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Colonial Dining in Williamsburg

Treat the kids to an 18th century dining experience in a traditional colonial-style restaurant in Williamsburg.

 

A handful of extremely popular eateries in Colonial Williamsburg offer traditional meals in a historic setting; some were even open for business when Thomas Jefferson supped here. The experience is a bit different these days, with recipes adapted to today’s palates, and served with modern amenities like forks and napkins.

Make Reservations Well in Advance

It isn’t easy to get a dinner table in Colonial Williamsburg at the last minute. Several options require reservations at least two weeks in advance for supper—even further in advance if you visit during a traditional school holiday. Call 800-HISTORY (800-447-8679), Colonial Williamsburg’s Visitor Center information number, for preferred seating before you leave home, and then confirm reservations a day before. Chowning’s Tavern and Shields Tavern do not accept reservations for any meal, so expect long lines at these establishments.

With a little patience, you can usually sneak in for lunch, when it is first-come, first-serve in all restaurants that are open at midday. If waiting is a nuisance for you, consider eating at off-peak hours (lunch at 11:30 a.m. or after 2 p.m.).

Colonial Dining Options 

There are four historic sit-down restaurants in Colonial Williamsburg, plus an 18th century-style “fast food” outlet:

Chowning’s Tavern (Duke of Glouchester St., near the Courthouse)

By day, Chowning’s is a no-frills pub with rough-hewn tables and chairs and equally rustic food; it’s the least expensive sit-down dining option. Families with young, noisy children will feel right at home here. Although I recommend staying away from the Brunswick stew (a thick, gamey-tasting muddle), Carolina-style pit barbeque is tasty, and pulled meat is available by the pint or tucked into a sandwich. When the weather permits, try the outdoor counter at Chowning’s, and then enjoy your grub at picnic tables under an adjacent grape arbor.

By night, Chowning’s transforms into a rum and ale house, offering light pub food (such as sandwiches and hot wings) and plenty of cheer. During a spirited program called ‘Gambols,’ held every evening at Chowning’s, costumed historical interpreters lead patrons in rowdy sing-alongs and teach guests to play 18th century games. Although the atmosphere is strictly PG, you’ll find the place empties of children after about 8 p.m.

Christiana Campbell’s Tavern (Waller St., near the Capitol)

Campbell’s is my family’s favorite eatery in Colonial Williamsburg, and it’s open only for dinner. This elegant, white-washed restaurant with an expansive front porch is surrounded outside by pathways made of broken oyster shells—a sure sign that good seafood awaits. Christiana Campbell’s Tavern specializes in fish dishes, and its lump crab cakes are some of the best in the region. Other treats include the baked flounder with crabmeat imperial and a combination of shrimp, scallops and lobster cooked with generous amounts of sherry. All meals come with tiny, delicious sweet potato muffins.

A children’s menu at Campbell’s offers the same fare you’ll find in just about every chain restaurant throughout the country. But don’t sell the kids short: When our daughter was 3 years old, my husband and I once ordered for her from this menu, only to find that when her mac and cheese arrived she was much more interested in our crab cakes. Regardless of age, end the meal with a slice of lemon chess pie, a rich Southern indulgence with a touch of corn meal.

Campbell’s also offers an entirely civilized afternoon tea that includes freshly baked scones, clotted cream and finger sandwiches.

Shields Tavern (Duke of Gloucester St., near the Capitol)

Shields has recently expanded its menu and its hours (now open from 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.), and because no reservations are accepted here, this is a good option if you decide to drop in unexpectedly. The interior is casual 18th century coffeehouse, and offers quick service. Try the cornmeal-battered buttermilk fried oysters or the Old English favorite ‘Bubble and Squeak’—a concoction of potatoes and cabbage that legend has it is named for the sounds one’s digestive system makes after eating it. Shields Tavern also offers buffalo meatloaf, catfish BLT and a scrumptious apple pie served with hot melted cheese on top.

The King’s Arms (Duke of Gloucester St., opposite Raleigh Tavern)

This 18th century chop house is the finest (and most crowded) of the colonial restaurants. The large space is broken into many intimate dining rooms, each of which are understated and comfortable. Expect candle-lit ambiance, period reproduction tables and chairs, antique maps on the walls, and pewter salt and sugar dishes on each table. Portions are huge, and options include savory peanut soup; a game pot-pie made with venison, rabbit and duck; and fried chicken served with a slice of salty Virginia ham. My 12-year-old loves the refreshing berry shrub, a nonalcoholic cocktail made from cranberry juice, raspberry sorbet and fresh mint. When we last dined at The King’s Arms for lunch, I decided to be adventurous and order something new: I tried the chopped beef steak on griddled bread. It turned out to be a hamburger.

Raleigh Tavern Bakery (Duke of Gloucester St., behind the Raleigh Tavern)

When we’re feeling like there’s too much to see and too little time to take a full hour for a meal, my family opts for a quick snack at the walk-through Raleigh Tavern Bakery. We especially like the small ham and cheese biscuits; you can also make your own sandwiches with loaves of Sally Lunn bread (so sweet it tastes like cake) and chunks of cheddar. Don’t miss the soft, fat gingerbread cookies and ice-cold bottles of root beer and bitingly strong ginger ale. In colder months, steaming mugs of coffee, cocoa and hot apple cider are equally tempting.


Destinations: Williamsburg

Themes: Family Travel, Historical Vacations

Activities: Eat


User Comments

Mmm! These all sound delicious; thanks for the suggestions.

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