By LIZ BECKER • Special correspondent (Richmond.com)
Many Richmonders have only glimpsed Ashland through the windows of a northbound train, a quaint blur of Victorian mansions and small-town storefronts along the tracks. But anyone who has gotten off the train or made the less than 30-minute drive up I-95 from Richmond knows that Ashland is much more than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stopover.
Ashland, ironically and affectionately nicknamed the Center of the Universe, is a strange and charming hybrid of many traits: college town, sleepy Southern village, historic outpost and a quirky, liberal hub in the middle of otherwise rural and conservative Hanover County.
There are few other small towns where you can spend a day so fruitfully. Ashland has great eats, eclectic shops, a growing beer scene, outstanding live music, collegiate sports and its very own celebrity eccentric: Ken Hale, an affable man in a miniskirt and heels, who can often be found riding his bike along Center Street.
The Henry Clay Inn (114 N. Railroad Ave., henryclayinn.com)
This centrally located inn stands on the site of two former hotels dating back to the mid-1800s. Although the current structure was built in 1992, it still exudes the feel of the Old South, with its Georgian columns and expansive front porch dotted with lazy rocking chairs. It’s the perfect jumping-off point to explore the surrounding town, and with its proximity to the Amtrak station, the ideal spot for anyone coming or going by rail. Rooms are from $145 a night.
The Tinder Guest House (106 S. Railroad Ave., tinderguesthouse.com)
It would be easy to miss this little inn, with its narrow red entry door tucked discreetly into a downtown block along the tracks. But if you’re looking for a historic, centrally located place to stay with enough room for the whole family, this former pharmacy-turned-guest house hits just the right chord of old-fashioned charm and modern comfort. Rooms are from $250 a night for entire guest house (three bedrooms, two baths).
Iron Horse Restaurant (100 S. Railroad Ave., ironhorserestaurant.com)
For the full Ashland experience, there’s nothing like eating supper as a train shakes your cutlery. Iron Horse Restaurant, with its location just a stone’s throw from the tracks and outdoor bistro tables, offers that experience. The menu features creative new Southern fare, such as IPA-braised pork belly, cinnamon-cured duck breast and sorghum-glazed salmon.
Jake’s Place Restaurant and Market (511 Thompson St., jakesplaceashland.com)
If you want a slightly quieter meal, head a few minutes out of town to this soulful barbecue joint. The burgers, shrimp po’boy and catfish sandwich are top-notch. However, for the full smoky experience, try the brisket, ribs or pulled chicken or pork, along with some stick-to-your-gut sides, such as the mac and cheese, hush puppies or pimento cheese.
Thai Restaurant and Noodle (124 Thompson St.)
This tiny hole-in-the-wall spot looks unremarkable from the outside, but it should be an absolute must on any Ashland to-do list. It happens to serve some of the best and most authentic Thai food around, from spicy pad see ew to fried tofu with peanut sauce to rich panang curry to bright and creamy tom yum soup.
Riviera Maya Mexican Grill (525 S. Washington Highway)
Tucked into a nondescript strip mall next to a gas station off Route 1, this little restaurant offers delicious no-frills Mexican favorites that are as satisfying as they are easy on the wallet. Stop by at lunchtime for filling specials, such as the enchiladas verdes or huevos rancheros. Get a sweet treat AT:
Homemades by Suzanne (102 N. Railroad Ave., homemadesbysuzanne.com)
This longtime Ashland institution offers a full menu of Southern lunch staples, but the desserts are worth the trip alone. Grab a slice of the lemon chess or coconut pie, one of the plate-sized peanut butter cookies, a decadent cream puff or a rich carrot cupcake. Just make sure to plan a long stroll through Randolph-Macon across the street to work off all that indulgence.
Sugar Fix Bakery (105-B England St., sugarfixbakery.com)
This sweet little bakery features freshly made treats, such as cookies, cupcakes, brownies, cream cheese poundcake and gourmet candies. Pop in for a little pick-me-up after hitting the shops on England Street.
