Route 29 is infuriating, thick with careening cars or just plain clogged with traffic. Route 29 is a sweltering asphalt jungle of sad strip malls, tacky hotels, and gaudy fireworks tents. Go ahead, bash it. Route 29 won’t mind. Because you need Route 29. You need to fill up with gas, get groceries at Trader Joe’s, shop for T-shirts at Marshalls, and buy 48 rolls of toilet paper at Costco. You must fulfill your role as a consumer, and for that Route 29 won’t fail you—especially, when it comes to eating.
As a commercial and commuter thoroughfare, Route 29 is fast-food heaven, of course. But it can also be one hell of a culinary journey. Diversity is Route 29’s strength, from hearty diner grub to sipping and snacking at a winery. And when you’re headed south, and you escape the city’s vortex, you’ll also find that the countryside and mountain views are quite lovely.
So my husband and I set out on a marathon nosh, 26.2 miles from the first bite to the last. We took on the gut-busting challenge for the good of all road-food-loving humanity, sampling bites at nine stops. Fill up your tank, and get ready to stuff your face!
Drive 20 minutes north of Charlottesville and you’ll reach the homey Blue Ridge Cafe & Catering, family-owned and serving since 1995. It proudly claims to be “nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” but it’s actually in a parking lot next to an antiques shop. Angus beef burgers and generously sized pasta bowls are the favorites among regulars, but if you’re powering up for a long drive, order ahead for a Grab and Go Breakfast, complete with bagels, muffins, fruit, juice, and coffee, a deal at $5.99. 8315 Seminole Trail, Ruckersville, 985-3633, blueridgecafe.com.
Five miles down the road sits a white building dusted with road grit. Big, blocky letters announce your arrival at Bamboo House, which looks like it emerged from the bayou on an HBO Southern Gothic miniseries. Inside, where you might expect the ambiance of a roadhouse, the Korean/Chinese restaurant has the familiar trappings of casual Asian dining: red-and-gold place settings on round tables, dishes with heaps of fried rice, and seafood platters blanketed in sticky sauces. The food is average and unsurprising, but the atmosphere—enhanced by the diorama of a woodland hunting scene complete with a family of taxidermied deer—is out of this world. 4831 Seminole Trail, 973-9211
Wood paneling? Check. Metal fish wall art? Check. A menu with oysters on the halfshell and a BBQ tuna sandwich? Check and double-check! Despite the strip-mall setting, Rhett’s River Grill & Raw Bar brings to mind the seafood shacks peppered along the highways on the Outer Banks. If it swims, then they’ve probably got it—steamed, fried, or grilled. We hurried to list Rhett’s as a Route 29 haunt, because on July 15, it relocates to Zion Crossroads. 2335 Seminole Trail, 974-7818, rhettsrivergrill.com
The DoubleTree Hilton opened the aptly named Root 29 Craft Kitchen & Bar in May after renovating the hotel’s reception and dining spaces. Root 29 is bright and modern with tile floors and geometric glass fixtures bouncing light across the many-shades-of-gray decor. The American menu includes snackable shared plates like shrimp tempura and hummus, and a full bar features local wines and beers. 990 Hilton Heights Rd., 529-8400, root29restaurant.com
About a mile further south, you can enjoy a little taste of Little Havana. Guajiros Miami Eatery conjures the laid-back vibe of a neighborhood Cuban deli. The tropical lounge music oozes into the small space decorated with lush Caribbean blues, hibiscus flowers, and sultry palm leaves. The cafecito (Cuban-style espresso) is made in the super-sweet traditional way, and the croquetas (finger-sized snacks of deep fried ham) are salty perfection. 1871 Seminole Trail, 465-2108
On Saturday mornings and Thursday evenings during warmer months, you can sample the artisanal selections at The Green Market Stonefield. The vendors set up tents on a big lawn next to Burger Bach, and offer farmers market fare of local produce and baked goods along with handmade gifts. We like to go for the speciality items (uniquely flavored sauces, cheeses, and other treats) and food samples from stores and restaurants in Stonefield. 2100 Hydraulic Rd., shopsatstonefield.com
Looking like the setting of a Thomas Kinkade painting, a dirt road winds up a hill and over a quaint little bridge to reach Albemarle Ciderworks. I once struggled to jog up that hill during the Annual Hard Cider 5K, and while I always have liked Albemarle’s tart, citrusy GoldRush cider, it has never tasted better than it did at that finish line. Pair it with Caromont goat cheese and Olli Salumeria charcuterie. 2545 Rural Ridge Ln., North Garden, 297-2326, albemarleciderworks.com
It’s difficult to imagine someone walking the hydrangea-lined path down toward the French country-style barn at Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards, turning to the wild hillside lining the western horizon, and not concluding that this is one of the most breathtaking patches of land on earth. The tasting room is the perfect place to watch the sunset while you sample wines and delicious small plates. 5022 Plank Rd., North Garden, 202-8063, pippinhillfarm.com
Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie is destination eating. You make the trip this far down Route 29, about 10 miles south of I-64, because you want some serious pizza. All pies are made with hand-tossed dough, and sources for toppings include dozens of local vendors. Creations like the Annie Oakley (buffalo chicken, jalapeño, pineapple, and cheese) undoubtedly have loyal fans, but we always fall for the classic Margherita (fresh basil, tomato sauce, and fresh mozzarella). Our final recommendation? Order an extra pie for the road home. 4916 Plank Rd., North Garden, 245-0000, drhoshumblepie.com