Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Ins and Outs of Downtown Fredericksburg

There have been quite a few changes to the downtown scene over the last few months, with new businesses opening, and some old standbys closing up. One of our favorite new places is the University Cafe, which is unique to the downtown scene—a big, open space with lots of dining tables, plus seating areas with plenty of sofas and easy chairs, an eclectic menu, a bar (including a coffee bar), and most importantly, open late every night. We’ve stopped in a few times over the last month for a drink and a bite to eat. We’ve tried the pancake breakfast (breakfast available all day), complete with 2 large pancakes (several flavors available), 2 eggs and potatoes. We’ve also sampled the burgers, taquitos and noodle soup. The food isn’t anything to go out of your way for, but everything we tried was pretty good and pretty cheap. Yesterday we ended up at the U Caf twice (if that isn’t already its nickname, it should be). First, we dropped in to escape the heat after a stroll downtown in the early afternoon. We grabbed a couple of drinks at the bar and settled into one of the comfy couches, and people-watched for about an hour. After getting caught in the rain at Bluemont, we stopped in again to dry off and grab a late bite. I love the relaxed atmosphere, and I’m sure one of these days, you’ll find me curled up on one of the sofas, fast asleep. There’s music at night on the weekends, and while the youngster-to-oldster ratio increases as the night progresses, we’ve never been the only oldsters there, so haven’t felt out of place.

The decor is mostly contemporary, but the mismatched upholstery gives it the feel of a 1950's finished basement. Or discount furniture store.

I’m also looking forward to the opening of the Olde Towne Butcher, coming soon to William Street. I cook mostly vegetarian at home, but I’m hoping this new business will be a convenient source of pasture-grazed beef, pork and poultry, for those occasions when there’s meat on our menu. And after seeing the film Food, Inc. and reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I’m less likely than ever to get my meat at the supermarket meat counter.

Other new stores include Monkee’s, a high end women’s clothing store which is actually a chain with 18 shops throughout the southeast, and Scoops, a new ice cream shop. I’m a loyal Lee’s-now-Wally’s fan, so I have my fingers crossed that Scoop’s doesn’t hurt Leewally’s business.

Olde Towne Wine and Cheese closed down, but the Las Palmas Cafe, serving Puerto Rican food, opened in its place.

Across the street from the new Marriott, there’s a sign for “Colonial Cupcakes.” No info on that yet, but cupcakes can only be a good thing.

On the closing end of things, I’m sad that the Java Connection closed its doors after 27 years in the burg. I’ve been buying my coffee beans there for almost as many years (not to mention the occasional mug, T-shirt, and novelty candy). Where will I get my decaf Tip of the Andes now? I got to be friendly with the proprietors over the years (first Patt Miller, then her daughter Carrie), and would stop in often just to shoot the breeze. I know Carrie was planning to get married and move to the Norfolk area (by now, probably done and done), and although I’ll miss her, I wish her and new husband James all the best.

Yesterday we also stopped in to catch the final close-out sale at Ben Franklin, where everything was 75-90% off. Nothing but crap in sight. Ben Franklin seemed old-fashioned the day it opened in 1981, and I’m not sure how it survived all these years. It will not be missed, at least not by me. Other closings that I’ve noted include Frederick’s restaurant and Crystal Spirits, although I was not a patron of either. I’m just glad to see that although there's been quite a bit of turnover, most spaces don’t seem to stay empty long.

A parting shot: some things never change.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mineral Bluegrass Festival 2009

Last week, we camped for 3 days at the Mineral Bluegrass Festival, held in Walton Park in the tiny town of Mineral, VA. We had camped at a few bluegrass festivals in our youth, and decided to give it another whirl, retirement-style, which means we were able to get to the park early on Thursday morning to set up camp. We were one of 6 tents, surrounded by about 100 RVs, but found a quiet little spot in the woods, away from the noisiest of the RV generators. I think I have this car-camping thing down pretty well now, with our easy-to-erect popup tent, our old Coleman stove to heat up food mostly made at home, and most indispensably, our old sofabed mattress to sleep on, the one item missing from the camping outings of our youth. Despite the lack of flush toilets or showers, we had a lot of fun, and managed to keep clean and well-fed for the weekend of music, washing our hair with water poured from gallon jugs (cold!), and armed with a cooler filled with enough food to last a week.