Monique’s Crepes (Mondays 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. behind Ashland Town Hall, 101 Thompson St., moniquescrepes.com)
This mobile creperie pops up by Ashland’s Town Hall most Mondays for a lunchtime appearance (make sure to check Twitter for changes). Savory crepes, such as the jambon and fromage (ham and cheese to non-Francophiles), are fantastic, but the banana Nutella, lemon and strawberry chocolate dessert crepes are heaven.
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Center of the Universe (11293 Air Park Road, cotubrewing.com)
If you prefer a more traditional brewery experience, head a few minutes outside of town to Ashland’s original brewery. It features a rotating selection of seasonal beers along with popular standbys, such as Ray Ray’s Pale Ale and Pocahoptas, as well as frequent taproom events, games and live music.
The Caboose Market & Café (108 S. Railroad Ave., cabooseashland.com)
Half market/wine shop and half café, this trendy spot has great food and an even better wine and beer selection. On Fridays, head there for a wine tasting in the market from 5:30 to 7 p.m. to mingle with Ashland locals and peruse a selection of imported cheeses and food and Virginia-sourced goodies.
Origin Beer Lab (106 S. Railroad Ave., originbeerlab.com)
If you like your brew with a side of mad science, this experimental beer lab, a sister company of Center of the Universe, may be just up your alley. Built for teaching, research and development of all things beer, Origin is where you can try funky sours, hoppy IPAs and drinkable light beers in a casual track-side setting.
Surrounding Hanover County could aptly be described as “horsey,” and this consignment boutique leans into that trait with high-end equestrian equipment, apparel, accessories, home décor, art and jewelry.
Thrill of the Hunt (315 England St., thrillofthehuntva.com)
This “upcycling” mecca is an absolute must for anyone who loves the look of refinished or repurposed furniture but balks at the work involved. You’ll find gorgeous antiques, quirky treasures, custom wood tables and unique art, all restored by people who actually know what they’re doing.
Ashland Meat Co. @ Cross Bros. (107 S. Railroad Ave.)
Formerly Cross Brothers Grocery, the historic space has been revamped and will soon relaunch, with its trademark butchery and a renewed emphasis on local products. There also will be prepared foods, sandwiches, beer and wine.
Have fun AT:
Live Music at Ashland Coffee & Tea (100 N. Railroad Ave., ashlandcoffeeandtea.com)
For a sleepy railroad town, Ashland manages to showcase some pretty phenomenal live musical acts, largely thanks to this beloved 20-year-old institution. The intimate 150-seat venue is a great place to hear both upcoming and established musicians.
Hanover Tavern (13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, hanovertavern.org)
Whether you’re a history buff, theater lover, or just want a good meal in a scenic setting, you’ll be able to find it at this Colonial-era tavern and site of the nation’s first dinner theater. Enjoy a traditional Southern brunch, lunch or dinner in the dining room, or check out a live show put on by the Virginia Repertory Theatre. The musical “Forever Plaid” runs this summer from July 19 to Aug. 25.
Ashland Farmers Market (101 Thompson St., 9 a.m. to noon)
Every Saturday from May to October, you can browse the stalls of this local market and see all the bounty Hanover has to offer. Check out the seasonal vegetables and herbs. Shop for local eggs, meat and honey. Or go during tomato season and fill up a bag full of juicy, red Hanovers, one of the county’s best and most celebrated exports.
Ashland Historic District
For a town most frequently viewed from the high-speed vantage of a train car, Ashland, developed as a resort area in the mid-1900s, is much more amenable to a leisurely stroll. Walk the long line of Center Street along the tracks or double back into the neighborhoods on each side of the railroad to enjoy stunning, beautifully preserved homes in Victorian, Colonial Revival and Queen Anne architectural styles.
Liz Becker is a writer, RN and former city girl-turned-proud Goochland resident and biscuit lover. You can read more from her at lifeinacoffeespoon.com, or find her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.