Exploring the Ties Between the Culinary Scene and Harrisonburg Locals

Photos by Leanne Shenk

Although it is most often associated with a neighborhood feeling, community is embraced in every aspect of Harrisonburg, including the local cuisine.

Amanda Cannon, an all-around restaurant guru, has gone from waitressing and bartending to managing and ultimately owning her own restaurant called Food.Bar.Food. The Harrisonburg native joined the restaurant business to pay her own way through James Madison University and has excelled as an entrepreneur.

“I went back to working in restaurants and discovered after not too long that I enjoyed it, interacting with people, and taking care of people,” Cannon said. She has woven herself throughout the downtown area, meeting friends while establishing herself in the community. “There are a lot of people [I] have met or gotten to know at different restaurants, so it’s neat to see their families… come to Food.Bar.Food.”

As a co-owner with Chef Jeff Minnich, Cannon tries to bring the community something different: global comfort food.She described the cuisine as a mix of hometown favorites wrapped in new spices to combine the old with the new.

“It’s really rewarding to see that we are offering the community something they enjoy,” Cannon said. Because cultivating a sense of community is such a vital aspect of the restaurant business, it’s no surprise that a fellow restaurateur has a similar goal. Wade Luhn, the owner of Bella Luna Woodfired Pizza, makes fresh, wood-grilled pizza with ingredients from local farms. As much as Luhn loves the concept of the 200-year-old Neapolitan way of cooking pizza, the people of Harrisonburg hold a place near and dear to his heart. “The impressive thing about Harrisonburg is so many people have grown up here and left, and came back,” Luhn said. “I love the roots and the vibe that Harrisonburg has.”

As an organic farmer, Luhn finds that locally sourced food ties into their values. “We are trying to serve honest, locally sourced food. Our pizza is organic flour, water, salt and yeast.” Luhn always hopes to have a presence in the restaurant no matter how successful it becomes. He enjoys the hospitality and uniting people with food. “I love seeing people come together, there is a grace when people come together and share a meal,” he said. While business is picking up now, for a time it wasn’t always doing so well downtown. Mike Comfort, the general manager at Clementine, remembers a time not too long ago when downtown Harrisonburg wasn’t as sprightly as it is today.

“You used to walk down Main Street on a Friday night, and it was scary, there was no one around,” Comfort said. There has been a revival of downtown business camaraderie that is bringing the community back together. Comfort, a former president of the Downtown Dining Alliance, has shifted his focus to market the downtown area as a whole, rather than individual businesses, to create a unified community. Clementine embraces the community spirit by allowing local performers to use their stage for benefits and fundraisers.

“We have this great facility here; if you want to raise money for your cause, put two or three bands together between 8-10:00 p.m. on a Wednesday night, organize it and whatever you collect that night you can have it,” Comfort said.

Not only does Clementine provide a space for people to eat and listen to music, but they also have a bar downstairs called Ruby’s. By this October, Ruby’s will feature an arcade-like area full of new activities. “This is old school, four lanes of duckpin bowling, four antique pool tables, dart lanes, shuffleboard, ping pong and games at the tables,” Comfort said. These restaurants bring a diverse group of people together in numerous ways, yet they all share the joy of serving others. “It’s exciting for me when there are 50 people here and doing their own thing, or if I walk around and there are 20 people downstairs and the patio is full,” said Comfort.

Bringing the community together is a shared passion among all the restaurateurs. A beautiful picture of home comes to mind when you find places that show genuine hospitality from the moment you step through the door down to the very last bite.