FOOD- THE DISH- Mixed use: Western State open for business


Now serving? The abandoned steam power plant at Staunton's old Western State Hospital complex wants to be a restaurant.

Ever thought of opening a restaurant or a brew pub in the abandoned power plant of an old insane asylum? Well, now's your chance!


According to Staunton realtor Debbie Metz, the old steam power plant at the historic Western State Hospital in Staunton, a former medium-security state prison and mental hospital, is available. It's all part of an ambitious development and restoration project called The Villages at Staunton, which began about a year ago. 

Eventually, the entire 80-acre hospital site will become a pedestrian "village," says Metz. The developer, Richmond-based Miller & Associates, is also seeking partners to turn the main complex of buildings on the site into a luxury boutique hotel and spa. Just recently, the old Bindery building was completed, the first phase in the development, and Metz says that a third of its $295,000-$850,000 condos have been spoken for. 

The power plant features ceiling-to-floor windows, a completely open floor plan with exposed geometry of ducts, pipes, cables, and a smoke stack out front that's at least a 100 feet high. It's certainly a unique industrial building. Indeed, Western State itself is a mesmerizing complex of historic buildings, with an equally fascinating history.

Designed and built by Thomas Blackburn, a protégé of Thomas Jefferson who worked on UVA, it was founded as the Western Lunatic Asylum in 1828 (the name was later changed to Western State Hospital) as a kind of architecturally pleasing retreat for people suffering from various mental illnesses. However, beginning in the early part of the 20th century, it was run by Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, a leading proponent of eugenics, a movement that advocated the forced sterilization of, in DeJarnette's words, "misfits" who were "not fit to breed." 

DeJarnette even wrote a poem about eugenics that began, "Oh, why do we allow these people/To breed back to the monkey's nest/To increase our country's burdens/When we should only breed the best?" 

Over 8,000 Virginians were forcibly sterilized, part of the 60,000 people subjected to the procedure nationwide. The practice didn't stop in Virginia until the 1970s, when eugenics laws were finally repealed. 

Obviously, such history presents a bit of a marketing challenge. Indeed, this is a beautiful complex of old buildings, lovingly restored by Miller & Associates, and Staunton should be proud of finding a way to preserve it. Still, what to do about this troubling chapter in its history? Can you imagine trying to sell a $400,000 condo with this listing: "Lovely two-bedroom condo located in former lunatic asylum and forced sterilization center– must see!" As Metz admits, they've been trying to focus on Western State's earlier incarnation as a retreat.

But a brew pub or restaurant? Now there's a chance to avoid whitewashing history while spicing up your marketing at the same time. Heck, you could call it Misfits Bar & Grill or The Lunatic Fringe. Or better yet, the Monkey's Nest. 


Chef's tables

Recently, a Dish reader asked if there are any restaurants in the area with a "chef's table" where diners can watch chefs prepare their meals or get close to the kitchen scene. Good question. 

Of course, there's the Sakura Steakhouse in the Hollymead Town Center and The Flaming Wok on Emmet Street, both of which have teppan yaki chefs who flip their knives and spatulas in the air like ninjas, chopping onions and bamboo shoots at lightning speed, and tossing shrimp and chicken chunks onto your plate. In fact, Dish has seen a teppan yaki chef toss a jumbo shrimp in the air and catch it on the end of his knife without missing a beat. 

Alas, Dish also once witnessed a teppan yaki chef slicing his finger badly (not locally). The brave chef wrapped his finger in a towel and tried to continue, but as the towel turned crimson, the chef began to lose his balance. He politely excused himself, and was replaced almost immediately with another chef, but by then most of us at the table had lost our appetites. When we left, I spotted the chef sitting on a bucket outside the service entrance, smoking a cigarette, his wounded hand wrapped in several towels. Ah, the perils of cooking as performance!

Several restaurants in town, like Bizou and Cassis, feature open kitchens, but not many have actual chef's tables. In fact, we could think of only two. While downtown's Oxo downtown has a bar that hovers over the open kitchen, the only full-blown table we've seen lies at The Clifton Inn, which positions a table that seats up to 12 right in its kitchen area, allowing diners to interact with the kitchen staff and see their meal created.

"I believe we're the only chef's table in town," says Clifton's director of sales and marketing Holly Mawyer, "and that makes it extra special."

Apparently, the folks at Clifton decided it's a concept worth expanding. In a tradition that started January 7, every Monday during January and February will be "Chef's Night," where all diners will be treated to a glass of champagne, a cooking demonstration from Executive Chef Dean Maupin and his staff, and an invitation to gather around the chef's table in communal dining fashion. 

Let's just hope nobody lops off a finger!


Corrective measures

As several Dish readers pointed out, in our excitement over the arrival of Dunkin' Donuts ["Donut fret: Dunkin' Donuts coming South," January 3], we somehow (senility?) forgot to mention Spudnuts, that Belmont institution that has been serving up their secret-recipe potato-flour donuts for 36 years. As most would agree, there's nothing like a fresh, hot Spudnut... you just have to get there early before they're all gone!

In that same issue, we led readers to believe that Rhonda Ward, co-owner with her husband, Sid, of the The Dining Room in Staunton, was one half of a jazz duo. Alas, Ward reports that her talents lie in the kitchen, not on the music stage. Musician Jennifer Kirkland, not Ward, plays regularly at the restaurant with Bert Carlson.