The music began at 11 am each day, and lasted until 10 pm or later. The highlights for me were the legends of bluegrass, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, and Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys (I guess bluegrass musicians are always boys, no matter how old they get). At 83, Ralph has slowed down quite a bit, letting his band do most of the playing and singing, but he still has one of the most recognizable voices in bluegrass, and still plays his claw-hammer style of banjo on a few songs. The other performers ranged from bands playing traditional old-timey bluegrass (my favorite) to the bands that really play country music, except with bluegrass instruments, always disappointing for me, since I’m no fan of country music. Overall, though, a great line-up of acts. We’re planning to make it an annual event.

It did seem to me like the crowd has morphed slightly from when we used to go to festivals in our 20’s. For the most part, bluegrass crowds have always been the oldtimers and country folks who grew up listening to this music. But it seems to me that in the old days, there were a lot more younger people, including the folk and roots music set, the aging hippies drawn to the festivals along with the older, more traditional crowd. More tie dye among the American flags, and a much higher tent-to-RV ratio. And definitely more young families. I saw only a couple of kids in the crowd the whole weekend. Maybe this is just Mineral on this one weekend, rather than a trend at all bluegrass festivals. Still, now that we’re nearly old-timers ourselves, we fit right in. Well, assuming we didn’t discuss politics or religion with anyone. This is still a place where liberals and/or non-Christians (and I’m both) better keep their mouths shut: one song explicitly described those who don’t believe in God as “God-haters,” which conveniently rhymed with “cowards and traitors,” and the “America, love it or leave it” sentiment was well-represented from the stage as well. And that sort of thing gets the biggest ovations. So I did my best to blend in, standing when the crowd stood for “God Bless America” (although I did remain seated for “Dixie”—yes, people in this neck of the woods rise for that), and trying to disguise, just a little bit, my New York accent, so that I wouldn’t be immediately seen as the godless heathen liberal Yankee that I am.

Ralph Stanley delights the crowd with some clawhammer banjo:

Our little homestead in the trees:

I was a little nervous to be under the trees when the thunderstorms hit. We had an inch of rain over the weekend, but besides a few little puddles inside the tent and a slightly damp mattress that needed to be hauled out and dried in the sun on the roof of the car, we fared well.

Cooking up a tasty meal on the camp stove:

If you were not inclined to cook, there were all sorts of dining options, including fried everything:

Vendors lined the top of the hill behind the concert area:

Every kind of jam or relish you could think of for sale, including mayhaw, which I had never heard of before (it's the edible fruit of a species of hawthorn tree that grows in the south). Plus an entire table of moonshine jelly. Yee-haw!

Here's an RV with everything the bluegrass camper needs, including the festively lit flagpole for flying Old Glory, and 2 satellite dishes, so you don't miss a minute of your favorite TV shows:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Homegrown Tomatoes Fail

Here’s the plant I bought at the Farmer’s Market in early May. I was so proud of my patio tomato plant. Looks nice and healthy, right? I was envisioning harvesting a couple of tomatoes a week throughout the summer.

In less than 2 months, this is what it looked like. We had plenty of rain, it got several hours of sun everyday on the deck, and once, I even gave it a little Miracle-Gro.

Now the plant is completely dead and gone. Here is the entire harvest. A handful of golfball sized tomatoes. Oh, they were delicious, don’t get me wrong. But boy, was this disappointing. Talk about a black thumb.

And really, given that I can get all of the homegrown tomatoes at the Farmer’s Market for $2 a pound or less, it’s hardly a tragedy. Still, I’d love to know where I went wrong.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Downtown Marriott Opens

The new Courtyard Fredericksburg Historic District opened for business about a week ago, and we checked it out on a recent walk. It was a quiet weeknight, and the desk clerk was happy to give us a tour. The interior is very striking, with contemporary design, clean lines, and bold colors. Finally, a departure from the bland traditional interiors of so many hotels. There is a spacious lobby, a cafe and bar, an indoor atrium area and small outdoor courtyard, and rooms with a boutique hotel feel. We got to see the best room in the building, a corner 2-room suite with kitchen area, and a wraparound balcony on 2 sides. Not huge, but very tastefully done with upscale amenities. There is also an indoor pool and gym that we didn't see. Actually, it's amazing that they were able to cram so much into a relatively compact area. Definitely no wasted space here. Rooms start at $119 a night during the week. I'm thinking it could be a nice romantic getaway, even if I’m only coming from not-so-far-off Spotsylvania.

