In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not an expert. I always say “different strokes for different folks,” but when potential home buyers travel to Williamsburg to house-hunt, they usually ask where the locals go for a good meal. Having lived here for many years, I’m pretty confident in my ability to recommend a restaurant (or a park or a winery but those will be separate posts!).
When I make recommendations to people, I ask first what it is that they like, both in terms of food and ambiance. Are they feeling adventurous, or do they want to grab a quick bite? Waterfront vibe or white glove service?
Let’s start with the dining experience and ambiance.
Amber Ox Public House is always at the top of my restaurant list! Dubbed “a seasonally inspired brewpub with a modern approach,” this place has quickly become a favorite hangout for many in the ‘Burg. Located a stone’s throw from William & Mary, the beer and food there are extraordinary, and the vibe is upscale casual. Their shrimp and grits were hands-down the best I’ve had, and the breakfast stout was my fave of the beers.
For the foodies out there – those with discriminating palates seeking to dine, not just eat – one of my favorite spots in Williamsburg is Fat Canary. It’s probably the best restaurant in Williamsburg, in my opinion. Located in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, Fat Canary has received the AAA Four Diamond award each year since opening in 2003. Don’t even attempt to go there without a reservation. The food is beyond incredible and the service is second to none. Hint: dining downstairs at the Fat Canary is more affordable. And no reservations are needed for downstairs.
I also love Le Yaca for special occasions. As its name suggests, it’s French. The atmosphere is Parisian elegant and the food is divine, but on the pricey side. Still, when I think of my favorites, Le Yaca is definitely going to be one.
Casa Pearl is a super small, super casual restaurant and that’s part of its charm. Located in a building that was once a gas station, the establishment features oysters and tacos. Yeah, I know. Oysters and tacos? Go, taste for yourself. Oysters, because they play such a prominent role in the history of our beloved Chesapeake Bay and the tacos because tacos are just plain fun. The vibe is fun and lively, and the food is like a party in your mouth. They offer fish, pork, chicken and oyster tacos, salads, clams, shrimp, hush puppies, fish dip and more.
Cochon is a true dining experience. Noted for featuring local ingredients, eclectic tastes and an inviting atmosphere, the restaurant is also well-known for gracious and detailed service. Patrons come from far and wide to dine there.
For those clients who have spent the afternoon looking at homes in Kingsmill, I’ll probably recommend Waypoint Seafood & Grill. For one, it’s located right outside the entrance of Kingsmill on Route 199 near Quarterpath Crossing. Waypoint’s menu spotlights the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay, other regional waters, and items grown at local farms.
If you want to sink your teeth into one of Williamsburg’s best steaks, do check out Opus 9. It’s an incredible restaurant. On Mondays through Saturdays, they have “12 under $12 lunch specials. On Sundays, you won’t want to miss their brunch. I suggest making a reservation. In fact, I suggest attempting to make a reservation at any of these establishments. Some don’t accept reservations (tourist town) but always try.
Moving on to waterfront restaurants.
Some want to dine conveniently in town, but often I’m asked about waterfront restaurants. Despite the presence of abundant waterways in the area, there are not that many waterfront restaurants which is a surprise to many. You will have to get adventurous, but that’s not a bad thing.
Here are my favorites for waterfront dining.
At The Blue Heron out in Charles City County, the food isn’t fancy but it’s fresh and it’s good and popular with boaters, bikers and locals. This place is flip-flops casual and a lot of fun.
In nearby Gloucester, the York River Oyster Company is another popular waterfront dining experience. Travel the Colonial Parkway (one of the most beautiful roadways in the country) to Yorktown where you’ll cross over to Gloucester via the Coleman Bridge. Located at York River Yacht Haven, YROC gives off a feeling of being on a ship for those dining indoors, whereas outdoors is laid-back and casual. The food is delicious and there’s just something about dining amidst the sounds of halyards slapping the masts of sailboats.
If you have time to take the Jamestown Ferry over to Surry, the Surry Seafood Co. is another place the locals love. Another marina here, but much smaller than York River Yacht Haven. Make it an adventure. The ferry ride is short and sweet (and free) and will deliver you across the James River in a place that feel like you’re going back in time. The restaurant features abundant seating, both indoors and outdoors, and four hotel suites above the restaurant with terrific views of the creek and marches. It has truly become a favorite, both for citizens of Surry and beyond.
Off the beaten path…
…but along one of the most popular biking trails in Virginia sits Indian Fields Tavern. Located in Charles City County on Route 5, Indian Fields features nice, casual dining along Route 5. This has become my go-to restaurant for bike rides on the Virginia Capital Trail (I’m a cyclist and a pretty serious one – bikers gotta eat). Stop in for lunch and try the fried catfish platter; you’ll find it cooked to perfection mine was a very ample portion. The slaw was a unique flavor, not the mayo type that you’re used to but quite delicious, as are the French fries. I topped off my meal with a slice of apple caramel cheesecake, which had a very unique flavor and texture – the crust was extra thick on the bottom. If there’s a line, it’s worth the wait. We dined on the screen porch outside with views of the cornfields in the distance.e
Since I mentioned the cycling scene here, which I’m proud to be a part of, I must mention Spoke and Art. Also located along Route 5, this fun, artsy coffee and tea cafe also offers sandwiches and pastries to bicyclists in need of a break and some sustenance.
