Since my son Keller started college, I must have driven on I-66 and I-81 in Virginia dozens of times. As beautiful as the drive is—characterized by a bucolic landscape of rolling hills; farm animals grazing on lush, green grass and exits to wineries and charming small towns—I’ve seldom stopped to sample the local fare and catch the sites. The only place I stop regularly is Front Royal, Va., which I treat as a pit stop because of its number of gas stations, big box stores and a Starbucks. However, a sudden need to use the bathroom brought me to the town of Marshall, Va. (pop. 1,480) and more importantly to Gentle Harvest. Located on the town’s main drag, West Main Street, it also happened to be the only place open on a Wednesday evening at 7 p.m.
Part restaurant, part bar, part organic food market, a place like this would have trouble surviving the Washington, D.C. area where Whole Foods dominates the organic food market and is branching out into in-store restaurants and bars at some of its locations. But in Marshall a store like Gentle Harvest with its carefully curated selection of food, wine and beer sourced locally and beyond has found its niche.
After I was done using their facilities (which is located on the second level of Gentle Harvest where they also have expanded room for additional seating and meeting space), I made my way over to the café counter where I ordered dinner from a limited menu consisting of burgers, salads, stuffed baked potatoes, hot dogs, soup and rotisserie chicken. I was starving so I went with the chicken and sides of mashed potatoes and Brussel sprouts. The chicken and mashed potatoes were pretty solid—nothing groundbreaking but well-done and a great alternative to any fast food joint in Front Royal. The chicken had a nice, fragrant crust of rosemary on its skin while the potatoes had flecks of herbs—thyme, I think. The Brussel sprouts were exceptional, having been sautéed in a pepper jelly glaze that was both sweet and spicy.
I took my dinner at my next stop, the bar. It’s probably a minor inconvenience to have to order an alcoholic beverage in a different section than the café, but Gentle Harvest allows you to open a single tab so everything—including your groceries—can be paid all at once. Any inconvenience was quickly forgotten by the warm introduction and greeting given by Alicia, the bartender. Like the café, the bar had a limited selection of beer on tap and house wines. By my count, Gentle Harvest was offering six beers from the DMV area, Virginia’s Bold Rock® hard cider, and four types of wines hailing as far as New Zealand (a Wither Hills sauvignon blanc) and as close as Delaplane, Va. (a rosé and chardonnay from Blue Valley). However, there is the option to buy any bottle of wine, beer or cider sold in their retail space for consumption on site.
Alicia, who amicably shared that she was a recent transplant from Northern Virginia, offered me samples of the two wines that I was trying to decide on as an appropriate pairing for my chicken dinner. It was between the rosé and the sauvignon blanc. I hesitated on taking advantage of her offer to sample the wines and immediately went for the sauvignon blanc. I didn’t want to take advantage of my gracious hostess. A short time later, another patron sat down next to me and a different barkeep offered him samples of whatever beer he would like. Clearly the staff at Gentle Harvest want their patrons to be satisfied with their selection of beverage.
After dinner, I wondered around the store for bit to see all they had to offer, which includes a coffee bar for the morning rush, a full-service butcher, fresh produce, a great selection of cheeses and products under the Gentle Harvest label, including pet food. I passed on the pet food since my cat Israel has very pedestrian taste (Meow Mix® canned food is his all-time favorite). I did pick up a container of their vegetable soup and a small strawberry-blueberry-almond rustic tart. I have yet to have the tart, but the soup was light with vegetables that were as fresh as the day they were harvested.
I wish I could have stayed longer and enjoyed a second glass of wine (this time of the rosé), but I had to get on the road and return the U-Haul van I rented to schlep all of Keller’s stuff down to his apartment. Now that I know that the town of Marshall holds such culinary gems like Gentle Harvest and a gas station, I may skip Front Royal altogether and make Marshall my new pit stop.
For more information on Gentle Harvest visit their website, www.gentleharvest.com.