Staunton, Virginia is known for its downtown charm, snagging the number four spot for best main streets in USA Today’s 2016 poll. With its English Renaissance style and menagerie of locally owned niche shops, I can see where the city’s fame comes from. The sidewalks are made of brick, apartments occupy the second stories above the shops and restaurants, and the edifices are pale and framed in dark wood like a fairytale cottage.
The By & By cafe finds its home at 140 E. Beverley St., down the hill and around the corner from the Blackfriars American Shakespeare Center. A small “open” sign greets me, hard to read from a distance, but in a town of window-shoppers, this is probably a non-issue for most customers. The cafe’s door handle is gold and curling, not your average twist and push ordeal.
The By & By hosts your typical quiet laptoppers and casual coffee sippers. The low hum of conversation mixes with the buzz and squeal of an espresso machine, replacing the street sounds behind me as the door glides shut.
I order my lunch at the counter, squinting at the too-small chalk script on their blackboard menu until I notice a stack of hard copy menus on the counter made for old eyes like mine. The reuben, chicken salad, and grilled cheese are their most popular sandwiches, the barista tells me. I go with a half-sized chicken salad on pumpernickel with a 16 ounce tea for $8.53.
The barista delivers my meal to the corner table where I sit by the window. My sandwich arrives accompanied by your classic American sandwich sidekicks: a pile of potato chips and a pickle. The melted provolone clings like a silk dress to the curves of the chicken beneath. Infused with honey and walnuts, this chicken salad far surpasses my expectation of a mayonnaise-and-relish-loaded mush. The chicken is chunky, not stringy, making for a heartier texture. Around everything, the pumpernickel offers a warm crunch, both the beginning and end to every bite.
I sip my English breakfast tea between bites, gazing out the window down E. Beverley at the building facades. I feel like I am back in London on my cross cultural, minus the presence of potato chips on my plate. The By & By chose a quality brand of tea with a full-bodied cloth satchel that is fun to dunk in and out of my cup. Even with a black tea, the flavor does not turn bitter before the last sip.
The table sports an inlaid checkerboard, much like Little Grill, but less colorful. I can see where previous customers set their hot drinks to condensate too long on their napkins, leaving behind permanent rings of white flakey goo on the surface. My tea came on a saucer. Maybe the By & By learned its lesson about the benefits of mediocre china over paper.
I look up to note the ceiling and lo — an exposed duct. The trend has caught in Staunton, too, it seems. The walls, though painted red and covered in art, are not brick, and the color leaves me feeling in tune with the autumn season that blooms outside.
On my drive home along interstate 81, the trees burst with warmth of color, finally reaching the height of their season. Peeking through the leaves, the bark resembles a rich shade of pumpernickel. If ever again I am feeling an excursion to Staunton, I will pop by the By & By.