1960s. The artist Charlotte Heath serves creative American cuisine in her own hotel. Flamenco, a retro bar, keeps the nightlife interesting.

You’ll soon be on a first-name basis with shop owners and artists, a mix of “born-heres” and “come-heres.” There’s Willie Crockett, a watercolorist whose accent is distinctly Tangier, and an Argentinean restaurateur whose leather handbags are in galleries from Washington to San Francisco.

Many of the 1,550 Onancock residents traded city traffic and high prices for small-town life.

Onancock Stroll

The business district, barely two square blocks, centers around Market Street. Roseland Theater shows international films once a month, while North Street Playhouse stages plays. Fine tastes are indulged at Timothy & Sons Antiques and by North Street Market’s international selection of gourmet food and wine. Restaurants serving Spanish, Czech, Italian, Mediterranean, Irish, and American cuisine occupy refurbished post–Civil War brick buildings in this “new” part of town.

The smell of paint inside Jack Richardson’s Gallery on King Street means the artist is working in the back. At One Good Tern, Bobby Swain carves “birds, folk art, and other oddities” from his wheelchair.

Bright pumpkins and mums are the seasonal display at GardenArt on King Street, in front of House of Deals hardware store, where bushel baskets overflow with Hayman potatoes, the region’s sweet potato in season through fall. A blackboard announces that rockfish and muskrat are also in (the former sells out in hours; the latter, brought in by an 80-year-old trapper, is an acquired taste). Miss Rosalie will tell you how to cook all of it; the Haymans must be oiled to keep them moist and sweet.

Past five historic churches, past the town park and gazebo—the site of weddings and ice-cream socials—Market Street descends to the wharf, the town’s original downtown. The Algonquians, who fished here long before Captain John Smith sailed by in 1608, called this “foggy place,” for the mist that often settles on the creek and lifts with the rising sun.

Four generations of the Hopkins family shipped goods from here. Inside the former 1842 Hopkins and Bro. General Store, now housing Mallards at the Wharf restaurant, sepia-toned photos of watermen decorate the plank walls. Near the hostess desk, Garland Harvie spins wool, one of the Colonial arts she demonstrates daily.

Onancock Creek’s three branches extend like fingers into neighborhoods of stately mansions and Sears-catalog homes, all with lawns leading to their former “front doors” on the harbor. Barges occasionally enter the harbor to unload gravel and oil, while watermen dock at an old red building to unload drum fish and other bay finfish. The new guard is represented by mini-yachts and tall-masted sailboats that tie up for a weekend.

The town is a showcase of Colonial, Federal, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts architecture. Near a home named Holden, a bronze marker announces its ties to Francis Makemie (1658–1708), founder of American Presbyterianism. Several Victorian “painted ladies” have become B&Bs with wide gingerbread-trimmed porches, where guests enjoy wine and cheese before they walk to dinner.

Things to Do

Antiques, art, and gifts can be found at half a dozen good shops and galleries. GardenArt is a funky oasis in a former power plant, Onancock General Store displays the clever and cute in an ice-cream-parlor setting, and Herbal Instincts natural foods is in a converted Craftsman-style home. Pick up some of the owner’s homemade mozzarella to take home. (Some shops are closed on Mondays.)

See how the 19th century’s other half lived inside the impressively preserved Ker Place, a brick-house museum and headquarters for the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society (757-787-8012; kerplace.org).

Onancock is a walking town where you can see everything in a couple of hours. But to fully appreciate it, you might want to see it also from the water. SouthEast Expeditions offers narrated kayak tours of Onancock Creek for paddlers of all abilities; contact 877-22-kayak or sekayak.com.

The Capt. Eulice Ferry can take you into the Chesapeake Bay to Tangier Island, where soft-shell crabs are still the economy’s mainstay. Try them for lunch at one of the island’s restaurants after a golf-cart tour of this carless community. The passenger ferry departs at 10 am, returning at 3:30, Memorial Day through October 15 (no Monday service). For details: 804-453-4434 or tangierisland-va.com/eulice.