Wine and dine:
A few of my top restaurants are also vineyards, so these will also appear in my “Wineries and Breweries” post:
Located on Route 5 next to the historic Shirley Plantation, Upper Shirley Vineyards is a great winery and restaurant. It’s worth the drive. The drive headed west on this historic byway is serene and scenic. No stop lights!
Closer in town sits Williamsburg’s first winery, aptly named Williamsburg Winery. It features a casual restaurant (Gabriel Archer Tavern) and the Café Provencal which is temporarily closed. Do check back though, as it’s one of my favorite places to have a wine tasting followed by a fine meal.
While the places mentioned thus far are definitely at the top of my list, the following is a simple collection of other restaurants I love in Williamsburg. To the extent possible, they are grouped by theme.
Coffee and café/breakfast-type places:
Located adjacent to the campus of William & Mary and one block from Merchants Square, Aromas Coffeehouse & Cafe is notable for the quality of their food, baked accompaniments and coffee-house vibe. Seating fills fast indoors but there is al fresco seating too. Dog friendly. In fact, the original owners love dogs so much that they later opened The Hounds Tale which appears under “Burgers and Gastropubs” below. The couple has since sold both establishments, but their reputation and food are solid in this town.
Astronomical Pancake House has a loyal Facebook following but no website. This popular spot is located at 5437 Richmond Road on Route 60’s unofficial pancake row district. It’s always busy, and always good.
Shorty’s Diner is always on everybody’s favorite breakfast place list. Diner style like you remember from growing up. Great for lunch also.
The Bake Shop is actually one of my favorite places in town to grab a coffee, bagel an oversized muffin, scone or any other number of hand-crafted goods and pastries. Plan your visit with the weather in mind as you order indoors and enjoy your food outdoors. Inside scoop: on Friday evenings you can enjoy deep dish Chicago-style pizza there.
Another favorite with the locals is Emily’s Donuts and Cafe. Hands down, the best donuts in town. There is limited seating indoors and it’s a good idea to place your order online.
First Watch is a chain but it’s a great place for breakfast (and lunch too). I normally don’t like chain restaurants but the menu here is pretty expansive and there’s a variety of breakfast options. I love the “farmhouse style” atmosphere. Get there early if you don’t want to wait for a table. I definitely recommend this place if you want a breakfast a bit different from the standard pancake house experience. Make your early morning taste buds happy and check them out.
The establishments listed above are relatively new to the scene. By contrast, The Old Chickahominy House has been here longer than I have and that’s a long time. This restaurant is only open for breakfast (hearty, Southern) and lunch (Brunswick Stew and to-die-for biscuits). You have to try this place at least once.
This brings us to Tipsy Beans Cafe. Tipsy Beans serves a sumptuous brunch and signature libations seven days a week. Their coffee drinks include a great variety of lattes (the Lavender latte is a must), cappuccinos and much more.
Instead of alphabetizing here, I’m going to go from oldest to newest just to shake things up a bit.
A Williamsburg institution, Pierce’s BBQ has been here forever, or at least since the early 1970s. Pierce’s has many fans, it’s true, but barbecue is like football everybody has their favorite.
Out in Toano on Route 60, brothers and former CW Fife & Drummers named Jonathan and Jason Wade run Two Drummers Smokehouse. This casual restaurant features award-winning barbeque and brisket, and their Brunswick Stew is on another level too.
Closer in town, Old City Barbeque is an innovative restaurant concept with a focus on high quality, locally or sustainably sourced ingredients and uniquely serves nose-to-tail barbeque.
Be sure and try Matchsticks BBQ Co. This restaurant, which got its start as a wildly popular food truck, deserves a definite honorable mention. At this point its open Thursday, Friday, Saturday Sunday.
Burgers, Gastropubs and Such
You’d think burgers are pretty basic, and I’m often asked where the best one in Williamsburg is. That’s a hard one. If I want a fancy burger, it’s going to be Amber Ox (mentioned early in this article). The more basic burger is going to be the smash burger now available at Precarious Beer Project. It’s a damn good smash burger.
Locals tip: On Thursdays they do a smash burger special one Smashburger of your choice french fries and a precarious draft for $15
Another fun place to have a casual lunch is Charly’s Airport Restaurant. Williamsburg has a tiny little airport located near the Williamsburg Winery. This restaurant is a fun place to have a delicious sandwich (breads made from scratch) and watch the planes takeoff.
Located in Merchants Square, Dog Street Pub is a great place for beer lovers. Offering typical pub food and nice outdoor seating, this is casual cuisine with an English accent
A few miles west of the city, the Five Forks Café is truly an old-school diner that enjoys a local (and long-time local) following. If they have a website, I can’t find it, but they are located at 4456 John Tyler Highway in a part of town known as Five Forks. Nothing fancy here. Have the burger melt. Breakfasts are great too and everything is made from scratch.
