Last year, Harrisonburg’s annual expose of culinary destinations, Taste of Downtown, fell on March 9 to 15. What began as a week of exciting deals and promotions quickly came to an end, bringing fear of a pandemic on its heels and closing some of the very businesses that celebrated a few days before.
After 12 months of hardships and closures in the food service industry, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance announced March will be celebrated as Downtown Harrisonburg Restaurant Month in place of the weeklong Taste of Downtown tradition.
Rather than encouraging specials and discounts, restaurant month is about showcasing the creativity of Virginia’s first culinary district with weekly themes. This week starts off with the theme “Breakfast, brunch, and quick and tasty lunches.”
At Bella Gelato, that means freshly ground espresso is getting a honey lavender latte makeover for the week, while Bella Luna highlights a craft cocktail and entree combo this week: Harvey Wallbanger and roasted pork sandwich.
Andrea Dono, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance executive director, said she still recalls the rapid decline in customers and sales this time last year and hopes the revamped occasion generates better luck for the city’s businesses.
“The first confirmed case of COVID happened at the tail end of Taste of Downtown or that week. ... I remember looking out the window Friday and seeing hardly anybody anywhere. It felt like a ghost town after our first confirmed case,” Dono said. “So many restaurants had to close, so it was tough, and it continues to be really tough.”
The Golden Pony, which acts as a music venue, club and eatery, has felt the emptiness of missing customers and shows over the past year. In the wake of low sales, front of house manager Alma Cruz said the quiet has given staff time to re-evaluate its offerings and build up the menu.
“Our primary objective with the restaurant month is to introduce new items on the menu and show we’ve taken the time to improve our product,” Cruz said.
That means each new menu item, such as this week’s fried chicken sandwich, will become a permanent dish. Other new plates will include a vegan pizza made with vegan cheese instead of the former tofu ricotta crumble topping and the ring of fire pizza.
Some businesses are opting for monthlong promotions, such as Kline’s Dairy Bar offering Reece’s cups as a topping option for all of March and a 20% discount on casual fare dishes from the Joshua Wilton House.
Even OASIS Fine Art & Craft is celebrating the month with 10% off purchases for diners who bring in receipts from downtown restaurants and 10% off for neighboring food service employees.
Friendly City Food Co-op has stayed busy over the past few months undergoing construction to expand its selection and services.
Co-op brand manager Lindsay Denny said one of the newest additions inside is a larger kitchen and deli space.
“We have this brand new panini grill they haven’t even broken out. … We thought this would be a perfect week to roll out a new food item: a panini sandwich,” Denny said.
So for breakfast week, the co-op is making salmon breakfast paninis and breakfast burritos every day from 9 a.m. to noon.
In the following weeks, some restaurants will offer items to coincide with themes highlighting comfort foods and desserts.
“These are different ways we can showcase what downtown has to offer and create a bit of variety all month long,” Dono said. “For the whole month, we wanted to make sure there were different things going on to capture people’s attention.”
Chef and owner Mikey Reisenberg of Mashita is taking full advantage of the month by dabbling into seafood each week.
“We thought it’d be nice to break away from the wintertime preparations and do something a little more summery,” he said. “We’re kind of branching out and diversifying our offerings and also playing into how everyone’s feeling, being sick and tired of the wintertime.”
This week at Mashita, customers can order a crab cake and fried oyster platter, but Reisenberg made sure vegetarians and vegans can also enjoy the fare by promoting a mushroom juk through March. The vegan mushroom juk is an Asian-style risotto with king trumpet mushrooms imitating scallops and fire-roasted crimini mushrooms.
Reisenberg said he likes the idea of expanding Taste of Downtown into a monthlong occasion that honors creativity over discounts so it can be enjoyed by customers and workers alike.
“Lots of us already discounted items to keep people coming by each and every day, so I think the creative approach is a little more fun for us in the industry, but I think it’s also more exciting for the customers,” he said. “Last year has been tough and we really need people to remember us because we’re a part of their lives and a part of their community.”
As thanks for supporting downtown’s local eateries, HDR is giving away Downtown Dollars every Monday to two winners and four winners on March 29. For a chance to win, customers must provide a receipt or order confirmation showing $25 or more spent at any participating business to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dono said it’s nice to fantasize about the end of the pandemic when everyone can raise a toast inside their favorite eatery surrounded by loved ones, but that will only be possible if customers ensure businesses can ride out the pandemic.
“We’re trying to make supporting small business fun, but there’s still a responsibility component to that as consumers,” she said. “If you want to have those experiences in person, you need to support them now.”