Winetasting is new to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, with three wineries opening within the past three years. All are family-run operations on historic farms. For more information, see chathamvineyards.net or hollygrovevineyards.com or call Bloxom Vineyard at 757-665-5670.

Places to Stay

Charlotte Hotel, 757-787-7400; thecharlottehotel.com. The owner’s art on the stairs leads to eight whimsical rooms in this restored 1907 hotel.

Colonial Manor Inn, 757-787-3521; colonialmanorinn.com. The Virginia Eastern Shore’s oldest operating inn.

Creekside Inn, 757-787-7578; creeksideinn.biz. The town’s only waterfront lodging.

Inn and Garden Café, 757-787-8850; theinnandgardencafe.com. Breakfast at this elegant inn includes truffled scrambled eggs with caviar and smoked salmon in a martini glass.

Inn at Onancock, 757-789-7711; innatonancock.com. The restored inn has spalike bathrooms, in-room massages, and breakfast that always includes a dessert selection of the innkeeper’s homemade pastries.

Spinning Wheel Bed & Breakfast, 757-787-7311; 1890spinningwheel.com. You’ll feel like part of the family at this antique-filled home.

Places to Eat

Behind the Racks Wine Bar in North Street Market, 5 North St.; 757-787-8805. Foodies can get their shopping fix, then dine at the piano-shaped bar (Thursday through Saturday) on tapas-style fare paired with wines from around the world.

Bizzotto’s Gallery-Caffe, 41 Market St.; 757-787-3103; bizzottos.esva.net. Before or after dining on entrées like pan-seared crab cake with chipotle aïoli, you can admire the owner’s handmade leather bags and other artists’ jewelry, pottery, and glass.

Blarney Stone Pub, 10 North St.; 757-302-0300; blarneystonepubonancock.com. This pub serves the requisite fish and chips along with twists like “Irish nachos”—Alaskan salmon on a bed of waffle fries.

Charlotte Hotel, 7 North St.; 757-787-7400; thecharlottehotel.com. Art and function meet perfectly in the hotel’s cozy dining room, where imaginatively prepared local game, fish, and produce are served on tabletops adorned with folk art.

Flamenco Restaurant, 4 North St.; 757-787-7780; flamencorestaurant.com. Czech proprietors Olga and Ales Gregor cook up Spanish and Eastern European dishes. Their dance club next door—Olga’s vision of an American nightclub—features a jukebox, disco balls, and 33- and 45-rpm records decorating the floors and walls.

Inn & Garden Café, 145 Market St.; 757-787-8850; theinnandgardencafe.com. Enjoy regional favorites with elegant twists in a windowed, four-season gazebo or beside the fireplace. Ask Paul for his wine-pairing advice.

Mallard’s at the Wharf, 2 Market St.; 757-787-8558; mallardsllc.com. Guitar-playing chef Johnny Mo serves crab cakes and cocktails inside a historic 1842 general store or out on the waterfront deck.

Stella’s Fine Food & Spirits, 57 Market St.; 757-789-5045. This family favorite features an ice-cream bar downstairs, and billiards on the second floor. Co-owner Lance Kaufmann greets every table. The house specialty is steamed clams in garlic broth with fresh bread to dip in it.

September Events

September 7 and 8: Harborfest features food, music, contests, small-boat races, and the popular rubber-duck race. Call 757-787-3363 or see onancock.com.

September 13 through 16: A replica of the Godspeed, the flagship of the Jamestown settlers, is escorted into town by a boat parade for Godspeed Weekend at the Wharf. Call 757-787-3363 or see onancock.com.

September 15: The Eastern Shore Festival of the Arts is a showcase of local artists and craftsmen on the Ker Place lawn. Call 757-787-9596 or see kerplace.org.

Getting There

Onancock, a 41⁄2-hour drive from Washington, is one mile west of Route 13 on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

For more information, see onancock.org or esvatourism.org.