Food for Thought is a place unto itself. It’s downhome (think “meatloaf”) but also one of the best go-to places for vegetarian, vegan or gluten free consumers. The food is consistently good, the prices are reasonable, and the wait can be long, but so worth it. They do not take reservations.
A stone’s throw from Merchants Square, you’ll find The Hounds Tale, an innovative gastropub-style restaurant featuring American eats, cocktails and wine in a loud, lively dog-themed space. There’s even a “Barkery” next door.
Conveniently located in New Town, Paul’s Deli is a favorite spot for locals and tourists alike. Portions are ample, the food is great, and the atmosphere is casual and fun. Many of the dishes are Greek-inspired.
I’ve gone back and forth with where to put Precarious Beer Project. Brewery? Restaurant? All of the above. Though technically, Precarious is a beer hall in its own right, it continues to emerge on the fun food scene with its Electric Circus Taco Bar and Taco Tuesdays. Coming soon: Smash burgers at Precarious’ “Old Dominion Burger” expansion. So good!
Second Street Bistro is an old, established restaurant that is smack dab in the middle of town and convenient to wherever you find yourself. Second Street bills itself as “upscale casual, without being uppity.” I couldn’t put it better.
Located near the Premium Outlets is Oceans and Ale. As its name suggests, the menu features seafood and other casual offerings, with an emphasis on craft beer.
The Yorktown Pub is a favorite spot for burgers (beef or black bean) and other casual American fare. Located across the street from the York River in Yorktown, it’s also a biker bar. Not particularly child-friendly (they don’t have highchairs) but a fun place to grab a burger and beer.
Though you won’t find a burger at the locally famous Cheese Shop, you will find some of the best sandwiches, specialty foods and gourmet items Williamsburg has to offer. The Cheese Shop, located next door to the Fat Canary, is owned by the venerable Power family, the same family that runs the Fat Canary which you may recall is at the very top of this list/article!
We touched on waterfront earlier, and those restaurants are certainly noteworthy. Here are a few other seafood establishments that enjoy their own local following, including yours truly:
Berrets Seafood Restaurant and Taphouse Grill has enjoyed a local following since 1983 when they burst on the Merchants Square scene. The restaurant has been voted by locals as “Best in Seafood Restaurant” and “Best Crabcake” year after year. They source fresh regional seafood and feature an oyster happy hour daily and, of course, drinks specials.
Newer on the seafood scene, locally owned and operated Fat Tuna is conveniently located on Richmond Road in town and enjoys a loyal following of customers.
I can’t post about seafood and ignore the Lightfoot-based Skrimp Shack. They boast the world’s largest fish sandwich, and it may be true. This casual eatery is known for its huge portions. If you want fried fish, no one here is going to shame you. Have your fish and eat it too!
Waypoint Seafood & Grill was mentioned earlier in the foodie/ambiance section. Adjacent to Kingsmill’s Quarterpath entrance, Waypoint spotlights the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay, other regional waters, and items grown at local farms.
Italian/Pizza and Greek:
Everyone has their own favorites, and Williamsburgers can be very vocal about them! There are locals here who hail from New York and New Jersey, so we have a few experts. Some love Sal’s by Victor for its classic Italian food and casual vibe. Others swear by the New York Deli which features humongous subs, sandwiches and really good pizza.
My personal favorite is probably Giuseppe’s, another locally owned and operated restaurant that has been serving up fresh, delicious Italian fare for 30 years now, in a casually elegant setting. I also like Tuscany Ristorante, another old school Italian establishment that features great – and I mean GREAT – lunch specials.
For pizza, no locals’ favorites list would be complete without mentioning From the Hearth (aka FTH) for really good take-out pizza. FTH requires that you call ahead and order. Also, worth checking out: Bellissimo’s (6614 Mooretown Road) and Little Charlies (4511 John Tyler Hwy)
On balance, while the chain Mellow Mushroom isn’t an “Italian” restaurant, it has decent pizza and other fare, certainly worth the visit. So, it gets a mention.
For Thai, I am loving Aticha Thai Cuisine. The food at this family friendly is light, fresh, and strikes a delightful flavor, and the customer service is superb.
Peter Chang offers some of the better Mandarin/ Chinese cuisine in the area. I’m not crazy about the atmosphere but the food is good.
La Tienda Tapas Bar and Market is a really unique place. The owners are dedicated to sharing their love of Spain and her culture. Shop and sample the best of Spain here.
For Mexican food, I love Plaza Azteca but I know a lot of folks with fierce loyalties to La Tolteca, especially their first location on Second Street (“a little Mexican restaurant with a big menu”) La Terraza and Taco Mexicali. Buen provecho!
I know this is a very long “short” list, but hopefully I’m providing readers plenty of options from which to choose.
My full list of favorites is on Yelp Note: there are 80+ establishments on my Yelp list but it’s hard to shorten the list.
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