Here's the lobby, with a wide-screen TV viewing area in the back:

Another lobby view:

The bar:

Communal table for casual dining or drinks:

Some of the rooms open onto the 4-story atrium:

Here's the bedroom in the 2-room suite. Compact without being too cramped.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dark Star Orchestra at Celebrate Virginia Live

On Tuesday, we went to our first concert in the Celebrate Virginia Live series, to see Dark Star Orchestra, a Grateful Dead tribute band. The series started in May, and has brought bigger-than-usual names to the Fredericksburg area. The venue is an undeveloped piece of land at the back of the Celebrate Virginia project, with a large stage, plus vendors selling food, beer and wine, band merchandise, and on the night we went, a moonbounce for the kids. Concerts are scheduled for Friday nights throughout the summer, although Tuesday’s concert was a rescheduled appearance due to rain in June (despite the fact that the shows are advertised as “rain or shine,” I guess the spring monsoons made the field too much of a mudhole), which may have been why the crowd was fairly light. We got there early to set up our chairs close to the stage—totally unnecessary, as the available space far exceeded the audience. And in any case, once the music gets going, everyone stands, so sitting in your perfectly positioned chair only gets you a wide-angle view of the guy's butt in front of you.

Each DSO concert is a faithful recreation of an actual performance by the Dead, song for song. We got a Dead concert circa 1986, which featured a pretty good representation of the Dead’s music. The imitation was credible—the Garcia and Weir counterparts were very similar in voice to the originals (the Lesh was not at all convincing), and the crowd (including tattooed youngsters, aging hippies, and lots of folks in commercially-printed tie-dyed T-shirts) clearly let themselves be transported by the music. We are big Dead fans, having seen the originals many times back in our college days, and for us, this band was enjoyable, but nothing like the thrill ride that was the Dead at their best (not that the Dead were always at their best). Still, it was fun to hear the old songs played live again, and I give DSO credit for an energetic and crowd-pleasing show.

I do find the idea of a tribute band a bit odd, particularly for musicians as talented as these guys. Aren’t they dying to play their own music? Don’t they find it creatively stifling to have to recreate someone else’s decades-old songs? I feel a bit sorry for the guys. I suppose it comes down to economics—if targeting the Dead-fan demographic fills the seats, it guarantees to keep the band’s career going. Not a bad way to make a living.

The scene:

The beer:

The merch:

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fourth of July on the Potomac

We spent most of the 4th of July out on the Northern Neck, at the annual party of friends who own a home on Lower Machodoc Creek, off of the Potomac River. The drive out there is about 90 minutes for us, but it’s a quiet, peaceful ride through an area we rarely otherwise see. We caught up with old friends, relaxed by the water’s edge, and enjoyed plenty of good food and drink.

Their house sits on a very narrow spit of land that juts into the water, with no more than about 50 feet of land on either side of the road.

Here are a few photos from the neighborhood:

We came across quite a few osprey nests:

Here's something that was new to me: potato guns. These boys were shooting potatoes across the water, aiming for the ramshackle boathouse across the way (no boats, people, wildlife, or ramshackle boathouses were harmed in the firing of the potato guns).

Here's the ridiculous Hummer limo we encountered at a gas station on the way. I have no idea how this thing actually manages to pull up to a pump:

We made it back into town to catch about half of the Bluemont concert, featuring Scott Ainslie, an excellent blues guitarist and musicologist whose concert is like a workshop in the history of the blues.

As always, we watched the fireworks from Old Mill Park (not realizing that this was apparently an unauthorized fireworks-viewing venue this year), and then stopped at Carl's on the way home, where we ran into some old friends that we hadn't seen in way too long, making it a perfect ending to the day.