Roanoke: Star City of the South [classic article]

Roanoke, Virginia is called “the star city of the South,” thanks to an electrified star erected on top of Mill Mountain for Christmas, 1949.

The star continues to be a popular destination, with its panoramic view of the city. Visitor to the star appear on a 24/7 webcam.

Mill Mountain, in the city itself, hosts a nature discovery center, hiking trails and activities like full moon hikes.

Long before the star, Roanoke burst onto the scene in the late 19th century with the advent of the railroads. It had been known as “Big Lick,” but the developer for the Shenandoah Valley Railroad – later, part of Norfolk & Western – thought the name too provincial and named the city after an Algonquian word for cash.

What to do: The O. Winston Link Museum is connected inside to the Roanoke Visitor’s Center. Mr. Link was an innovative photographer who got permission to stop trains for creating the perfect lighting. He would light trains and their smoke in a dramatic way, for high contrast. It set standards in photography for years to come.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation, celebrating its 50th anniversary next year, has indoor exhibits detailing the importance of Roanoke to America’s rail industry.  There’s also an outdoor rail yard with the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South.

The last two existing steam locomotives are housed here, both built in the City of Roanoke to haul massive amounts of coal to Norfolk during WWII. They both reached speeds in the 100- mile-an-hour range.  Just looking at them, you can feel the sense of urgency they brought while saving the world. They have sleek, curved lines, more often seen in 1950’s cars and appliances, than 1940’s. They must have appeared futuristic to the sailors that greeted them.

The historic City Market is open seven days a week, offering locally grown produce, plants and meats. It’s surrounded by restaurants and independently owned boutiques.

The Taubman Museum of Art is in a Randall Stout (associate of Frank Gehry) – designed building, created to compliment the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. The museum has an eclectic collection where you can find everything from John Singer Sargent portraits to Judith Leiber miniaudieres.

Kirk Avenue Music Hall hosts a variety of eclectic performances, from alt-country and roots music to burlesque dancers, in an intimate atmosphere.

Where to eat: Blue 5 serves Deep South and Gulf Coast dishes – like spicy jumbalaya – while hosting live blues and rock bands. Their Swiss mac and cheese pie is a different take on the familiar bowl of mac and cheese made with cheddar.

Texas Tavern is an inexpensive little hamburger joint open 24/7.

Sure, Thelma’s Chicken & Waffles serves many variations of their eponymous dish, as well as other Southern favorites, but you have to stop by for the wise-cracking servers. Their entertainment rivals the food.

The original Wildflour Market and Bakery is located in the Southwest Historical District, Roanoke’s oldest residential neighborhood. It concentrates on whole foods, made from scratch.

Tudor’s Biscuit World serves cathead sized tender biscuits with dozens of possible sandwich fillings.

The Roanoker is open for all meals, but is the site for Southern power breakfasts since 1941. Their wafer-thin country ham with red-eye gravy appeared in Roadfood. If you order fruit pancakes, that might very well take care of you from breakfast through dinner and dessert.

Where to stay:

The Holiday-Inn Tanglewood-Roanoke is much more like a resort than a chain hotel. They have a chef presiding over their restaurant, Elephant Walk, serving gourmet American and Indian cuisine. They host live music nights and yoga classes. It’s the nearest hotel to the Blue Ridge Parkway with a full restaurant. Rooms start in the $100 range.

The Hotel Roanoke is a historic hotel whose exterior resembles an Alpine chateau. It’s been the site for elegant events for decades. There’s an upscale restaurant, The Regency Room, which has a daily lunch buffet serving Southern specialties. Rooms start at the mid-$100’s.

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