My wife’s idea of a good date night does not usually involve a visit to a tavern or a historic site. Her ideal date would involve a nice meal at an elegant restaurant and an entertaining show, and then ice cream, of course. Last month, I was able to accomplish her ideal Date Night: The Old Fashioned Way with a trip to the Half Way House Restaurant and Swift Creek Mill Theatre in Chesterfield County, Virginia.
Chesterfield County is located just south of Richmond and was a vital location during the Civil War. The county is full of history related to the war, early colonial society, and the first Americans, and you can still experience some of these historic locations first hand—such as the Historic Courthouse Complex, which features Magnolia Grange, a Federal-style plantation house built in 1822 by William Winfree; Henricus Park, the location of the second successful English settlement in the New World; Half Way House, an eighteenth-century manor house that is now a restaurant; and Swift Creek Mill Theatre, an eighteenth-century mill that is now a playhouse.
Our first stop on the date was the Half Way House Restaurant. As we pulled off busy Route 1 (also known as Jefferson Davis Highway) and into the parking lot of the old tavern, you can clearly see the beauty of the historic property.
Built in 1760, the Half Way House served as a tavern and inn through most of its history and has had visits from several famous patrons, including George Washington, the Marquis de LaFayette, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant (but not at the same time). During the Civil War the house was occupied by the Union army and became the headquarters for Major General Benjamin Butler’s operations during the Bermuda campaign. This spot was popular for weary travelers of all kind, because it’s the halfway point between Richmond and Petersburg and it provided a perfect resting place for those traveling on the Petersburg Coach line.
We were not necessarily weary travelers, but we were hungry. One of the more interesting things about the Half Way House was the small structure in the back that was still being used as the kitchen. We saw waiters carrying food from the kitchen house into the tavern. It appeared to be a historic interpretation of a nineteenth-century tavern, but the waiters and cooks were not wearing costumes, just preparing and serving tasty meals.
Entering the manor house was somewhat difficult for a six-foot-tall person, but after we made it through the threshold, we stepped into another world. The candle-lit room with an exposed brick floor and fireplaces galore was breathtaking.
The server sat us at our table, where we appropriately found placemats of the “Founding Fathers.” I of course had Thomas Jefferson/Monticello, being a UVA grad, and my wife had George Washington/Mount Vernon. She was hoping for James Madison/Montpellier, being a JMU grad.
Dinner was outstanding (Here comes the wannabe food critic in me).
Appetizers – My wife always orders French Onion soup, if it’s available, so the soup didn’t disappoint (beef broth with brandy, topped with homemade croutons and melted cheeses), and I started with the duck, (blackened long island duck breast with Cajun spices, served with a honey mustard sauce.) Both appetizers were outstanding.
Bread – One of the best parts of the meal was the bread basket. Usually I may go light on the bread to save more room for dinner, but in this bread basket there were homemade cinnamon rolls. I’m not sure if these were on the menu when T. J .and G. W. stopped by, but for this twenty-first-century guy, it was perfect.
Entrees – For dinner, my wife ordered a salad with homemade dressing and scallops au gratin (fresh sea scallops baked in a Mornay sauce topped with Parmesan bread crumbs). I was able to sneak a few bites, and the scallops were so buttery they melted in my mouth.
I had the special, which was seared rockfish with an Andouille sausage and crawfish sauce. The fish was cooked perfectly, and the sauce was complex with a little heat to it. Yum Yum. We didn’t have dessert, because my wife was saving up for ice cream after our next stop.
Our experience at the Half Way House was outstanding—excellent service, food, and ambience. If you want to step back in time and have a wonderful meal, then check out the Half Way House in Chester just off of historic Route 1.
Our next stop, the Swift Creek Mill Theatre, was about seven miles south of the Half Way House on Route 1. As we pulled up to the mill, the parking lot was packed, and we were there fifteen minutes early. The mill offers a buffet-style dinner before the play that is also quite good, and several theater patrons take advantage of this. A quick walk around the mill and you could clearly see why a mill was there. You could hear the steady flow of Swift Creek next to the mill. It provided a beautiful scenic view off of a busy road.
The mill is one of the oldest gristmills in the United States, dating back to 1663. Originally owned by Henry Randolph I, the mill changed hands several times over the next two hundred years, even serving as Schmidt’s distillery, makers of corn liquor, for a short period of time. Henry Randolph I acquired the title to Bermuda Hundred and Swift Creek in 1655 and built the mill. The mill then passed down through relatives who eventually deeded the mill site to William Rowlett. It then became known as Rowlett’s Mill, and in 1852, the Rowletts sold the mill to the Swift Creek Manufacturing Company. The mill was also an important location during the Civil War. On May 9 and 10, 1864, Union troops attempted to cross Swift Creek during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.
In 1929 it officially became Swift Creek Mill and operated as a grist mill again until 1956. In 1965 it was purchased by three local families who wanted to convert the mill into a theater that would serve the local area. The playhouse opened on December 2, 1965, with the Broadway musical Carnival!. After hosting thousands of plays and musicals, Swift Creek Mill reorganized in 2001 as a nonprofit theater to serve the community under the not-for-profit corporate banner.
The theater is currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, and part of its celebration involved hosting a cult classic in its five-play season, Little Shop of Horrors. Ironically my wife and I had never seen the play, and we enjoyed it immensely. The cast, set production, and band were amazing. We left there singing the tunes to all of Seymour’s ballads. (Little Shop of Horrors ended May 21, but check out the theater’s website for upcoming productions.)
Whether it was the fact that we didn’t want to upset our historic night by visiting a modern ice cream parlor or the fact that our appetite was lost from the Seymour’s snacking habits (feed me!), we did not complete our perfect date night by getting ice cream. Despite that, we still had a wonderful date night: the old fashioned way.